Balanchine said ballet can’t show sisters-in-law. He probably didn’t feel it necessary to note how hard it’d be to show a bourgeois gentleman, fallen on hard times, asking a courtesan to break off her relationship with his son, because his daughter is to marry a wealthy man, and it looks bad to have young Armand Duval living with a high-class whore.
Such scruples didn’t stop John Neumeier from turning Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel and play La Dame aux camélias into a work for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1978. And those in the ABT audience who relish the company premiere of Lady of the Camellias for its romantic tragedy, virtuosic dance passages, and lovely Chopin music (for piano and orchestra and for solo piano) may not care about plot details and rationales. Even so, inching up the clogged-as-usual Met aisle, I hear murmured queries like, “So did you understand why he . . .” and “Who was that woman in magenta?”
Flashbacks are also hard to bring off, unless you’re Martha Graham. Following the novel’s structure, Neumeier begins his ballet with an 1847 auction of the effects of the late courtesan, Marguerite Gautier. Among the crowd is Armand Duval, her grief-stricken erstwhile lover. She had heroically relinquished him to save his family’s honor, without telling him of his father’s visit, therefore allowing Armand to think her a faithless bitch. Neumeier hopes that trucking the auction sign on and off throughout the ballet will help us understand that he intends this whole story of passion, jealousy, self-sacrifice, and death to be as the hero remembers it and tells it to his father. Although Armand’s several forays onto a corner of the apron are meant to jump us from present to past, the most convincing memory goad is the reprising of the Largo from Chopin’s Sonata in B minor (“their” song).
The ballet whisks not only past and present together; Neumeier follows Dumas in suggesting an alliance between the doomed love of Manon Lescaut, the voluptuary of 18th-century literature, and her lover Des Grieux and that of Marguerite and Armand. The latter and their friends watch a ballet about Manon, in which men vie for her attention, and in a frozen moment, “Manon” steps out of the ballet to remind Marguerite of the trouble that may come to a free-spirited woman with too many lovers.
Lady of the Camellias is beautifully, elaborately dressed by Jürgen Rose, and Neumeier has created a lively bustle and choreographed some affecting passages. It was smart to have some of the music played onstage and in costume (Koji Attwood and Soheil Nasseri were the two excellent pianists). That the work seems to go on and on may be related to the sameness in many of the ensemble passages. Whether the cast members wear deep, muted colors for a gathering, red for a masked ball, or summer pastels (these in rapid succession), they often pair up and waltz in a circle, the men wheeling the women into the air (the best of these is performed at Marguerite and Armand’s country retreat). Perhaps the similar dances are meant to evoke the ongoing social whirl, just as Armand racing around the stage with Marguerite, lifting her into a leap every few steps, tells us of his passion.
I’ve never seen a ballet in which people hit the floor so often. “I’m madly in love!” Plop. “I’m dying of consumption!” Plop. “Let’s make out!” Plop. Of course, they don’t just fall; they swoon, dive, or wrestle their way down amorously, sometimes ripping off outer garments. And it’s odd that Armand, aware of Marguerite’s fragile health (she coughs a lot), would subject her to an athletic pas de deux in which he cranks her around his body, hoists her high, and has her skirt in his face much of the time. (That’s nothing compared to the energy expanded by a phantom vision of Des Grieux and Manon starving to death in the jungle.)
There are a number of showy roles for the company’s superb and expressive dancers. In the cast I saw, Irina Dvorovenko was a charming flirt as Marguerite, but also poignant in her loving and despairing passages. The remarkable Cory Stearns makes Armand into a fully three-dimensional character—impetuously youthful, furious when aroused, but also thoughtful. Vitali Krauchenka is fine as Armand’s father, especially in his gentle, forgiving duet with Dvorovenko. Blaine Hoven and Stella Abrera manage the adventures of Manon and her lover with breakneck abandon. As prominent women in this society, Luciana Paris and Melanie Hamrick get to show their charm and their chops, and Carlos Lopez plays a persistent suitor of Marguerite’s with comic gusto.
Lady of the Camellias will be performed again on June 4, 5 (twice), and 7. Love, death, and leaps. . . What’s to lose?
At villagevoice.com/dance, read about solos by Mikhail Baryshnikov, David Neumann, and Steve Paxton; Take Dance; and Eiko and Koma