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Balanchine 100 at the Paris Opera Ballet


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 2 February 2004 - The Paris Opera Ballet opened the season with the first of three programmes of Balanchine ballets to mark the hundredth anniversary of the choreographer's birth.

The October programme was very well-balanced, beginning with Palais de Cristal, the 1947 showcase created in Paris for the entire French company, but which was danced on this occasion in its American form. It was followed by an earlier work, The Prodigal Son, one of Balanchine's rare narrative ballets, and ended with The Four Temperaments, as fresh and actual today as at its creation.

The French company excelled itself in the first work, now known as Symphonie en ut, after Bizet's composition. Danced in the New York Ballet's black and white version as the choreographer ultimately envisaged it, it showed to advantage both corps de ballet and soloists.

The curtain rises before the music starts, showing two small groups of girls in white tutus, who start to dance as the music begins. Subsequently, four couples appear in turn, as the work progresses in four movements, before being joined by the whole cast on stage.

				 Letestu in Balanchine's Symphony in  C
Agnès Letestu in Balanchine's Symphonie en ut
© Photo: Icare

Partnered by an attentive Yann Bridard, Agnès Letestu, superbly musical and luminous, was sublime in the very lovely second movement. With her elegant physique and beauty of line, she was totally at ease with the demanding choreography

Laetitia Pujol and Emilie Cozette, partnered by Christophe Duquenne, on fine form after having been awarded the A.R.O. P. prize, were all worthy of notice, but particular praise must be given to the splendid José Martinez partnering Marie-Agnès Gillot, in the glittering third movement. Buoyant Emmanuel Thibault partnering Geraldine Wiart shone in the last movement alongside Alessio Carbone. The corps de ballet, revelling in this joyous work has rarely been seen to greater advantage.

Marie-Agnès Gillot
				 and José Martinez
Marie-Agnès Gillot and José Martinez in Balanchine's Symphonie en ut
© Photo: Icare

The Prodigal Son, which re-tells the biblical story, provides an intensely dramatic central figure for a male dancer, on this occasion, Nicolas Le Riche.

"It's a wonderful ballet", he told me after the performance. "It has everything, from the strong libretto, (by Kochno), the magnificent designs (by Roualt), and Prokofiev's music. It is full of emotion, and even if you don't like the choreography, all Balanchine's future greatness is there. You can sense the potential. Historically, it is a very important work, and I think, a very great one."

Many people share Le Riche's viewpoint, but personally, I find the ballet unpleasant to watch. The bunch of reprobates who make the prodigal son drink and generally bring about his downfall are grotesque, and moreover, the work is bitty. Contrary to Mr Le Riche, poignant in the role, I cannot see any of Balanchine's future genius there. The choreography, uncharacteristic, lacks his later harmony and perfection and shows that he possibly didn't have the talent of a story-teller, the reason why practically all of his mature works are plot-less.

				 Gillot  in Balanchine's The Prodigal Son
Marie-Agnès Gillot in Balanchine's The Prodigal Son
© Photo: Icare

One couldn't have wished for finer interpretation, with Agnès Letestu dancing exquisitely as the courtesan. With cold beauty, imperious, she dominated with each gesture, leaving me at the end with a fleeting impression that indeed, perhaps this was a wondrous ballet after all. This beautiful ballerina has left her indelible stamp on the role.

The Four Temperaments is a one-act ballet set to music by Hindemith. Created in 1946 and re-staged for the New York City ballet some years later, it is composed of a series of variations based on four moods, melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and choleric, and is stylistically and 'temperamentally 'ideally suited to that company. When it entered the repertoire of the French company in 1963, there were a lot of teething troubles, as it breaks the academic classical style, and in the 1970's it was not well danced, but now, the first cast I saw was brilliant.

Aurélie Dupont in "Sanguine"
Aurélie Dupont in "Sanguine" from Balanchine's The Four Temperaments
© Photo: Icare

Laurent Hilaire in "Melancolic", Aurélie Dupont in "Sanguine", Nicolas Le Riche as "Phlegmatic", and splendid Marie Agnès Gillot as "Coleric" all thoroughly understood what they were about, and sailed through some of the most fiendishly difficult and intricate movements with the greatest of ease. And they were matched by the corps de ballet even though speed was sometimes a problem, except for beautiful Aurore Cordellier who was a joy to watch.

Delphine Moussin
				 and Yann Bridard
Delphine Moussin and Yann Bridard in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments
© Photo: Icare

The Four Temperaments is a masterpiece. It is one of the most outstanding ballets of the twentieth century. The purity of Russian ballet adapted to the tastes of a nonchalant American audience. Let's not forget that George Balanchine worked both on Broadway and in Hollywood musicals!

But what happened to the soloists in a second cast I saw? They looked forced; they looked instinctively wrong. Ill prepared for the work, Mr. Moreau, Mr. Paquette and Mr Bouché need to be sent to New York before attempting another Balanchine ballet. These three young men have neither the personality nor the stature necessary, apart from their lack of style.

Happily Yann Bridard, intelligent and authentic in "Flegmatic", saved the evening. Can't he give them lessons?

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to 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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