By BRUCE DENNILL
La Traviata / Joburg Ballet / Artistic Director: Iain Macdonald / Joburg Theatre
La Traviata is another heart-breaking story translated into movement – the choreography may be elegant, but the emotional interactions are anything but – based on the novel Alexandre Dumas wrote about his 11-month affair with Marie Duplessis, a famous, tuberculosis-afflicted prostitute well-known in Paris in the 1840s.
Not surprisingly, the ballet’s central (and eternal) themes are love and societal mores – the piece doesn’t feature Julia Roberts in thigh-high boots or Nicole Kidman swinging about on an illuminated moon, but it’s more or less the same story. Well-off chap (Armand Germont in this version, danced with circumspect conceit – he’s a nobleman, but he has a heart – by Michael Revie on opening night) meets alluring courtesan (Camille, given enough spirit by Shannon Glover to make her believable as a lover in the emotional – rather than merely transactional – sense) and they have a genuine connection, which they invest in.
Their respective backgrounds overshadow their relationships, though, and a visit from Armand’s intimidating father (Iain Macdonald, a welcome presence back on stage, even if the role doesn’t call for much dancing) is enough to convince Camille that she’s not good enough for a well-to-do scion and would prove her love to him by leaving and allowing him the freedom to find someone more socially suited to his class. Three cheers for monstrous arrogance and arbitrary class differentiations! (That said, the opening scene, in which the Germont family say goodbye to Armand, is brilliant to look at, like the Addams family painted by Greg Wood).
Needless to say, Armand is not best pleased and when he is informed that the reason Camille left is his penniless state (his white-collar heritage affords him zero blue-collar skills, apparently), he, obviously heads back to the salon (brothel; you say potato…) where he first met Camille to win enough money by gambling to win her back. It’s hardly a Hallmark script, but it does allow for a few moments of real drama, and Revie in particular excels when it comes to communicating Armand’s anguish at discovering – or choosing to believe in – Camille’s reasons for abandoning him.
The salon scenes are perhaps the most entertaining, with the corps given license to perform with the abandon that those paying for companionship presumably feel entitled to. Veronica Paeper’s choreography is packed with swift footwork and constant collective movement, and on opening night, there were a few missteps in that packed section of the narrative. While nothing serious – someone accidentally nudged in the back; a missed catch, well compensated for by the ballerina; a stumbled landing after a leap – these details did slightly take the gloss off the visually more stimulating parts of the production.
The pas de deux are interestingly different to most traditional equivalents, with Paeper requiring her principals to be particularly fit and strong at the end of Act One, where Armand needs to juggle Camille around a bit as they celebrate their, er, flowering liaison.
La Traviata is not a feel-good story, and its intimate structure – the bulk of the running time showcases the central pair of protagonists rather than the company as a whole – means that audiences must buy into that relationship entirely to get the maximum satisfaction. Ballet fans who find large ensemble numbers the most satisfying part of whatever production they’ve gone to see may feel slightly short-changed here, but observers interested in innovative ways of taking ballet’s fixed set of movements and cleverly mutating them into something attractive and challenging will find much to appreciate.