Any Verdi, Greta Garbo or even Baz Luhrman fans out there who may on a whim pick up La Dame Aux Camelias may have a slight (or even more than slight) feeling of déjà vu as they watch. This very interesting quasi-ballet, accompanied by Chopin music, is an adaptation of the famous Alexandre Dumas fils novel (a sort of confessional semi-autobiography) that later became the inspiration for Verdi's Il Trovatore, the oft-filmed Camille (including of course the famous Garbo version) and, at least tangentially, Luhrman's epic Moulin Rouge. Here we get the ill-fated romance between an aging French courtesan (Agnes Letestu) and a young rake (Stephane Bullion), but choreographer John Numeier has filled this version with some very neat self-referential moments, some of which came from Dumas' original writings, but which have never made it into previous versions of the story.
I have confessed in previous ballet reviews that, despite my probably above average knowledge of classical music, this really is not my favorite "high culture" art form. Despite that, La Dame aux Camelias struck me immediately with its rather innovative use of pure theatricality removed from actual dance elements. In a sort of Rashomon-esque approach, Neumeier tells his story from several points of view, framed with a bookending device which relegates all the of perspectives in flashback (something he culled from Dumas' original conception). We therefore get a non-dance prelude where the young Armand Duval (notice the initials and think of the original novel's author) comes to the auction of goods of his deceased former lover Marguerite Gautier. That sets in motion a cascading series of remembrances, which at times become more typical formal ballet scenes, but which also tend to be less like dance and almost like mime performances at times.
The really smart mirroring aspect to La Dame aux Camelias, and again one Neumeier cribbed from Dumas, is the use of the similarly themed Manon Lescaut as a sort of interior framing device. The lovers meet at a performance of Manon, and both are both drawn to and simultaneously terrified by the characters whom they resemble so closely. Gautier especially becomes haunted by visions of Manon, and several of those tableaux are staged magnificently in this production.
Neumeier quite craftily chose the filigreed, haute couture miniatures of Chopin to accompany this piece, and, as the extensive liner notes point out, there's probably no better composer to offer musical comment on salon culture. Neumeier also doesn't shy away from using on stage pianos to augment several scenes, including both the opening prelude and a later beachside scene. It's patently theatrical, of course, but it's also unusually visceral for this sort of performance to actually see the musicians at work in tandem with the dancers.
This is an elegantly, if minimally, designed performance, one which Neumeier specifically kept on the illusory side of things so that different people's memories could be staged with a minimum of fuss and bother in the background. That said, there's a real elegance to the simple set decorations, and the costumes are quite exquisite throughout. Neumeier does appealing work both in traditional forms like the many pas de deux which dot this ballet, but also in more adventurous ensemble pieces, where some of the moves approach modern dance and shy away from classicism.
If you, too, aren't an especial fan of ballet, La Dame aux Camelias might be just the ticket to at least check out this idiom. At least as much of a performance piece as it is pure dance, it offers a well-known plot told in an intriguing way, with effective accompaniment and a beautiful physical production. Whether or not it will touch you emotionally is of course a personal experience, but I found it one of the more involving ballet (or quasi-ballet) performances I've seen.