La Dame aux camélias has been portrayed in many different guises since Alexandre Dumas fils' novel was first published in 1848. John Neumeier 1978 ballet, revived by Dutch National Ballet with Anna Tsygankova and James Stout as Marguerite Gautier and Armand Duval, still comes up remarkably fresh and dramatically convincing.

Anna Tsygankova (Marguerite) and James Stout (Armand) © Marc Haegeman
Anna Tsygankova (Marguerite) and James Stout (Armand)
© Marc Haegeman

The performance radiated a very beautiful French 19th-century high society atmosphere. The costumes are opulent, the stage sparingly but effectively organised and well lit. A chaise longue, a mirror, an on-stage piano, some wicker chairs: it’s simple but works well. The music moves from dreamy to dramatic, drawn from Chopin’s solo piano works, concertos and the Andante spianato. Ermanno Florio is a wonderfully sensitive conductor. His avoidance of bombast in these most famous scores, makes you listen to the melodies more carefully. It’s medicine for weary ears. I was especially touched by the first and final piece played by a total of four very capable, and at times exquisite, pianists: Alexander Reitenbach, Ryoko Kondo, Michael Mouratch and Andrej Jussow.

That brings us to the actual drama... and what drama it is. Tsygankova and Stout conveyed this story of doomed love with clarity. Dumas fils’ tale is well known: Armand falls in love with the courtesan Marguerite, who is slowly dying from consumption. They fall in love and move to the countryside. But Armand’s father disapproves and convinces her to leave her lover to protect his family’s reputation. Armand, not knowing why she left, is driven to despair and finally revenge. He humiliates her publicly. When the illness finally destroys her, Armand is handed her diary by her maid. Upon reading it, he discovers the truth that Marguerite never stopped loving him and he is left heartbroken.

James Stout (Armand) and Anna Tsygankova (Marguerite) © Marc Haegeman
James Stout (Armand) and Anna Tsygankova (Marguerite)
© Marc Haegeman

Romance only works if the dancers are fully committed. After a few apprehensive moments in the first act, the couple grew into the thralls of love, helped by Stout’s daring throws and lifts. Doing this with big costumes is risky and at times it seemed to edge close to disaster, with costumes getting stuck and having to be adjusted mid-move. Stout’s Armand acted clumsily and love-struck, yet at the end his remorse felt real, showing he is capable of delivering a convincing performance.

Tsygankova, with her slender long lines, played the courtesan well, initially resistant but giving in to love. Her pleading with Armand’s father in the second act was especially brilliant, a heartfelt plea for mercy. The couple’s virtuoso dancing gave us much to swoon about, from the initial seduction to their last ‘rekindling of love’. Neumeier’s vast dance vocabulary is devoted to the service of the storyline, which is probably why this romance works so well. In a beautiful final scene, Marguerite writes her last lines to Armand from her chaise longue, at the back of the stage. She then gets up, tumbles forward, collapses and dies. Simultaneously Armand reads this last page at the front. I suspect it's not only his eyes that brimmed with tears.

Anna Tsygankova (Marguerite) and Vera Tsyganova (Manon) © Marc Haegeman
Anna Tsygankova (Marguerite) and Vera Tsyganova (Manon)
© Marc Haegeman

Other notable performances included Vera Tsyganova and Artur Shesterikov, dancing the roles of Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux. Neumeier, like Dumas’ novel, incorporates references to Manon (L’Histoire du chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut by Abbé Prévost from 1831). Neumeier weaves it through La Dame as a play-within-a-play that our protagonists watch. Representing the spectre of betrayal by a courtesan, it feeds Armand’s fears. At times, it also mirrors the couple’s emotional state. When Marguerite is on her last, dying legs, so is Manon. Tsyganova, Shesterikov and Tsygankova’s pas de trois here was emotionally compelling.

As Gaston, Young Gyu Choi provided a happy counterpoint in the second act’s country scene, his high jumps fun to watch. Solid support roles were performed by Sho Yamada as the hapless admirer Count N., Maria Chugai as Armand’s revenge love Olympa and Wendeline Wijkstra as Marguerite’s maid.

In this performance, the romance could have been further enhanced by tighter timing between the couple, as two key backward falls by Marguerite that are supposed to be caught just in time, seemed too safely executed. But that was forgiven as the audience was touched and the dancers were visibly emotionally haggard by the end. La Dame is a great romantic ballet. Portraying such a classic romance without falling into stale melodrama, making it vulnerable instead, is quite a feat.

****1