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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 19 APRIL 2008- Pina Bausch's production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the most beautiful contemporary works to grace the stage of the Palais Garnier, is a masterpiece. It is a combination of music, opera, classical drama and dance merged into one sublime and balanced whole. First danced by the Paris Opéra Ballet in 2005, the restaging this season was broadcast recently at primie-time on the state-sponsored Franco-German television station Arte-the first time that the German choreographer has accepted to have one of her works filmed for the television. Discussions are currently in progress for the release of a DVD.

Bausch, now 67, created the work shortly after her production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride, two years after taking over the Wuppertal Company and at a time when she said she felt like choreographing to "big" music.

Orpheus, son of the muse of poetry, Calliope, and the king of Thrace was said to equal the gods with his music. Nothing could resist his melodies. So when his young bride, Eurydice dies from a snake bite shortly after their wedding, he dares to try to snatch her from the creatures of the Underworld, who, so moved by his song, agree to restore his loved one to him on condition that he does not look back at her before reaching the upper world. But, tortured by her pleas, he succumbs to temptation and turns to see her disappear into the darkness forever.

Yann Bridard (Orpheus) in Orpheus and Eurydice
Choreography: Pina Bausch
Photo: Maarten Vanden

Bausch has invented dual roles, with Orpheus, Eurydice, and Love each represented by a singer as well as a dancer. Orpheus is sung by Maria Riccarda Wesseling, Eurydice by Julia Kleiter and Love by Sunhae Im, all of whom, dressed in black, are on stage alongside the dancers. The Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble and Choir, conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock are in the orchestra pit. All are superb. Voices recount the myth, while dancers express their emotions in four tableaux, mourning, violence, peace and death.

The title-role was danced, as in 2005, by Yann Bridard, the extraordinarily expressive interpreter already chosen by Bausch for Rite of Spring, the first work to be given to another company other than her own. In a previous interview, Bridard described the complexity and purity of the choreography, saying that all he had to do was to "lose" himself in it, a sentiment echoed by Marie-Agnès Gillot, a tragically beautiful Eurydice.

Marie-Agnès Gillot (Eurydice) in Orpheus and Eurydice
Choreography: Pina Bausch
Photo: Maarten Vanden

I met the long-limbed danseuse étoile, almost as striking offstage as on, on her return from London where she had seen Dominique Mercy, creator of Orpheus in 1975, at Sadler's Wells restaging of Bausch's 1978 Café Muller. "So great is his charisma on stage that he scarcely had need to dance", she commented. "He says so much with the minimum of movement; he is truly unique".

Working with Pina Bausch and the people who surround her is the beginning of something new for Marie-Agnès. "Bausch is very special", she told me. "Each great choreographer, whether Mats Ek, Kylian or Nacho Duato, brings their own universe with them and Pina Bausch is no exception. You put your private life on stage when you interpret Pina's work. When she wants you to cry, you find yourself crying for real. There's no room for pretence. It's almost too easy because it's so natural. I know what it's like to be in love, to lose someone or to be rejected. These are sentiments most people have experienced and it's relatively easy to put them onstage. Her way of working is very human and she knows exactly what she is doing and what she wants of you. There are no short-cuts and no half-measures."

Contrary to Bridard, Marie-Agnès Gillot did not begin working with Bausch until three years ago as on the previous visits of the German choreographer the young étoile was creating roles for both Mats Ek and Carolyn Carlson. She had, she said, to work extremely hard to make up for lost time.

"I first learnt the steps with Pina's assistant, Josephine-Ann Endicott and then with Malou Airaudo, creator of Eurydice in 1975, before seeing Bausch to perfect my interpretation. Malou explained to me that I should be like the pieta, but with a half-smile like the Mona Lisa. Nevertheless, the first act where I must remain immobile throughout is very hard physically. I'm there without being there and one of the greatest compliments I've had came from the British dancer, Akram Khan, who said he could feel my presence and conviction the whole time."

Indeed, Gillot, in white, is raised above the stage and without moving dominates the scene where Orpheus, eyes cast down, mouth trembling, moves with soft, powerful contemporary movements, his face a tragic, horrifying mask as he attempts to penetrate the Underworld. Crouched on the ground, his body seems ready to explode.

Outstanding moments come also from the corps de ballet, whose languorous, sinewy movements in each tableau, echo and envelope the music. The third tableau, Peace, is particularly spectacular, where the women in their long, fluid dresses, with their slender, graceful arms and supple backs seem to have escaped from some Botticelli painting.

Corps de ballet of the Paris Opera Ballet in Orpheus and Eurydice
Choreography: Pina Bausch
Photo: Maarten Vanden

"Pina Bausch has known how to surround herself with exceptional people", Gillot continued. "They are all so special, being warm-hearted and generous with a particular sensitivity. They gave me hours of their time, and if they were not here, then they would talk to me by phone."

Orpheus and Eurydice is a work where life really does hang by a thread, or, to be more accurate, by a single glance. How can you believe someone still loves you when they won't look at you?"

Even though Orpheus has come to look for her in Hell, the gods have imposed an impossible ordeal upon him. How indeed should Eurydice not think that the young musician has simply to pass an ordeal? Marie-Agnès / Eurydice insisted that her husband did have a chance, but Eurydice was simply too pure. "It's hard enough in real life to learn to have faith in someone; how could I trust someone who wouldn't even look at me? For me there is no hope. How can there be? I'm dead; it's the end.".

Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor at

Related Cultuerkiosque Dance Archives

Interview: Working With Pina Bausch

Pina Bausch's Orpheus Charms the Underworld of the Paris Opera Ballet

Opera CD review: Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice

Istanbul in Paris: "Nefés" by Pina Bausch

Marie-Agnès Gillot: A New Star at the Paris Opéra Ballet

Interview: Yann Bridard

Interview: Yann Bridard (en français)

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