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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 7 JANUARY 2014 — The gala performance of the three hundredth anniversary of the Paris Opera School of Dance in May this year opened with a beautiful new ballet, D’Ores et déjà, created for the occasion by French choreographer/dancer, Nicolas Paul, in collaboration with Béatrice Massin, a leading Baroque authority. I spoke to Paul, the most gifted young choreographer to emerge from the Paris Opera Ballet company in over 20 years, shortly after the last performance of Neumeier’s La Dame aux Camélias, where he was interpreting the role of Gaston Rieux.

Paul, a student of the school between 1990 and 1996, told me that D’Ores et déjà developed from a suggestion by Brigitte Lefèvre, the director of the Paris Opera Ballet who has consistently encouraged young choreographers within the company to create works of their own. The idea, he explained, was to bring contemporary dance and baroque together to show how dance today draws on its roots.

The ballet, conceived for 17 dancers, all boys, had the young interpreters moving in, out, and around a large, gilt-edged picture frame set in the centre of a darkened stage, an idea inspired by one of the many visits by the two choreographers to the French section of the Louvre Museum. Set to a score by Jean-Philippe Rameau, Les Indes Galantes, with superb costumes in shades of aubergine, plum and burgundy, it proved a sumptuous opening to the programme.

Paris Opera Ballet: D’Ores et déjà
Choreography: Nicolas Paul

The success of the work was hardly surprising as Nicolas Paul, now aged 35, has been making a name for himself as a choreographer of quality for some time with his original, inventive ballets.

"I don’t really remember when I first began making up movements", he reflected. "All I know is that I was very young, not even 10 or 11, but I was nearer 20 when I began creating pieces which one could call choreography. And then my first works were performed with dancers from the opera, an enormous advantage for any choreographer as they are so adaptable. Melanie Hurel, Bruno Bouché and Jean-Christophe Guerri, who interpreted my first piece, understood what I wanted immediately.

"After that", he continued, "I began working on short pieces programmed in theatres outside Paris, and then the small groups of dancers who present mixed programs in smaller theatres outside the Opera, began commissioning me. I also had works presented at the shows for young choreographers, Danseurs Chorégraphes, which take place every two to three years in the Amphitheatre of the Opéra Bastille, and give the dancers in the company the opportunity to present their creations to the public."

Since those days Paul has made considerable progress, with more accomplished ballets such as Gesualdo, for 5 dancers, completed in 2006, where he was carried away by the sacred music of Don Carlo Gesualdo. The ballet was well-received.

"I realized at this point that the most important aspect of choreography is sincerity; to completely believe in what you are doing. Inspiration can come from many directions, but one cannot create a work aimed at simply pleasing the public. I obviously want my work to attract audiences, but if I don’t fall in love with the music, or indeed a painting or even an interpreter, then I can’t go ahead. That happened with a work I wanted to create around Glenn Gould who fascinates me, but it didn’t happen, maybe because I didn’t believe in it enough. 
"My father loved music, so I grew up listening to all the great composers and one of my aims is to grasp how to choreograph to music. Balanchine, for example, had that unique fusion with his score. Musicality, and silence, too, should it arise naturally, is of primordial importance. Extracts from Gyorgy Ligeti’s scores were at the heart of my first group work, Répliques, commissioned for the Paris Opera Ballet on the stage of the Palais Garnier three years ago. The music leaves the impression of a broken mirror and I wanted to reveal what the mirror could not show, what was underneath".

With scenery designed by the architect Paul Andreu, Répliques was a visually lovely ballet for 8 dancers, carefully constructed on the theme of a mirror and one’s double. It was neither narrative nor totally abstract with Paul questioning mirrors, reflections, duplicates, themes which take us back to the universal question of human identity.

Paris Opera Ballet
Choreography: Nicolas Paul

It has not always been easy for Paul, officially ‘sujet’ in the company to conciliate the two aspects of his career, complementary though they may seem, for as far as planning is concerned, rehearsals and performances take up a lot of his time. The lengthy preparation needed to take part in the annual competition for promotion meant that to a certain degree, he had to put his chances of advancement as a dancer aside to concentrate on his choreography. But he has nevertheless been chosen for important roles by visiting choreographers, not least Pina Bausch, whose work, Paul acknowledged, belonged in "another world".

"Working with Bausch on her Sacre and as a member of the corps de ballet in her first staging of Orpheus and Eurydice was unforgettable", he said, "and when Dominique Mercy chose me to interpret Orpheus in the restaging of the work last year, it was the finest experience I ever had in dance. It’s such a privilege to be given the opportunity to work with so many guest choreographers. I watch a lot of videos but get few occasions to see other choreographers at work elsewhere, which I would love to.

"However, on the positive side, not really knowing what is happening beyond Paris has hopefully obliged me to develop a style and language of my own."
Certainly one of his most recent pieces, Nobody on the Road, created for the Ballet of Korea owed nothing to outside influences, but everything to the discovery of Korean traditional music. Paul told me that it was the first time he’d worked abroad with dancers he didn’t know, and where he had known nothing neither of the culture nor the language.

"Music has always been very important to me", he said, "so I was very moved when the composer told me that he recognized his music in my choreography. It was a fascinating experience, the main difficulty being the language barrier despite the excellence of my translator, who, unfortunately for me, was not a dancer. We finally communicated in English, but theirs was worse than mine, so almost everything had to be conveyed by movement."

Finally, our conversation came to an end as Paul had to leave to audition dancers for his latest project early next year, dance within the opera, Platée by Rameau, in a staging by Robert Carsen. It was, he explained, a co-production between the Theatre An der Wien and the Opéra Comique in Paris, and he was going to be working with contemporary dancers from different backgrounds.

Other projects he would love to be involved with are connected to working within a museum such as the Louvre, being attracted by the interaction between dance and the particular atmosphere there, to stage a work connected to photography, and maybe one day to create a piece for the luminous ballerina, Emilie Cozette, the woman he shares his life with offstage.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She has contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Based in Paris, Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque. 

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