When Massine was all the rage, in the 1930s and ’40s, so was the character ballet, set in some unexalted corner of the world where eccentricity thrives. The choreographers particularly liked to look back to ballet’s not-so-distant past when “dancer” did double duty as “lady of the night”. Hence Gaîté Parisienne – made in 1938 for the tireless Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and, for decades, Massine’s most popular creation. American Ballet Theatre has not performed it for 15 years.
At a Belle Époque restaurant, cocodettes, waiters, slumming high-society matrons, a snake-hipped Peruvian, a haughty though easily enflamed Baron, a Flower Girl so adorable that men use the blooms they buy from her to woo her, and the biggest attraction, the slippery Glove Seller (wink, wink), flirt, fight and dance the night away. The steps are sexy too and, in one messily exuberant number after another, deftly character-defining. The waiters literally hop to, boinging straight up as in a cartoon, with their heels kicking their behinds. The Flower Girl (Misty Copeland, on a tear this season) tips like a brimming watering can into the bouquets her wooers hold out to her.
But for the revival’s first outing, the company was not feeling it. Dancers substituted limp casualness for rude good health. Though Marcelo Gomes as the Baron, Craig Salstein as the Peruvian, Joseph Gorak as the Dance Master, and flower girl Copeland did achieve some of what was needed – the powerful pelvis, rubbery spine, rough vigour, sharp rhythms and thick sensuality – no one managed it all.
The men in the cast did not bound high enough or pursue the women with sufficient avarice (though they did turn the ladies upside down to give their flouncy pantaloons a public airing). The women did not melt into the men’s arms. Hee Seo as the crucial Glove Seller was especially demure. An assembly line of eager suitors may have taken turns to lift her high, but she did not reach cloud nine.
Accessory excesses had to carry the ballet: Offenbach’s oompah cancans and winsome waltzes, and Christian Lacroix’s delirious clash of stripe and polka dot, his poofs and ribbons and outlandishly feathered hats.