writers on dancing


A Very Good Year

Spectacle de l’Ecole de danse -
Performances of the Paris Opera Ballet School
"Le Tombeau de Couperin," "Scaramouche," "Les deux pigeons"
Palais Garnier,
March 25, 2005

by Marc Haegeman
copyright ©2005 by Marc Haegeman

After the Demonstrations in December, mainly highlighting the technical achievements of the first trimester, the annual performances of the Ecole de danse de l’Opéra constitute a further, essential stage in the artistic formation of the pupils. Since they are no longer involved in any of the ballet or opera productions during the season these performances still enable the students to prepare a work for the stage. Last month’s delightful programme at the Palais Garnier was the first of its kind since Elisabeth Platel took over from Claude Bessy as director of the school at the beginning of this season. Although what we could see was basically still Bessy’s legacy, Platel’s touch was already apparent as well.

For one thing Platel had insisted that all levels of the school would appear in the programme devoted this year to French music. Sixteen pupils from the 1st and 2nd levels (ages 16 to 18) danced Maurice Ravel’s "Tombeau de Couperin" in the choreography by George Balanchine, followed by the new piece "Scaramouche," for forty-two pupils of the 5th and 6th levels (ages 12 to 14), especially created for the event by étoile José Martinez and set to the music by Darius Milhaud. Finally, the emblematic "Les deux pigeons" (The Two Pigeons) in the choreography by Albert Aveline, after Louis Mérante, with music by André Messager assembled pupils from the 4th to the 1st divisions.

The senior pupils made a strong and cohesive impression in "Le Tombeau de Couperin," a ballet which entered the repertory of the Ecole de danse in 1984— he Paris Opera Ballet acquired it in 1975, shortly after the New York premiere—yet hadn’t been danced since then. Thoroughly rehearsed (mounted by Richard Tanner), the young couples relished Balanchine’s intricate patterns, endowing the succeeding movements with loads of natural elegance, refinement and charm, qualities so characteristic for this school.

José Martinez’ enchanting and witty "Scaramouche" was a pleasant surprise. In his first attempt at choreography for children, and utilizing to his credit the children’s-eye-view approach, Mr. Martinez brilliantly captured the imagination and dreams of the youngest dancers in the making. Commissioned by Elisabeth Platel following a proposal by Brigitte Lefèvre, the idea for "Scaramouche" came while Martinez had been observing pupils in class before their teacher arrives. The youngsters fool around and improvise, but also imagine themselves in the roles of the great classics and with the assistance of the impish Scaramouche—a role danced by a 1st level student—and his fellow characters of the Commedia dell’arte for a brief spell their dreams come true.

Combining pantomime, repertory dance, theatre and even spoken word, Martinez’ piece always boasts an improvisational quality, as if it were created by the pupils on the spot. Amply soliciting their theatrical instincts and musical sense, it is completely carried by their enthusiasm. There are some truly lovely moments as when Scaramouche helps a young ballerina to try her dancing shoes, the appearances of the “petits rats”, or the tongue-in-cheek references to "Giselle," "La Bayadère," "The Concert," and even the recent "Véronique Doisneau" from Jérome Bel. Also noteworthy were the original and fresh costumes designed by étoile Agnès Letestu. Milhaud’s upbeat suite for two piano’s and additional fragments from Minkus, Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns were performed on the stage by Vessela Pelovska and Michel Dietlin.

Platel chose "Les deux pigeons" to complete the program. As she reminded in interviews Messager’s ballet is a genuine anthology of the steps of the French school and has a strong emphasis on character dancing. It is, one might add, also a prefect example of tradition being handed down from one generation to the next, starting with the 1886 creator of the leading role Rosita Mauri by way of Carlotta Zambelli and Lycette Darsonval to Christiane Vaussard, who stages the current production of the ballet and incidentally is also Platel’s teacher.

The current production of "Les deux pigeons" in the 1925 version by Albert Aveline entered the repertory of the school in 1978. The sets and costumes by Alexandre Obolensky and Paul Larthe look shamelessly naïve and dated, yet the dancing remains gloriously fresh and alive. Especially when danced by the extremely promising Eléonore Guérineau (as Gourouli) and Marine Ganio-Khalfouni (as the gypsy Djali), both 1st level students of the highest calibre. Their solid technique and natural stage presence are taken for granted, but being petite and slight they also seem to herald quite a different ballerina-image. By comparison, the boys appeared somewhat withdrawn, but then again, overall, it were the girls who had the edge during this rewarding and hopeful evening.

Volume 3, No. 14
April 11, 2005

copyright ©2005 Marc Haegeman


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last updated on April 11, 2005