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Nosferatu at the Palais Garnier

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 4 June 2001 - Since seeing Jean-Claude Gallotta's 1987 work, Mammame, which triumphed at the International Festival of New Dance in Montreal, each of his subsequent pieces has been something of a let-down. Although easy on the eye, his ballets have been vague, wishy-washy and choreographically speaking, lightweight if not empty, only saved recently by Dominique Bruguière, his gifted lighting technician.

A graduate of the Paris School of Fine Arts, Gallotta , who founded the experimental Groupe Emile Dubois in the French town of Grenoble twenty years ago, is neither a classical choreographer, nor a classically trained dancer. Film director, writer and philosopher, his dance training seems limited to his discovery of Cunningham almost by accident in 1978.

Jose Martinez as Nosferatu
José Martinez in Nosferatu
Choreography: Jean-Claude Gallotta / Photo: Icare

What was he doing yet again at the Paris Opera ballet after his all too forgettable Ulysses, created for his own company in 1981, and adapted for the Opéra Bastille five years ago?

I went to see Nosferatu, a ballet inspired by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau's silent film of 1922, A Symphony of Horror with very mixed feelings. But from the moment the curtain rose on the repellent and macabre figure of Nosferatu, interpreted by an unrecognisable José Martinez, whose twisted silhouette dominated the stage, here was something new. A voyage of discovery for dancers and choreographer as well as audience.

I spoke to Martinez in the more reassuring setting of a Parisian coffee bar to find out how , arguably, the best looking guy in the company had managed to transform himself into such an insalubrious monster, a vampire from Roumania, Moldavia, Bohemia or wherever.

"At the beginning ", said the dance star, "Gallotta intended to stage abstract dance. The role of Nosferatu didn't exist, and the idea was to create a dark , sombre work, with a threatening atmosphere, totally opposite to the brightness and luminosity of Ulysses, his last ballet here, and reflecting what he referred to as the 'contamination' of society - war, pollution, political corruption, and disease. There wasn't a fully defined central character.

"Everything seemed to begin", he continued, "when I found a wig while looking for a costume. It was rather grotesque, and was long, lank, and greasy, but when I put it on for a laugh, he was quite taken-aback. It wasn't what he had had in mind, but when he saw that the dangling shoulder length hair emphasised the movements I was making, the character of Nosferatu was born. I grew a beard which the make-up people shaved shorter over the cheek-bones to make my face look sunken, leaving it longer below the chin to give an emaciated look. Cosmetics did the rest and my clothes were cleverly cut, with a closely fitting jacket with short, wide sleeves to make me look tall and thin. And then I wore heels. It was great fun!"

Jose Martinez as Nosferatu
José Martinez in Nosferatu
Choreography: Jean-Claude Gallotta / Photo: Icare

Martinez told me how they had first spent hours discussing the role, trying to define this creature of the depths they'd invented, before he started improvising using every means possible except classical steps. "He told me what not to do", said the dancer. "and not to repeat any gesture not in keeping with his vision of the work. He explained the theme, his notion of emptiness, and the kind of unconventional steps without a name that he wanted and how they should be done, and after that it was up to me. He works like that with his own troupe, leaving them free to interpret the role according to their mood. And so my performance, aggressive or withdrawn , varied from one evening to the next. We even continued to telephone each other with new ideas after the performances had started.

Martinez told me how they had first spent hours discussing the role, trying to define this creature of the depths they'd invented, before he started improvising using every means possible except classical steps. "He told me what not to do", said the dancer. "and not to repeat any gesture not in keeping with his vision of the work. He explained the theme, his notion of emptiness, and the kind of unconventional steps without a name that he wanted and how they should be done, and after that it was up to me. He works like that with his own troupe, leaving them free to interpret the role according to their mood. And so my performance, aggressive or withdrawn , varied from one evening to the next. We even continued to telephone each other with new ideas after the performances had started.

Martinez also worked with Mathilde Altaraz, Gallotta's assistant who had studied classical dance from the age of seven, concentrating on the 'steps' between the steps, and making new, extremely disturbing, unnatural movements from different parts of the body. Martinez would jerk from the hips or neck and shoot across the stage .At times he would be at the back of the set and then, like a bolt of lightening, he'd be at the front, or skulking behind a potential victim in a single sinuous, gliding movement, which must surely mark a turning point in the French choreographer's career as well as his own.

Clairemarie Osta and Josť Martinez in Nosferatu
Clairemarie Osta and José Martinez in Nosferatu
Choreography: Jean-Claude Gallotta / Photo: Icare

"Working with Gallotta was very different from working with any other choreographer who always demonstrates what he wants you to do", Martinez said. "If you asked him to explain what he was doing, he couldn't, so suppositions that I'm the master of ceremonies and at the end there's a collective suicide are irrelevant. There's no story, it's dance alone, although nothing to do with classical ballet


" I read everything I could lay my hands on about vampires, not only Bram Stoker's Dracula, and learned a lot from watching films such as Victor the Vampire which gave me the idea of becoming a statue before springing to life, and hovering around before giving the gentle kiss of death. The other dancers never knew exactly where I was or whose shoulder I was going to breathe over. I crept up insidiously behind them, so everyone felt ill-at-ease constantly. Even now, they look at me differently at the Opera and no-one wants to meet me on a dark night!

"What fascinated me was less how these vampires moved than the way they are said to stay immobile to such a point you think it's a corpse, and then they speed along the ground so quickly you don't know how they got there. At that point, I devised a way of hurtling myself across the stage so fast you couldn't see me."

José Martinez might be joking, but the fact that no other casting was made, an enormous gamble for the Opera, possibly speaks for itself . The ballet as it stands could not have been made without him .Although there is no recognisable dance language, it's quite astounding, and something new has been created. He danced as though possessed, demonstrating that one of his greatest qualities is to transform a choreography into something which suits him, not by changing the steps , but by altering the rhythm. Martinez' ability to convey the creepiness of the character, plus the remarkable supporting cast of over forty dancers including Clairemarie Osta, Juliette Gernez, and Stephan Phavorin added a new dimension to the range of the Paris Opera Ballet.

This time, Jean-Claude Gallotta is demonstrating that perhaps now he really is a choreographer rather than just a man of the theatre. Admittedly there was a lot of running around, a recurring feature of the French choreographic school, but here at least it served a purpose and good use was made of the corps de ballet, especially at the end of each section when they 'punctuated' the different sequences. Up to thirty dancers were used like a classical corps de ballet, repeating the same movement, and at times this was very beautiful, even moving. The groupings on stage showed real research and a true appreciation of dance. When there is real contemporary choreography of quality when the dancers are not simply being used, it brings out the very great artistry of certain members of the company who seem capable of rising to every occasion.

The importance of the music, chosen from recent, little known pieces by Pascal Dusapin, cannot be over-emphasised. Extenso, Watt, Celo, and Apex added to the dramatic intensity of the work, and was magnificently interpreted by the Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Paris conducted by Bernhard Kontarsky.


Ballet : Nosferatu
Choreography : Jean-Claude Gallotta
Music : Pascal Dusapin
Sets : Daniel Jeanneteau and Laure Deratte
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Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.

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