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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 16 DECEMBER 2016 — A stupendous evening of contemporary dance at the Palais Garnier heralded the opening of the Paris Opera Ballet’s 2016/2017 season. The programme began with a reshowing of Justin Peck’s remarkable In Creases, created in 2012. It was followed by Blake Works 1, a magnificent ballet created for the company by William Forsythe in July, and ended with the monumental creation, The Seasons’ Canon by Crystal Pite, a work which brought about a mighty explosion of joy from spectators at the end. Rarely has a modern work danced by the whole company had such a rousing reception.

Paris Opera Ballet in In Creases
Choreography: Justin Peck’s

It was an unusual procedure for the Paris Opera Ballet to present In Creases so soon after its staging earlier this year, but it was a more than welcome opportunity to see this dynamic, refreshing piece again. Set to Philip Glass’s Four Movements for two pianos and with the same outstanding cast of dancers, all, excepting Vincent Chaillet, from the talented new generation*, it was as invigorating and as sparkling as the first time it was danced. It had, however, gained an ease and freedom of expression which familiarity with the steps gave. Led by Chaillet and the radiant Hannah O’Neill, the dancers reveled in the work, extending their delight to their audience while Peck, now merely 28 years old, demonstrated that he is a gifted choreographer able to create contemporary works using a classical vocabulary.

William Forsythe’s new piece, Blake Works 1, created for the Paris Opera in July is as much a masterpiece as his In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated which he made for the company in 1987. It is, he asserts, dedicated to all the teachers from Marius Petipa to George Balanchine and Gilbert Mayer who have made dance what it is today. A sumptuous showcase for the company’s exceptional younger talents, Blake Works 1 is a tribute to the elegance and splendour of the French school of dance.

Paris Opera Ballet in Blake Works 1
Choreography: William Forsythe

Forsythe set the work to seven songs from the British composer, James Blake’s new album, "The Colour in Anything", where poetic, romantic ballads have been set to an electronic keyboard. Blake Works 1 is a light, bright, and joyous piece which opens up upon 21 dancers on stage in soft, blue-green costumes. From the instant they start to move, inclining their heads, the spectator is simply swept away to another world. Waves upon waves of movement take over  the stage as solos, duos and ensembles follow upon each other with bewildering rapidity, each lovelier than the precedent.

It is a glorious work, a ballet one wishes to see again and again, and where one is in the impossibility to recount just what one sees, when and where. Even the music blends subtly into the whole.

Léonore Baulac and François Alu in Blake Works 1
Choreography: William Forsythe

One is left with the haunting vision of "Colour in Anything", an exquisite duo between the luminous Léonore Baulac and François Alu, the latter dressed differently from the rest of the cast , in dark jeans and shirt, and the final, gentle and quiet pas de deux, Forever, interpreted by Ludmila Pagliero and Germain Louvet, sublime. Floating back into one’s memory also comes the images of 7 young men, in a magnificent ensemble, Two Men Down, which highlights the fabulous virtuoso techniques of these as yet virtually unknown dancers, not least Hugo Marchand, Germain Louvet, Paul Marque, Jérémy-Loup Quer, and the astonishing Hugo Vigliotti.

Recalling the words of the song accompanying Pagliero and Louvet’s final duo, which, if I am not mistaken, were "How wonderful you are", they are words which one can also apply to the whole of this sublime piece.

Crystal Pite, the gifted Canadian choreographer, fell in love with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons many years ago, playing it at full blast in her car, and dreaming of setting a work to it one day. But, as she explained in the programme notes, the music was too popular. It’s a score one frequently hears in lifts or supermarkets, and also in public lavatories, as the violinist, Vladimir Spivakov once told me, explaining his reluctance to play it in concert.

Ludmila Pagliero and Vincent Chaillet  in The Seasons’ Canon
Choreography: Crystal Pite

It was when Pite discovered Max Richter’s astonishing, recomposed version of the work entitled, Spring1, Summer2, Autumn 3, that she realized it was possible to construct a work based on natural phenomena. She began to imagine a series of portraits describing the world around her, based on the tension inherent in the score. Migrations, mutations, transformations, anything became possible.

Her stroke of genius was to take all the advantages the Paris Opera company could offer her, particularly the availability of any number of highly trained, adaptable dancers in the company of 154 members. She knew exactly how to use them.  

The Seasons’ Canon is thus composed of monumental tableaux, Pite being one of those rare choreographers today who know how to choreograph for a corps de ballet and who thrive on working with immense groups. Fifty-four dancers, their smooth naked backs gleaming in the shadowy lighting thus sway, ripple and sweep across the Garnier stage, forming huge, pulsing masses in complex formations. From time to time, a body emerges from the mass, the imperial, intense Marie-Agnès Gillot; Ludmila Pagliero hurls herself across a group of heaving humanity into the arms of Vincent Chaillet while a rapid series of impossibly high, twisted jumps from François Alu had the enthralled audience gasping.

Paris Opera Ballet in The Seasons’ Canon
Choreography: Crystal Pite

The choreographer’s masterly handling of the huge ensembles were also seen to maximum effect against the stunning set designs of Jay Gower Taylor, where the dark backdrop was complemented by swirling, glowing lighting by Tom Visser. Superlatives cannot but abound in this magnificent production, interpreted as it was by some of the world’s finest dancers.
Sans Titre, 2016 by the trend-setting artist, Tino Sehgal, consisted of a score by Ari Benjamin Meyers accompanied by flashing lights  in the great amphitheatre illuminating dancers, first jiggling around on the spot in various parts of the theatre before they marched alongside spectators leaving the theatre. One could take it or leave it.  

* Hannah O’Neill and Hugo Marchand were awarded the silver and bronze medal respectively at the prestigious competition of Varna in 2014, while Paul Marque, 19, won the gold medal this year.

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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