It's always fun to hop over the English Channel to visit Paris. It's even more exciting when it's unexpected. A recent phone call alerted me to an unusual ballet event in the French capital: the guest appearances of two of the Bolshoi's greatest stars with the Ballet National de Marseille. The ballet: Roland Petit's ``The Blue Angel.'' I was off on the next plane.
Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vassiliev - long favorites of the Moscow crowds for their intepretations of such classics as ``Giselle,'' ``Don Quixote,'' and ``Sleeping Beauty'' - were invited by Mr. Petit to perform ``The Blue Angel'' during his company's Paris season. They danced the roles of Rosa Frohlich and Professor Raat in five performances of the ballet. I caught their last performance.
``The Blue Angel'' is based on Heinrich Mann's 1905 novel ``Professor Unrat.'' The story was made famous in the 1930s when Marlene Dietrich starred as the top-hatted, long-legged nightclub performer (called Lola instead of Rosa) in Josef von Sternberg's classic movie of the same name.
Petit choreographed his balletic version for the Berlin Ballet Company in 1985, creating the role of Rosa for ballerina Natalia Makarova. Petit himself danced the role of Professor Raat. The production was brought to the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in July of that year.
Set in Germany at the turn of the century, it tells of the disastrous romance between Professor Raat, an old-fashioned disciplinarian at a boys high school, and a young, calculating nightclub dancer.
Searching for his students who haunt the decadent ``Blue Angel'' cabaret after their rigid school day, Raat sees Rosa, the cabaret's star attraction. He is obsessed by her earthy charms. He proposes to her in her dressing room. She laughingly accepts and marries him, not for love but for social respectability.
The second act reveals Rosa's callous and cruel nature. Missing her other life, she blames him, treating him with contempt. She degrades him in front of guests. He blindly obeys her every wish, even to begging on hind legs for a sugar lump like a pet dog, or being made up like a clown to be laughed at. She finally walks out, leaving him a broken man, the butt of everyone's jokes.
Despite its grim overtones, ``The Blue Angel'' was entertaining, visually interesting, and worth making the effort to see. It showed Petit's ability to create mood and atmosphere in the medium of dance.
He contrasts scenes of dreary uniformed students in the classroom with the light, frivolous, colorful nightclub. Young male students move collectively in military-style greatcoats and caps, stamping to rhythms, often without music, emphasizing their regimented lives. The spangled can-can dancers, clowns, acrobats, and the gutteral singer and scantily clad Rosa Frohlich offer an escape from this prisoning discipline. Marius Constant's score echoes the mixed moods with heavy brooding, almost martial strains and tuneful piano solos. The scenery by the Yugoslavian designer Josef Svoboda captures the heavy Germanic atmosphere with a backdrop of steep-roofed outlines, over which appear dark cloud formations.
Maximova brought to Rosa an unexpected dimension. She was not the brash sex symbol, the anticipated siren of the cabaret. Instead of flaunting her worldliness, she fascinated the men, serpentlike, with her reserve. Her off-hand, self-centered nature brought them running to see her. When she marries, the cruel nature of Maximova's Rosa is felt with small gestures: a shrug of the shoulder, a look of disdain, constant boredom when Raat is with her.
Vassiliev, whose bravura and style throughout the years have earned him a reputation as one of the world's best male dancers, had little opportunity here to show off his classical technique. He can spin like a top, but his contribution in this ballet was a convincing portrayal of the aging professor. His jerky nervous movements, the click of his fingers to gain control, his stooped walk, and suspicious glances made him a hated ruler of the classroom. Yet this Raat evoked compassion from the audience. Completely snared by Rosa's cruelty and unable to break free, Vassiliev's body convulsed with spasms expressing his anguish. His Raat was to be greatly pitied.