Paris Was Yesterday

- July 1, 2012

“With homage to Janet Flannery...”

Through most of the 20s and early 30s, Janet Flannery wrote for The New Yorker as an ex-patriot in Paris. These were like blog posts in her time. Her bi-line was “Paris Was Yesterday” and a group of her writings was gathered together in a book of the same name.

A first edition copy of this was one of my treasured printed possessions when I arrived in Santa Fe. I foolishly loaned it to a screenwriter/producer I met at a party in Las Campanas after a Desert Chorale performance. I thought one of the items in that small tome (a true-life mystery) to be such a compelling story that it might make a great film script adaptation. I was not looking for a screen credit or anything beyond wishing to share a compelling story with others. I never saw the book or the screenwriter again. I certainly should have known better. The very few times I have “loaned” a book or music to someone, it has always been because I thought the person would appreciate it as much as I did. Well, in every case, they certainly did enjoy these treasures as much as I did, because the item always disappeared down the rabbit hole of friendship, never to appear again.

Today, as I leave Paris for Provence and a show by three New Mexico artists, I share with you a la Flannery, my Paris of yesterday. Being passionate about Paris in the teens, 20s and 30s and an ardent scholar of the era – particularly the era of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, I was delighted to find a schedule of ballets opening last evening at the Theatre des Champs-Elysee. This is the fourth season of 100th anniversary performances of works originally premiered in this very theater at the beginning of the 20th century. These performances, marketed as “Saison Russes” (A Russian Season for the 21st Century), have been produced by the Ballet of the Kremlin. This is a somewhat made up company and name, as the Bolshoi is the most important ballet company in Moscow and the Kremlin represents the politics of Russia, not its performing arts.

Last evening's performances – there were three ballets on the program and each was quite well done – were “re-enactments” of works performed in Paris by Diaghilev' company 100 years ago. The first was a re-choreographed version of “Cleopatre”, originally set by dancer Ida Rubenstein in 1912. Rubenstein was hired by Diaghilev more for her connections to great wealth, than for her dancing or choreographic abilities – hence the new choreography. I found it delightful, although too much of a pastiche for my tastes. None of the music was written for the original and it jumped from Stravinsky to his teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexandre Glazunov and on to French composers Maurice Ravel, Jules Massenet and Gabriel Fauré; ending with authentic Arabic music, which fit the piece but not the era.

Most of this was performed with a Diaghilev character sitting at the downstage right corner of the proscenium arch, much as though all were auditioning for the great impresario.  Following was a lovely setting of the original Michael Fokine choreography of “Le Spectre de la Rose,” complete with the gran jete leap by the male dancer through the open window. This one choreographic feat fixed the young Ballets Russes star Vaslav Nijinsky as Le Deu de la Danse (The God of the Dance) in the minds of Parisian audiences a century ago.

The evening closed with a perfectly wonderful “O'sseau de Feu” (The Firebird) – a Russian fairy tale from the lovely maiden, the handsome Prince who would rescue her, the evil Kastchei and the ogres under his spell and, of course the firebird. This was the first ballet composed by Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes and the first of his three great Russian works, which culminated in “Le Sacre du Printemps” (The Rite of Sparing), which caused a riot in that very theater in May of 1913. As you might imagine, this series will include “Sacre” in next year's schedule of re-enactments. P perhaps I will return and be part of the riot, all over again.

I am not really “obsessed” with this era in the early 20th century – I have only seen Woody Allen's “Midnight in Paris” twice, but plan to see it often. My fascination comes from the collaborative nature of artists at the time. I love collaborations and I am always delighted to be part of one.

Speaking of collaborations, as I was walking through the Paris Metro after the performance late last evening, I saw a large poster for a concert. It was not collaboration, as such, but did list several well known artists on the roster – topped by Nora Jones. Also listed, quite prominently, was Beirut. It seems the boys from the old College of Santa Fe are doing quite well. I hope you were able to make it to their homecoming concert at the Convention Center last year. I remember fondly working with percussionist Nick Petree in a production of “Hair” at Greer Garson just a few years ago.