Lady of the Camellias

The American Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House on Tuesday, June 7.

Lady of the Camellias might be one of the most elegantly conceived ballets I’ve ever seen—a flawless marriage of music and movement, beautiful use of dance as dramatization—which made the experience of seeing it for the first time not only delightful but also humbling because, beforehand, I considered it woefully misbegotten. Instead of using a single unified musical work, ideally composed particularly for the ballet, Camellias pulls together a diverse assortment of works by a single composer, an approach that often feels disjointed, with music and story never quite coming together. And instead of dramatizing a simple, elemental story, one that won’t require much in the way of exposition and plot work, Camellias takes a complicated narrative and, instead of stripping it to its foundations, embraces the complications, using a frame around the main story as well as a recurring ballet-within-the-ballet, an approach that easily could have resulted in a muddled, overweighted slog. No doubt these elements did impose challenges for choreographer John Neumeier, but Camellias, which premiered in 1978, overcomes those challenges with stunning artistry. What seemed to me like madness turns out to be genius.

Camellias tells the same story as the opera La Traviata: Alexandre Dumas’s tale of a dying courtesan and a naïve young man whose romance is smothered by the inevitable small-minded bourgeois moralizing and even more inescapable mortality. The ballet opens after poor Marguerite’s death, during an estate sale, with a pianist actually onstage tooling through a simple Chopin work—one of the preludes, I think—like a prospective buyer trying out the merchandise. (For the record, Verdi and his librettist renamed the characters for Traviata, probably because the mellifluous name “Violetta” lends itself to song infinitely better than “Marguerite.”) Eventually, Camellias moves into a flashback, with the orchestra joining the pianist in one of Chopin’s concertos and Marguerite’s mournful lover physically stepping into his memory of their first meeting at a performance of the ballet Manon Lescaut.

Those opening scenes set the tone for Camellias: the astute use of Chopin’s music, with concertos for busy crowd scenes and piano solos for quieter, more intimate moments; the seamless movement from frame to flashback and back again, with shifts in lighting and a few key props immediately communicating when and where the characters are; and the inspired use of Manon as a touchstone, gracefully drawing out the main characters’ complicated motivations without need for stock pantomime.

One of the reasons Camellias works so well is that though Neumeier uses relatively traditional ballet steps, he clearly doesn’t feel bound by its often-rigid forms. I don’t think anyone follows the traditional grand pas de deux structure anymore, with its prescribed entrée, adagio, variations, and coda of the traditional grand pas de deux, and Neumeier certainly doesn’t, allowing the emotional arc of the characters to shape their big numbers. Perhaps more significantly, Neumeier extends that same narrative-directed flexibility to the ways the leads interact with the other characters. The pastoral Act II numbers work as true scene-setting, establishing significant details of Marguerite’s life rather than merely offering perfunctory showcases for soloists, and when Marguerite steps into the Manon pas de deux later, Neumeier eschews the generic playful pas de trois choreography, which wouldn’t have fit the mood of the scene, in favor of something far more poignant: Marguerite essentially doubling Manon, subtly expanding the pas de deux for trois while maintaining the intimacy of the duo. In short, everything in the ballet feels purposeful, every step has narrative as well as choreographic meaning, and every moment flows fluidly into the next without artificial breaks and applause points. More than just about every ballet I’ve ever seen, Camellias is danced drama, emphasizing the story in equal measure with the dance and making the dance all the richer for it.

The other element elevating the dance is the music. Chopin’s spirited, romantic piano pieces are well suited for choreography, and Neumeier or whoever selected the specific pieces did so with a keen ear for the nuances of the music and an imaginative eye for how those nuances might complement the emotional beats of the story. Music and dance come together so well that it sometimes feels, impossibly, as though Chopin composed the music specifically to tell this story.

The greatest such moment is the final pas de deux between the principals set to the stormy Ballade No. 1 in G Minor. One of Chopin’s greatest works, the ballade is an intricate, mercurial masterpiece that may have been inspired by a Polish poem about treacherous political revolution, a world away from tragic Parisian love affairs, but nonetheless, its impassioned quicksilver nature provides the perfect accompaniment for the final tortured meeting between Marguerite and Armand. On Tuesday night, Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes danced the roles and pianist Emily Wong performed the music, and the three of them made Dumas’s sad, sordid little tale feel intense and present and utterly heartrending—despite the fact that it is, again, a sad, sordid little tale.

I think I might credit Chopin for that. The ballade has its maudlin moments—and god knows it’s easy for ballet to descend into maudlin—but those are tempered by comparatively wistful and noble and exuberant passages, and when it all comes together, you see the whole lifespan of the relationship in ten perfect, fervid minutes. It’s nothing short of beautiful.