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Paris Opéra Ballet

By Lynn Garafola

David H. Koch Theater

Lincoln Center, NYC
July 11–22, 2012


After a 16-year absence, the Paris Opéra Ballet returned to New York with an ambitious season of two full-length works, a mixed bill, and eleven performances. As director of dance, Brigitte Lefèvre has guided the company’s fortunes since 1995, revamping the repertoire and nurturing a new generation of dancers. Fully supported by the French state, POB wears its nationality proudly. Nearly all the dancers hail from the company school, and the dancing displays both stylistic unity and a distinctive style. Yet only Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc originated in-house, as if the company sees Frenchness as a performance style, not a source of creative identity.


For me the high point was Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice (1975), given its North American premiere. A dance-opera in four scenes to Gluck’s luminous music, with sets, costumes, and lighting by Rolf Borzik, Orpheus reveals a Bausch before Tanztheater. Here is the choreographer as a mid-century modern, with the contractions, falls, tilts, flowing arms, and lifts of her American forbears—Graham, Humphrey, Limón, Taylor, Tudor—melded into her own idiom. She has a sure sense of stage space: in “Peace,” to the music of the “Elysian Fields,” the dancers trace intricate pathways like initiates in a heavenly rite; in “Death,” they exit in single file across the back of the stage like public mourners, sensuous in black, semi-transparent gowns.

 

 

Stéphane Buillion and Maria Riccarda Wesseling in Pina Bausch's Orpheus and Eurydice.

Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Lincoln Center.

 

Bausch once said of Borzik, her partner and collaborator, that “his imagination was boundless.” Orpheus, their first production together at Wuppertal, proves her point. “Mourning” takes place in a double frame of pearlescent gray, with a bare fir tree lying on its side; “Death” in an ashen enclosure without wings. Following a long tradition in experimental opera, the chorus sings from the pit, and both singers and dancers interpret the principal roles, often interacting. When Eurydice dies, the soprano Yun Jung Choi sinks to the floor, followed by the dancing Eurydice (Alice Renavand in the performance I saw), her scarlet gown gashing Choi’s black one, while as Orpheus, the mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling laments over their recumbent bodies (in German rather than the original Italian), “What shall I do without Eurydice?”—a Pietà, with the genders reversed. The harmony and disciplined minimalism of every aspect of the production reveal not only Borzik’s masterful hand but also Bausch’s idea of movement being the glue holding a production together.


Giselle, by contrast, was emotionally underpowered. To be sure the Wilis were splendid, all 24 of them, magnificently rehearsed, absolutely synchronized, with the proud necks and carefully placed feet, exquisite wrists and fingers that do honor to the Paris training. The production, staged in 1991 by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov, retains the grave diggers’ scene at the start of Act II, and when the Wilis first appear, darting viciously among the dice players and running them offstage, they reveal a lust for revenge beneath their appearance of elegiac maidenhood. POB also gives a full account of the Mother’s mime scene in Act I, dimming the lights to dramatize the sudden intrusion of the uncanny tale on an otherwise happy scene.

 


Aurélie Dupont and members of Paris Opéra Ballet in Giselle.

Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Lincoln Center.


Yet, for all these dramatic touches, the action moves sluggishly. Neither of the Giselles I saw—Aurélie Dupont and Clairemarie Osta—makes much of the ballet’s drama. In Act I, Dupont is too knowing, Osta too down-to-earth to convey the innocence and strangeness that set Giselle apart from the beginning. As the company’s senior ballerina, Dupont exemplifies both the strengths and weaknesses of POB style—its enormous attention to detail, épaulement, port de bras, line, symmetry, and control, often at the expense of spontaneity. (During the Mad Scene, her hair stays in place.) Nothing is ever taken to an extreme. Extensions are decorous, balances nailed, fifths closed. POB dancers seldom play with phrasing or experiment with off-balance effects. (Charline Giezendanner, who danced the Peasant Pas de Deux with energy and sparkle, was a happy exception.) The best acting came from the men. Yann Salz played Hilarion as a man possessed, his hatred of Albrecht as visceral as his pride. Seeing Giselle in Bathilde’s necklace, Nicolas Le Riche, ardent and youthfully impetuous as Albrecht, realizes with horror that his two worlds have collided.


Suite en Blanc (1943), which opened the mixed bill, is an academic exercise by Serge Lifar, who directed POB from 1930–58. With tuneful music by Edouard Lalo and an army of women in white tutus, it looks like a neoclassical ballet. However, apart from the variations, with their old-fashioned virtuoso vocabulary (balances and fouettés), the choreography is static and decorative, with no atmosphere or dynamic pulse. Perhaps if the ballet were better danced—if so many dancers didn’t fall out of turns, for instance—one could tolerate the refrigerated academicism.

 

 

Nicolas Le Riche and members of Paris Opera Ballet in Maurice Béjart’s Bolero.

Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Lincoln Center.

 

The remainder of the program offered ample scope for emotion. In Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne (1974), a muddled tale of tragic passion, Benjamin Pech gave a nuanced, powerfully dramatic performance as the hero who leaps to death through a window. As for Maurice Béjart’s brilliantly theatrical Boléro (1961), neither Le Riche nor the splendid Marie-Agnès Gillot could efface the memory of the choreographer’s muse Jorge Dunn undulating on the vast platform, a mesmerizing idol of the Age of Aquarius. Other repertory choices (Béjart’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort) would have made for a stronger bill.


Since becoming artistic director, Lefèvre has stocked the POB repertoire with works by a host of contemporary European choreographers. True, the company still dances Balanchine, Robbins, and the “classics.” But if Giselle and Suite en Blanc are any indication, the company’s heart lies elsewhere. That doesn’t bode well for POB as a classical enterprise.


Pictured at top: Marie-Agnés Gillot in Pina Bausch's Orpheus and Eurydice.

Photo by Stephanie Berger, courtesy Lincoln Center.