In the middle of this jittery ballet there is a quiet, intimate sequence that suggests what Piaf, created by Moncton’s Atlantic Ballet Theatre (ABT), could be. It’s when legendary singer Édith Piaf meets the love of her life, middleweight boxing champ Marcel Cerdan. Like her other relationships, this did not end well, with Cerdan dying in a plane crash in 1949, sending Piaf into a spiral of drug abuse, alcoholism and mental illness. ABT Artistic Director and choreographer Igor Dobrovolskiy has fashioned an impassioned love duet, and with its stillness and warmth, it ignites.
The scene is well-played by Olga Petiteau, as Piaf, and Eldiyar Daniyarov, as Cerdan. He takes her in his arms, and the two dancers embrace with intensity before passionately rolling together on the ground; the tenderness and vitality in these few minutes imbues the ballet with a profound sense of depth. What’s more, it persuasively demonstrates something personal and a serenity about Piaf that, until this moment, was not seen.
Because narrative ballet is not documentary, and more abstract reflection, knowing something about a subject as complex as Piaf helps to inform an understanding of the dance. Piaf had a tiny frame and a big voice. Born in a working-class district in the outskirts of Paris, she was the daughter of an acrobat and a failed singer. At first, La Môme Piaf (her nickname, “little sparrow”) sang on street corners, then in dingy bars of Paris’ demimonde, before taking the entire city by storm. Unfortunately, the grande dame of French song’s life was no idyll, and untenable by most standards. Abandoned by her alcoholic mother at an early age, and then taken in to live at her grandmother’s brothel, she was rescued by her trapeze-artist father, who brought her on the road. Her rise as a singer was facilitated by her many lovers in the city’s clubland. At the age of seventeen she had a daughter, who died of meningitis at the age of two, and more heartache followed.
Piaf was revered in her home country, France, but her fame spread around the world. Over a half-century after her death, and in the centenary of her birth (in December), Piaf remains an eternal musical star. She is, to many, an emblem of her culture and a martyr to heartbreak and pain. Her songs always highlighted her throaty voice and passion, and singers rhapsodize about Piaf, citing the physically demanding nature of the songs. They also speak of the abandon in her vocals, as singer Martha Wainwright recalled when she interpreted her songs a few years ago, saying Piaf’s melodies evoked “the daydream of soaring.”
There have been previous theatricalized renditions of Piaf’s life, not necessarily in dance, where it feels like her soul is guiding them. Piaf is a chronological ballet that spans the decades and, through a busy rendering of her chaotic life, tries to accentuate the human thread, even as it paints a larger-than-life central character on a broad canvas.
Under Dobrovolskiy’s direction, Petiteau’s portrayal of the magnetic Piaf is best described as hit-and-miss. Though Piaf did have a stoop, and more so toward the end of her life, the decision to play her with a hunched back and popping, wild eyes for most of the performance was an overly dramatic choice. Seeing Petiteau in pointe shoes with hunched shoulders, moving through contortions of the spine, is not only a demanding physical feat, it also makes her almost impossible to watch. She does well in the opening sections of the dance, in which she is able to express a naiveté and wide-eyed happiness, not to mention a silent raucous laugh, as Piaf basks in the limelight and becomes the toast of the town, but Petiteau never quite gets the intensity of the role or magnificent all-consuming nature of Piaf’s artistry, nor does she bring to life her brashness. Her Piaf appears, most often, embattled more than anything else. What’s lacking is the singer’s known toughness and determination to overcome adversity. Petiteau scurries around with a mop of frizzy hair, and while that quality can metaphorically suggest something about Piaf’s keen instinct to move beyond the tragedies that befell her, the dancer seems unable to move beyond artifice.
Finding the right note to play Piaf is a tall order. Screen actor Marion Cotillard did just that when she took on the role in the 2007 film La Vie en Rose. At the time, her performance was hailed as remarkable not only because of her ability to bring forward the desperate urgency of Piaf’s life, but also because, as it was often stated, she enacted an old person trying to be young, instead of what is more commonly done — a young person trying to be old. In the ABT production, Petiteau veers toward the latter. While she dances her neoclassical steps well throughout, a portrayal the magnitude of Piaf demands directness in her shift from no-nonsense determination to vulnerability and back. That’s got to be infused in the gestures, and even her breath, whether she’s at the microphone, pointing and thrusting her arms outward or in a hospital bed with a drip of morphine. Piaf died at the early age of forty-seven, her body feeble and frail, and as documentary footage shows, gnarled toward the end. Petiteau, in her final scenes, in a drug-addled state (Piaf was addicted to morphine), approximates the shivers and decrepitude needed to reveal the brutality of the singer’s existence.
Given the limitations that have been put on Petiteau, the other dancers in the company fare better. They assume a range of roles (her lovers, her manager, etc.) then settle back to anonymous crowd behaviour. Stéphanie Audet is a standout as her manipulative so-called “sister”, Simone Bertaut, known as Mômone, one of the hangers-on in Piaf’s life. Her willful presence reminds us that, even though she is not a sympathetic character, nuance in her acting trumps all.
Designer Shawn Donellsen’s ingenious set complements a raised upstage platform that serves as a projection screen as well as a performance area, and an upstage main dancing space. Images are also projected on a larger screen at the back of the stage. The lighting, by Pierre Lavoie, is also effective, often capturing Petiteau in a spotlight with the surrounding darkness suggestive of the encroaching gloom in Piaf’s life. Ghislain Ouellette’s video design gives us an obvious sense of the times and places where Piaf made her mark, when we see vintage snippets of Paris and New York. Other media fragments representing her story are more peculiar — extended sequences of Charlie Chaplin, as the Little Tramp, are meant to convey Piaf’s youth, even as she sings her indelible signature hit, La Vie en rose; or during the rousing and haunting Padam, Padam number about recollection, a curious series of feet dart across the screen. Another filmed sequence, where a bullet is seen hurtling through space, when Piaf’s manager is killed, is so good that it eclipses the dancing.
That’s the problem with this Piaf — the persistent feeling that integration is lacking in many aspects of the production, whether it’s watching ballet moves and contemporary gestures that don’t coalesce or the odd video elements. Paying homage to an artist of Piaf’s renown is bold, and commendable, but making the production take flight isn’t just a desired effect, it’s essential.