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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 4 SEPTEMBER 2008 - In just a few years, John Neumeier's highly popular version of the Lady of the Camellias, created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1978, has become one of the jewels of the Paris Opéra Ballet's repertoire. Set to music by Chopin with décor and exquisite hand-painted costumes designed by Jurgen Rose, it is a three act work which follows the French novel, La Dame aux Camélias by Alexandre Dumas, son. The American born choreographer chose to tell the story in a series of flashbacks with Armand Duval, the young hero, recalling his life with Marguerite Gautier and the work opens with Duval attending the auction of Marguerite's possessions after her death.

The ballet thus follows Dumas, son's original text about the renowned Parisian courtesan who falls in love with Armand but is forced by his father to renounce this love to safeguard the family's honour. However, Neumeier cleverly begins his version with the meeting of the doomed couple at a performance of Manon Lescaut, using the characters of Manon and Des Grieux as a mirror for the doubts, hopes and fantasies of Marguerite and Armand. The shadows of Abbé Prévost's lovers, battered by events, are there as a constant reminder of the tragedy to follow.

Agnès Letestu and Stéphane Bullion in Lady of the Camellias
Choreography: John Neumeier
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

A studio recording was made of the ballet in Germany in 1986 with Marcia Haydée in the central role, but it is now being recorded on film by the Paris Opera Ballet, with Agnès Letestu as Marguerite and Stéphane Bullion as the passionate Armand. But while the choice of Agnès Letestu, an international star with great purity of line and lyrical expressiveness was an obvious one, the choice of Bullion might seem surprising. How did he come to be there, Bullion , an unknown dancer whose name does not even appear in the programme, and who, when the ballet was last performed in the summer of 2006, was merely a member of the corps de ballet?

It's the old, old story of a young dancer's unexpected leap to stardom. The danseur étoile, Hervé Moreau, who had appeared in several unforgettable performances with Letestu in 2006 was programmed to make the film but hurt his knee during the second act of the ballet's première on June 21st. Stéphane Bullion, who was standing watching in the wings with première danseuse Isabelle Ciaravola, 'stepped in' for the last act. And in the ensuing confusion about who was then to make the film, Neumeier himself decreed that it was to be Letestu or no one, an understandable reaction, especially when one considers the costumes, crinolines several inches above the ankle, thus intensifying the importance of having a ballerina with exquisite feet. Agnès Letestu, who is as beautiful to look at as she is in movement, is the personification of a perfect nineteenth century lithograph.

Agnès Letestu and Stéphane Bullion in Lady of the Camellias
Choreography: John Neumeier
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

On Monday, June 30th, Stéphane Bullion found himself rehearsing a full-length role he had never interpreted before, partnering a ballerina with whom he had never danced before, prior to being recorded on film which had never been remotely within his dreams before. And after a second rehearsal with Agnès Letestu on the Tuesday, he found himself dancing Armand from beginning to end the following evening on stage. Alerted to events, Neumeier himself demanded that the two dancers went to see him in Hamburg on the Thursday, when they rehearsed with him from 2:00 pm to 8:00 pm, before being filmed in performance back at the Palais Garnier on the Saturday.

"Although of course I knew the story as well as any one else, I'd never read the book", Bullion told me. "I was an understudy and was just watching from the wings when Hervé hurt himself, and was ushered onto the stage without even the time to put on make-up. Everyone thought that Hervé Moreau would recover, so I didn't realize I was going to do the film until a couple of days before I actually did. I was thrilled to be dancing, particularly with Agnès Letestu, but it's never pleasant when someone is injured."

Bullion, who has not as yet had the career he merits at the Paris Opéra, was chosen by Iouri Grigorovitch in 2003 to dance the title role in the choreographer's Ivan the Terrible, but despite his tremendous success, has had to wait for recognition within the company. His tall good looks and his unruly mop of dark curling hair helped make him a totally credible Armand, a young man who was immediately different from Marguerite's usual circle of admirers, but it was above all his impassioned performance which left spectators breathless. A splendid and sure partner, the lifts were less acrobatic than effortlessly spectacular, and if Hervé Moreau captured audiences by his poetic sensibility, then Bullion swept everyone off their feet by his romantic ardour. Gone was the professional melodrama practiced by guest star Roberto Bollé the previous week, to be replaced by a genuine intensity and sincerity which compelled one to believe in this moving tragedy. From the moment they met, when Bullion stretched out one trembling, tentative hand to touch Marguerite's shoulder, the audience was convinced, many already on the verge of tears. And Bullion took every risk imaginable, throwing himself across the stage at Marguerite's feet and dancing superbly with complete abandon throughout the evening.

Letestu's performance as Marguerite is amongst her most dramatically intense. Touching and tender, with a myriad of small details, her performance was highlighted by the depth of Armand's passion which she was resisting. Michael Denard* as Armand's father, the man who forces her to renounce her love, was magnificent.

John Neumeier's masterpiece had the casting it deserved and a striking DVD directed by Thomas Mann should be released within the year.

* étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, 1971 -1988, currently a teacher within the company.

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

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John Neumeier: Lady of the Camellias

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Choreography: John Neumeier

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