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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 4 MAY 2011Coppélia, the much-loved ballet inspired by Hoffmann's tale, Der Sandmann, first danced by the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1870, was programmed at the Palais Garnier on the eve of the departure of ballet master, Patrice Bart. It was given in Bart's 1996 restaging as a tribute to his long career, and in particular to his invaluable work in the transmission of the company's repertoire.

Bart entered the opera school in 1957 at the age of fourteen, joined the company two years later, and was nominated étoile in 1972, after which he danced the greater part of the company's repertoire where he excelled in demi-character roles. Shortly after Rudolf Nureyev's arrival in 1983, he turned his attention towards teaching and spent several years coaching the younger dancers before accepting a position of ballet master in 1987 when he formed an excellent team with Eugene Polyakov and Patricia Ruanne.

Patrice Bart
Photo: Icare

Having studied under such personalities such as Raymond Franchetti, Alexandre Kalioujny and Serge Perretti, and above all having worked alongside Nureyev himself, he served the company well after the latter's departure in 1989. Indeed, acting as interim director with Polyakov, they virtually ran the company between them, and in 1990, he was given the title of "Ballet Master associated to the Director of Dance", a position he has held to this day.

The following year, in collaboration with Eugene Polyakov, he updated the company's version of Giselle, adapting the original choreography of Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa. It was an immense success, more so, in 1998 when the production was performed using the sets and costumes based on the designs of Alexandre Benois, painter for the Ballets Russes, completed in 1924. The production is one of the jewels of the French company's repertoire.

Unfortunately, not the same can be said of his treatment of Coppélia. A new version of a classic is a far different proposition from restaging a traditional ballet.

Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

Instead of the lighthearted, humorous story where the young hero, Franz, falls in love with a mechanical doll, thus incurring the wrath of his girlfriend, Swanhilda, but where everything ends happily ever after, Bart turned to what he described as the "disquieting strangeness" of the tale. He constructed a ballet around illusion and duality, representing Dr. Coppelius who helped create the doll, Coppélia, as a seducer, motivated by a past, secret love.

However, this ambitious rereading of the story doesn't fit with Delius' melodious score, nor do the traditional dances have their place in the laborious scenario. More serious is the fact that he packed far too many steps into each bar of music, which, while it may make excellent warming up exercises in the studio, does not make for good choreography.

Nevertheless, the production did benefit from an exceptional cast. Well-cast as Swanilda, the vivacious Dorothée Gilbert demonstrated her precise, dazzling footwork while Mathias Heymann, a light and aerial Franz, sailed through the air with aplomb. It was, however, José Martinez, who, despite the disjointed, angular and jerky steps, contributed more to the atmosphere of the work motionless than the rest of the cast in movement.

Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

One could also appreciate the ravishingly lovely costumes designed by Ezio Toffolutti and which were inspired by Edgar Degas' painting of Le Foyer de la danse à l'Opéra de Paris, a work of art that can be seen at the Orsay Museum in Paris.

To end with a quote from a spectator leaving the auditorium, "well", said this lady, "I don't know what all that was about, but I sure enjoyed all the wonderful dancing".

The Orchestre Colonne, loud and lusty, was conducted with a heavy hand by Koen Kessels.

* The post of Ballet Master associated to the Director of Dance has been given to the French opéra étoile Laurent Hilaire. Hilaire, who officially ended his career as a dancer at the age of 44, after having interpreted all the main roles in Rudolf Nureyev's productions, including the role of Solor in The Bayadère, shortly before the great Russian's death, has been working as ballet master with the company since February 2005.

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. She last wrote on the Bengali choreographer Akram Khan 

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