The cold streets of Brussels are going through a revolution of sorts. This is not a political revolution, no, although politics and government are highly responsible. Belgium is facing an artistic revolution and to be exact a dance revolution. Dance revolution? Does such a thing exist? With the recent Ministry of Culture's Decision to merge the Royal Ballet of Flanders with the Flemish Opera House, the Directorship of the ballet has shifted leaving the dancers in the cold. What used to be Belgium's only classical company has now lost it's power and the alarming fact remains as Belgian dancers face a threat of losing their livelihood. The sudden uprising around Brussels and the support is heart warming. The media coverage, news reports, internet blogs, have in this recent wave mostly switched to English in order to create awareness on an international level of this alarming trend that seems to be sweeping Europe by storm.
Choreographers and dancers joined hands in support and Het National Theater even gave a public shout in our support. The resulting dance productions being staged around the city are overwhelming, as artists unite to create more dance works and dancers in Belgium have suddenly reached the status of celebrities. Fliers being handed out in the streets, Posters advertising new creations popping up everywhere , local news coverage of Dance performances, and those autographed photos of Royal Ballet of Flanders that have become coveted. Yes, Dancers in Belgium are becoming icons thanks to the Government cuts. And yet, with so much national talent available (and not enough financial support) Need we import talent from abroad?
That question was high on my mind as I made my way Thursday night to the Royal Vauxhall to watch what is becoming a cult version of Fernando Martin's Moulin Rouge: Drama De Las Kamelias by the Bud Blumenthal Dance Company. I admit my expectations were high. The recent praise that has been cropping up lately about this production and it's exotic choice of dancers (Names like Jae Sung Kim, Amie Sultan, Nils Patrick) made me curious. Martin's history with Maurice Bejart's Ballet Du XXieme Siecle, as well as his extensive work with the Cuban National Ballet in 2004 has placed him in a top category. Blumenthal has always been a respected member of the Belgian dance community and while his curious obsession with importing foreign dancers and choreographers as well as his elaborate collaborations with foreign companies has always mystified me, I tried to put my judgement aside in support of the Belgian arts.
Upon opening my program I was saddened to see that out of the four dancers cast in the main roles, only one, Vivienne Bernard was actually from Belgium? strange when you're trying to convince the Minister of culture to support the artists of your country. As I continued to skim the names of the lead roles, Nils Patrick, Amie Sultan, Jae Sung Kim, I had flashbacks of watching Sultan and Patrick in a recent television interview giving elaborate verbal descriptions of their roles. Impressive, but spending so much money to import such dancers when our own dance world was on the brink of destruction was beyond me.
I swallowed my nationalistic pride and set down to enjoy my evening. Having watched Vivienne Bernard sweep spectators off their feet in past seasons I opted to watch the alternating cast. Thursday night presented Amie Sultan from Egypt and Nils Patrick from Holland in the roles of Marguerite and Armand and as it seemed that this pair was developing somewhat of a following in this current dance craze after their premiere night, I was ready to be impressed. Indeed, Sultan was being called 'La Rose Noir' in the local press and Nils Patrick was apparently accosted by photographers while ordering a coffee. If the crowd of cameras that lined the backstage door as we entered the Vauxhall was any indication, this was a night to be remembered. My heart speeded as the curtain opened on the elaborate sets of Nina Capolaise onto the suitor scene?.and then?..?
'La Rose Noir' was exactly what the pseudonym implied. Admittedly she was as beautiful as everyone promised. Panther-like in form, with magnetic presence, she at first glance looked far too young for the role. I dropped that judgement as I later found out she was actually a decade older than I initially guessed. But this was obviously a deep miscasting by Blumenthal or Martin. What happened to the curly blond flirtatious Marguerite?
Unlike Vivienne Bernard, who's loose curls framed her face as she happily went from lover to lover, Sultan's black hair tied back into a bun revealed a rather elegant stature, with cheekbones and pouty lips that belonged on a fashion plate. She was alluring rather than playful, sensual rather than flirty as she was lifted high by her lovers accepting their gifts in a dismissive manner. 'La Rose Noir' was far too melancholy and mysterious to come across as a courtesan and did not improve much as Nils Patrick's (I'm saving my deepest reprimands for him) Armand entered to sweep her off her feet.
The 'dark intensity' and 'brutally realistic tragedy' that my fellow critics were raving about, looked like something from a Tim Burton film. Halfway through that scene, in an effort to reveal 'Marguerite falling In love' it turned into an acrobatic display of lifts as Patrick and Sultan proceeded to 'develop the love' of their characters, and of course see who could lift their legs higher.
The grand party scene was almost comical. The diva-esque Sultan is obviously used to dancing solos and not comfortable dancing in synch with large groups of dancers and stood out like a sore thumb. She was completely off at times although she made up for it later with a rather impressive technically complex solo, although it was nothing that a Flemish Dancer couldn't perform. Patrick's shameless passion was highly stylized and what could have been a rather romantic interlude turned into an open display of technique. Perhaps he was taking his cues from 'the black rose'.
The crowning glory of the night was Society and Judgement, both having trained in the Flemish National school. They were perhaps the only thing that redeemed the evening. Where Vivienne Bernard would have stayed true to the role, Sultan completely disregarded tradition and chose to stay on the dark side, creating a somber atmosphere of tragedy that could be felt around the theater. What many thought were passionate pas de deux, I saw as rather savage, almost tasteless displays of passion, not in keeping with the romantic Chopin music.
Shameful was Nils Patrick's almost animal like approach to the role. At least Sultan at times chose to appear cold and aloof when she got bored of showing off her long legs and her histrionics. Patrick on the other hand was consistently sexual, he may as well have been dancing in a fertility rite. A shame considering this role has brought him some sudden fame in this recent dance craze. Why not copulate on the stage of the Royal Vauxhall just to bring in more press?
The final scene was dramatic and effective, although in what seems to be typical Sultan and Patrick fashion, they made a great spectacle of Marguerite dying in Armand's arms, a red scarf entwining them. The polite and obviously ignorant Flemish audience was more than happy to oblige with cheers of 'bravo' and massive applause, making a sad situation even worse. The final slap on the face arrived when news that the entire company of Royal Ballet Of Flanders were going to show up on Saturday to watch the performance.
How long will Belgians have to put up with this disregard of their artists? The national school every year graduates, at least 100 dancers. Only 5-8 of them make it into the company. With so many of our own left in the sidelines, need we resort to importing them from the rest of Europe as well as obscure places in the middle and far east? Logically who is better suited to play the role of the French speaking lovers in this French tale? Koreans? Inappropriate decision and inappropriate timing on Blumenthal and Martin's part as we stand on the brink of an artistic upheaval. Hopefully better casting choices and better judgement in the future. After all, the future of Belgian art lies in our hands.