Piaf and Pointe Shoes

piaf piaf

In early November Théatre Outremont presented Piaf, a new ballet by the Ballet-Theatre Atlantique du Canada. Celebrating the life of Edith Piaf, this new ballet gives the public an overview of the life of the legendary singer. The celebration comes right in time, considering it’s the 100th anniversary of Piaf’s birth this month. At Rampage, we were curious to see the ballet and walk on the path of this glorious and talented artist once again. This is where I come in. I went, saw, and was not exactly conquered by it all. Let me explain.

As I like to do things properly, I asked a dancer friend to come with me. She is a professional ballet dancer who toured in big companies, and has good insight on shows and culture in general. I thought she would be the perfect person to give me her opinion. And let me tell you, she was not conquered either.

When we arrived in the hall, we were surprised to hear a rehearsal going on. I had never seen anyone practice a show 30 minutes before it starts. My friend confirmed that it was unusual. The normal thing would be to warm up and then get ready for the show. It’s the same thing for singers; we warm up our voices, put our costumes on, and off we go. No one does a rehearsal right before the start. We were both intrigued and I was little bit worried at that point, worried that the Piaf Ballet was not going to be a great one.

A few minutes later, I sat in the audience, eyes open, mind open, and ready to discover the ballet. I was excited to see what had been done. After all, Piaf is such a legend that her songs are known everywhere. Who never heard of La vie en Rose? My expectations were high, I admit, but would you really expect anything less from a Parisian? Piaf is the legend of my hometown, so I had to be a little critical. Now, back to our affairs.

When it comes to the visual aspects of the show, simplicity was chosen. On-stage decor consisted of a platform with two ramps for the dancers to come and go. A small screen was under it, and behind it a bigger one. The platform was either used as a bridge, or as a coffee house (one table). On the screens we could see images of Paris, of people, of various things helping to complete the world of Piaf. A bed on wheels was also used to show Piaf in a more intimate setting from time to time. I thought the sobriety of the decor served the story well. No need to have a grand decor in order to concentrate on a character’s thoughts.

The costumes were also quite simple. Olga Petiteau (Piaf) always in a black dress, other dancers in more colourful costumes. I suppose it was to show Piaf’s tragic destiny, and help the audience understand who was portraying the singer.

What surprised me though, were the choice of videos and pictures on screens. Some were good choices, others were not. For exemple, at one point, Piaf seems to have a hard time. At that moment you see boxers on the screens, two big guys in a boxing fight. I honestly could not understand the link between them and Edith Piaf. Unfortunately, that kind of thing happened more than once. The idea was not bad, but some choices were terribly wrong!

Another low point for me was the story itself. Everyone might have heard of Edith Piaf, but not everyone knows her story. Even if you saw La môme (with the wonderful Marion Cotillard), you could still not follow. I was lost. For me the show was just a succession of ballet pieces and songs. I had no idea what was happening on stage. I asked myself questions like “Are those dancers portraying Edith Piaf’s friends?” and “Who is that guy she seems to love?” I never could answer any of them. Honestly, I found it sad to celebrate the life of such an icon and never show anything that helped the public understand it. For me it’s an epic fail.

The only thing that saved the day were the songs of Edith Piaf. La vie en Rose and Padam Padam are always a joy to hear for a Parisian like me. I could not help but smile when her voice filled the room that night. But it was not exactly enough to save a show either.

The whole time, I thought that I could have spared a metro ticket. I would have been more comfortable at home, listening to those songs in my living room. So my opinion on this show is that the concept is great, the execution is bad.

Ballet and Piaf could have been a grand thing, but it would have taken more than what was done. It would have taken proper artistic direction and better choreography. More dancers, and better dancers. I have seen proper ballet dancers and the level is quite different, believe me! I also think that Olga Petiteau is not bad, but she is not great. She absolutely needs someone to direct her when it came to the theatrical part of the storyline. If you have “Theater” in the ballet company’s name, you have to deliver!

All in all, what is missing here is proper direction. A lot can be done but you have to have more talent to do so, and a clearer view of the storyline of Edith Piaf’s life. It was a disappointment for me and will be for all admirers of Edith Piaf. I honestly wonder if it was too big of a choice for the Ballet-Theatre Atlantique du Canada.