French Disconnection

The last two years have been kind to local ballet lovers with no budget for international travel, bringing companies to the city from across the globe. In 2011, the Royal Danish Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet, and the National Ballet of Cuba were among the foreign ensembles to dance on our biggest stages. This June brought the Australian Ballet. Then, in July, came the oldest and most fabled company of them all, the Paris Opera Ballet, which performed three programs over two weeks as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.

Marie-Agnés Gillot and Stéphane Bullion in a scene from the Paris Opera Ballet production of Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

This was my first time seeing the company perform, and its reputation as one of the world’s most historic dance institutions preceded it. Also encouraging was the variety across the three programs the company had chosen to dance: a triple-bill of works by 20th century French choreographers, the romantic full-length ballet Giselle, and Pina Bausch’s 1975 version of the opera Orpheus and Eurydice. My expectations were high.

So why did the Paris Opera Ballet, unlike the Royal Danes and the Mariinsky, leave me cold? The most glaring problem was the repertory. Some of the works showed coarse theatricality without any of the finer qualities—complexity, subtlety, and above all innovation—I have grown to appreciate in the work of New York choreographers such as George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham, and Mark Morris. Other pieces danced by the Parisians were all façade with no core, either because dancers failed to rise to the material or because the choreography was dull to begin with. Just as puzzling as the programming was the reaction to it: Audiences applauded all of the works enthusiastically. Why did New Yorkers, who see better choreography so often, give the French a pass?

Of the three programs the Parisians performed, the one with the weakest choreography was the first, a tribute to three 20th century French choreographers: Serge Lifar, Roland Petit, and Maurice Béjart.

Lifar, a onetime dancer and choreographer with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, served as ballet master of the Paris Opera from 1930 to 1944 and again from 1947 to 1985. Suite en Blanc (1943) is one his most enduring works. (The July 12 performance I attended marked the company’s 432nd performance of the ballet.) Lifar described Suite en Blanc as “pure dance” and through it aimed “to present the innovations of our times.”

“Innovative” wasn’t the first word that came to mind. The ballet, set to Edouard Lalo’s Namouna, abounds with elegant, crystalline arrangements of bodies, but Lifar’s focus on posture is extreme, leaving little room for the dancers to express themselves. (In another awkward and artificial touch, the men must walk their entrances and exits with both arms curved.) Emilie Cozette briefly manages to charm with her playful skipping and hops on point in “La Cigarette,” but most of Suite en Blanc’s beauty derives from its static moments and not from its dancing.

Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne (1974) had more purpose, at least, for here there was a story: Danced to one of the Bizet suites of the same name and based on the short story by Alphonse Daudet, L’Arlésienne tells the story of Fréderi (Benjamin Pech), a young peasant who discovers that his fiancée, Vivette (Nolwenn Daniel), has been unfaithful.

Against René Allio’s van Gogh-inspired backdrop, Fréderi and his beloved join hands and march in rank-and-file formation with eight men and eight women. The flat, forward-facing nature of the dancing and sense of ritual bring to mind Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces. As the strain between the lovers becomes clear, the other peasants force the couple together—literally—by carrying them overhead and pushing them together. Fréderi struggles to forgive Vivette for her indiscretion during a fraught pas de deux, but he fails, throwing himself through a large window just before the curtain falls. There’s no lack of drama in the ballet, and moments have great impact, but the ballet exhausts its ideas quickly, and Fréderi’s angst becomes repetitive in his many solos. I didn’t feel guilty for wishing he would leap sooner.

Rounding out the triple bill was Maurice Béjart’s Boléro (1961), the first work made by the French-Swiss choreographer for his Brussels-based company, the Ballet of the 20th century. Other choreographers have tapped into the rhythm and sensuality of Ravel’s most famous composition, but it’s unlikely any have taken it to the tawdry extremes shown in Béjart’s rendition.

It begins in darkness. As a snare drum begins to sound, a small spotlight reveals the hand and arm floating in midair. The stage continues to brighten, revealing that the appendages belong to a soloist standing atop a large red table, surrounded on all sides by dozens of shirtless men sitting motionless in chairs. (At this performance, the soloist was Marie-Agnés Gillot, but both men and women can be cast in the role.) As she continues to bob and kick to Ravel’s melody, the men rise in groups and face the table, swiveling their pelvises and rolling their flexed arms to the score’s steady rhythm. The piece ends abruptly, with the horde of men leaping onto the table.

Aurélie Dupont and Paris Opera Ballet in Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc. © Stephanie Berger.

It’s engrossing, but only because it’s so bafflingly tasteless. At its best, Boléro resembles a male strip show at Chippendales, and at its worst it makes one think of gang rape. (I’ve seen videos of numerous dancers, both male and female, as the soloist, but Gillot’s softness at this performance made for a disturbing foil to the growing male frenzy around her.) Béjart’s Boléro is nothing more than a sex show dressed up as art, yet the audience greeted this work with the loudest applause.

Pina Bausch’s production of Orpheus and Eurydice, which was performed the following week, was the season’s most popular program. Interest in Bausch’s work has only grown since her death in 2009, thanks in large part to the Academy Award-nominated documentary Pina, and these performances of Bausch’s Orpheus—the first ever in North America—sold out quickly. This was my first taste of Bausch’s work. I wanted to enjoy it, but this too felt empty.

This production was one of Bausch’s first creations after taking the reins of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, though Gluck’s dance-rich score has historically made the opera a favorite among choreographers. George Balanchine choreographed a full version for the Metropolitan Opera in 1936 and returned to the music four decades later for his ballet Chaconne; since 1996, Mark Morris has choreographed or directed no fewer than three productions.

Bausch’s vision is unorthodox, to say the least. She does away with Gluck’s overture and his happy ending, which restores Eurydice to life, and she divides the action into four acts, titled “Mourning,” “Violence,” “Peace,” and “Death.” The characters of Orpheus, Eurydice, and Love are renamed Love, Death, and Youth respectively, and the singers who represent the former two appear on stage, moving alongside or apart from their dancing doppelgangers. The opera is also sung in German (without surtitles) instead of the more common French or Italian.

With ample help from her set, costume, and lighting designer Rolf Borzik, Bausch proves to be a master of creating rich stage images. The curtain rises on the first act to show a massive overturned tree and a circle on the floor drawn in chalk. In one corner, perched atop a precariously tall chair, sits a veiled woman clutching a bouquet of red roses, her statuesque pose evoking Catholic iconography. In the opposite corner stands Orpheus/Love (Stéphane Bullion on July 20), staring blankly into the wings through a pane of glass.

The second act (“Violence”) is more arresting still. Women wander like sleepwalkers, thin threads tying their dresses to more tall chairs. One of the women repeatedly rises on her toes, reaching in vain for an apple suspended in the air, unaware of a ladder lying on the floor just a few feet away. Three men in aprons dance menacingly in canon, sending the others into a panic, racing toward the chairs as if seeking shelter. Such images don’t often reveal a story, but they’re fascinating. They manage to be both specific and mysterious, like vivid dreams.

Still, as a work of dance, this Orpheus and Eurydice is hollow. The steps are the least coherent and memorable part of the equation. Little of the movement can be called unique, and much of it recalls Martha Graham—arching backs, pliés in second position, and prayer-like poses—but is danced more softly. (In the first act, the corps squats widely and rocks from side to side, as if to quote Graham’s iconic solo Lamentation.)

Graham used this vocabulary to great dramatic effect, but Bausch assembles the steps in a way that too often seems vague, repetitive, almost arbitrary. The third act’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” which contains a number of images that evoke Balanchine’s Serenade, recycles the same material for roughly 10 minutes. Orpheus’s steps—boilerplate turns and kicks—don’t change much at all throughout the opera, giving Bullion little opportunity to show his talents. Marie-Agnés Gillot, the Eurydice/Death at this performance, was similarly underused.

Mathieu Ganio, Aurélie Dupont, and members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform Giselle. Photo: Stephanie Berger.

The choreography is not bad so much as bland, serving mostly to occupy the eyes while one appreciates the splendor of the music (performed superbly by the Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble und Chorand). Bausch is at her best when she shows restraint. She suspends all dancing, for instance, during Orpheus/Love’s great aria of lamentation after Eurydice/Death’s second demise. It’s as though Bausch admits here, at least, that her choreography can’t live up to Gluck’s great score.

Between these two programs, the Parisians danced what might be the most famous work to spring from their country’s ballet tradition: Giselle. The two-act ballet, set to a score by Adolphe Adam, premiered at the Paris Opera in 1841, but this production is more Russian than French: The choreography stems from Marius Petipa’s later revivals for the Imperial Ballet.

There’s much to admire about this 1991 production by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov. The choreography is crisp, the plot moves along quickly, and mime is kept brief. (The clarity and directness of the gestures, nonetheless, help one take in small details of the plot that can easily be missed, such as Hilarion comparing the crests on Albrecht’s sword with the hunting party’s horn.)

The dancers are beautifully costumed (by Claudie Gastine after Alexandre Benois) in autumn tones—gold , burgundy, forest green—and the lighting complements the mime to clarify the story. The peasants, for example, are bathed in bright warmth during harvest dances, but the scene turns as Giselle’s mother frets for her frail daughter’s health and prophesies her death.

The highlight of the ballet arrives in the second act with the entrance of the Wilis (spirits of jilted women who haunt the forest at night, killing any men who wander their way), and the passage is particularly breathtaking in this production, which boasts an impeccable female corps. The uniform timing and posture—the soft curvature of the arms, the precise line of the arabesque—is impeccable. These women, fittingly, become something more than human.

There are, however, some odd choices in interpretation. The village scenery (also after Benois) is hokey and two-dimensional, like one of Thomas Kincaid’s sentimental paintings. This production twists the plot in unconventional ways as well. It’s implied that Giselle and Bathilde (the noblewoman betrothed to Albrecht) are both daughters of the Duke, who studies Giselle’s face upon meeting her and shoots a glance to Giselle’s mother as if to say, “Is this one mine?”

The biggest letdown on opening night was the dancer in the title role, Aurélie Dupont. One of the company’s leading étoiles, Dupont shows grace, refinement, and technical prowess, but her contained style is at odds with her character, a peasant girl who loses herself in her love of dancing and a man. It’s difficult to believe that her Giselle is young and impetuous, or that she’s truly passionate about anything. Although American Ballet Theatre’s Giselle, which was danced in May at the Metropolitan Opera House, is a less focused production, it at least boasted a stable of ballerinas who brought the character—and the ballet—to life.

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Ryan Wenzel

RYAN WENZEL is the dance editor of the Brooklyn Rail. He also writes about ballet, modern, contemporary, and traditional dance on his blog at www.bodiesneverlie.com.