Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo is in many ways as insular as the tiny city-state it operates from. Under choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot, the company has forged ahead on its own terms – a footnote of edgy neoclassicism to France’s dance story, dominated in recent memory by contemporary choreographers. This year Monaco celebrates Maillot’s two decades at the helm, and his latest work, Choré, is as intellectually stimulating as it gets.
The company’s repertoire is split evenly between reinventions of the classics and short works, but this evening-length creation aims for a third way. Choré is short in French for choreography, and while the publicity focuses on Hollywood musicals, the ballet goes much further. Over the course of five scenes, Maillot embraces dance and political history since the Great Depression, homing in on key connections: the rise of jaunty musical numbers in times of crisis and war; the trend for dehumanised bodies in dance, post-Hiroshima.
Choré starts at dusk with sepia ghosts from Hollywood’s musical golden age – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and later Gene Kelly as the grounded, breezy answer to the couple’s old-fashioned elegance. The neoclassical allure of the scene evokes Jerome Robbins, himself fascinated by Astaire, and Maillot then moves into pure musical territory with a backstage comedy of his own. A disgruntled director, capricious stars and rows of chorus girls dance on trompe-l’oeil floor coverings, brought to life by a large overhead mirror and not a little magic.
It’s dance as the antidote to the miseries of its time – until the nuclear bomb strikes, in the form of a mushroom made of the musical’s feather fans. What comes next is choreography that slowly assimilates the anguish. Faceless, quasi-robotic modern dancers in psychedelic skin-tight suits appear; in another section, set to John Cage, movement slows almost to a halt, with two performers floating just above the stage in harnesses and slowly drifting around their partners. Both dance and non-dance are introduced as a reaction, on the most basic level, to death, and as Bernice Coppieters leaves her partner ever so slowly, without looking back, one wonders what comes next.
What Choré lacks by its very nature is distinctive steps. Much of the choreography is indebted to wide-ranging genres, and dilutes Maillot’s customary nuggets of neoclassical brilliance. The last scene, “After dance, there is yet more dance”, also takes the easy way out: the feverish rhythm of a drum solo brings back dance as life force, but in the form of what looks like an improvised cast party. The sheer ambition of the project called for more – unless a question mark is the right answer.