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The Paris Opera Ballet
Pays Tribute to Balanchine

Paris Opera Ballet
Palais Garnier
Paris, France
October 2, 2003

By Marc Haegeman
Copyright ©2003 by

The Paris Opera Ballet doesn’t conceal its admiration for George Balanchine. The company also takes pride in the choreographer’s frequent stints at the Paris Opera to rehearse his ballets and hasn’t forgotten it was Balanchine who contributed to regain its shattered self-confidence during the difficult post-war years. The young Balanchine had already been invited in 1929 to create a ballet for them, although this project never materialized because of the choreographer’s untimely illness. Since Balanchine’s death five more of his works were acquired, most recently Jewels in 2000, bringing the total of the POB’s Balanchine repertory to twenty-seven. Many of these ballets frequently reappear on the program in Paris, yet to mark the hundredth anniversary of Balanchine’s birth, the company prepared for its 2003-2004 season several tributes aiming to cover 60 years of fruitful artistic creativity

This October at the Palais Garnier there is a Balanchine triple bill with Symphony in C (or with the original Bizet score title of Symphonie en ut), The Prodigal Son and The Four Temperaments. In December Concerto Barocco, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Serenade will be shown with Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, a program which is also chosen for the special New Year’s Eve Gala on December 31st. Finally, Liebeslieder Walzer will have its Paris Opera premiere on December 17th, as part of a mixed bill with works by Michel Kelemenis, Angelin Preljocaj and Trisha Brown.

To launch the new season, the performance on October 2nd was turned into a gala-evening. Many American guests (notably from the ‘American Friends of the Paris Opera and Ballet’, sponsors of the new production of Symphony in C) were in the audience and the scheduled Balanchine triple bill was brightened up by the inclusion of the grand Défilé and a performance of the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. The POB’s Défilé, this magnificent, unique parade of the school and the full company, exemplifying as much the splendid symbiosis of these two institutions, with the étoiles visually growing seamlessly out of the youngest pupils, as the strength and awareness of more than three centuries of tradition, can only be seen on very special occasions. It was as always a deeply moving event.

The Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux as the second bonus was sheer delight thanks to an Aurélie Dupont in outstanding form, looking and moving better than ever. That heavenly pirouette—five or six turns, it doesn’t matter; by its ease it looked as if it was supposed to be there—she nonchalantly pulled off near the end was greeted with loud cheers coming out of the wings, where probably half of the company was still watching after the Défilé, and left the audience gasping. Dupont completely eclipsed her partner, a young and cautious Hervé Moreau.

Allegedly it was to honour the final decision of the choreographer that the POB chose to stage Symphony in C this season (rehearsals were conducted by Patricia Neary), instead of reviving the slightly earlier landmark Le Palais de cristal, which Balanchine created for the company in 1947. In any case, the black and white costuming of the New York City Ballet version was bound to disappoint many Parisian balletomanes used to the colourful Fini designs for Le Palais de Cristal.

Opening nights of a season are never the best to judge a company and with several last-minute replacements among the soloists, the somewhat less than satisfying overall results, especially in Symphony in C, can be excused. The corps de ballet needed some more time to adjust and not all the soloists in this cast seemed on the right place. Laëtitia Pujol in the first movement exuded a soft authority, although she is not my idea of a Balanchine dancer, neither physically nor temperamentally, and her omnipresent grin has become tiresome. Her partner Benjamin Pech, light, sharp, clean and with a manly elegance, looked exactly right. Agnès Letestu, cool and aloof, didn’t struck me as very inspired, nor very concerned about the second movement, while a stern and heavy Yann Bridard looked too busy concentrating to partner her. Moreover, Letestu is not an allegro dancer as was obvious from the final sequences of the ballet where her footwork lacked precision. Première danseuse Marie-Agnès Gillot is, with Letestu, one of the favourites of the Parisian public. A strong technician, but extremely tall and broad-shouldered as well, and often projecting a kind of emphasis and non-feminine hardness. Gillot and José Martinez, two of the tallest soloists in the company, flowing in unison, proved the third movement can work with a couple of their stature. In the last movement premiers danseurs Mélanie Hurel and Alessio Carbone cut a less emphatic image, but danced well.

The Prodigal Son, Diaghilev’s final ballet which was premiered by the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1929, has been in the POB’s repertory since 1973. The present staging, supervised by Balanchine and librettist Boris Kochno, recreating the original sets and costumes by Georges Rouault, is as authoritative as can be, the ballet danced by an inspired POB as sweepingly engaging as ever. Nicolas Le Riche gave a knock-out performance bursting with emotion and youthful energy, while Agnès Letestu finally came into her own as the scheming, ice-cold Siren. The whole group danced The Prodigal in a highly dramatic, almost raw fashion, working quite well for this particular work. The only false note to my mind was the inane character of the father (Richard Wilk) with a beard apparently found in a cheap Christmas store.

The Four Temperaments which concluded this evening had a superb line up of soloists with Laurent Hilaire, Aurélie Dupont and Wilfried Romoli, Le Riche once more, Gillot, well framed by a strong supporting cast. Laurent Hilaire, who is seen less and less these years, reminded us as Melancholic by his authority and the beauty of his plastique what an impressive stage personality he is. Romoli also stood out by his vitality and commitment, well matched by Dupont, while Le Riche gave another masterly performance as Phlegmatic.

The Orchestra of the Paris Opera also took some time to adjust, but Paul Connelly conducted everything in good order.

“The Balanchine we dance at the Paris Opera is not a 100% Balanchine”, étoile Elisabeth Maurin once stated, as if she wanted to apologize for the fact that they dance it differently from the New York City Ballet. It is different, no doubt, and if not everything worked as smoothly yet on this opening night as it could, no one will deny that Balanchine is as alive as ever in Paris.

First:  Laurent Hilaire as Melancholic in The Four Temperaments. Photo:  © Icare
Second: Nicolas Le Riche in The Prodigal Son. Photo:© Icare

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 3
October 13, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by
Marc Haegeman



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last updated on October 7, 2003