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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 21 DECEMBER 2015 — The works of two British choreographers, Wheedon and McGregor, preceded The Rite of Spring by Pina Bausch presented at the Palais Garnier as a tribute to the French composer/conductor, Pierre Boulez on the occasion of his 90th birthday this year. While for over 70 years, Stravinsky’s 1913 score, "the consecration - and the legend of modern music"*, has held a special place in Boulez’ heart, so has his association with the German genius. McGregor’s creation, Alea Sands, named after Alea, (Unknown Quantities), by Boulez himself, published in 1957, was set to a 1978 score by the French composer, and the evening’s programme was completed by Wheeldon’s Polyphonia, set to 10 piano pieces, composed between 1947 and 1985 by Ligeti, also a long-time associate of Pierre Boulez. Twentieth century music as well as personal associations was thus the linking feature between these three very different works.

Amandine Albisson and Stéphane Bullion in Polyphonia
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Julien Benhamou

Polyphonia a ballet for 8 dancers by Christopher Wheeldon, his first piece to enter the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet, was created for New York City Ballet in 2001. Commenting upon Ligeti’s music as a "complex, twisted, layered world" and regarding it as a challenge, the choreographer’s resulting work, geometrically pure, featured four couples in a series of contrasting, abstract pas de deux. There was a beautiful, lyrical passage with Amandine Albisson and Stéphane Bullion, but otherwise, the ballet seemed more an exercise in style in which the dancers, all remarkable, nevertheless succeeded in bringing to life the difficult and often unpleasant rhythms in the score. The work might have benefitted from having the pianist on stage.

Alea Sands is the third work created by Wayne McGregor for the company. Always original and inventive, but often in a gimmicky way, not only in his choreography but also in the staging, McGregor’s piece began with a sort of prologue conceived by Haroon Mirza. There were buzzing noises and sporadic flashes from the lights above on to Chagall’s magnificent ceiling while the crackling of electricity and partial blackouts had several spectators uncertain as to whether this was part of the performance or not. The more nervous were recalling the recent terrorist attacks before Boulez’ own score, Anthèmes 2, his experimental piece for violin and electronics took over and the piece began. Led by étoile Marie-Agnès Gillot, the dancers, clad in triangular pattered costumes took centre stage albeit under the somewhat gloomy lighting by Lucy Carter.

Paris Opera Ballet in Alea Sands
Photo: Julien Benhamou

Particularly remarkable was étoile Jérémie Bélingard, whose athletic, sturdy frame fought against the currents in his dialogue with Boulez powerful score which frequently dominated the choreography.  However, the loveliest moments, bar the brilliant interpretation of gifted violinist Michael Barenboim, came from newly promoted premiére danseuse, Léonore Baulac and étoile Mathieu Ganio, both pure and elegant with great beauty of line. Premier danseur, Audric Bezard, too showy, was not seen to advantage.

Paris Opera Ballet in Rite of Spring
Photo: Julien Benhamou

It was left to Pina Bausch’s magnificent Rite of Spring, to bring all the colour, drama and excitement lacking in the earlier part of the programme. There was Stravinsky’s immortal score, Rolf Borzig’s extraordinary staging plus one of the greatest interpretations yet seen, with étoile Alice Renavand as "the chosen one" completing Bausch’s now legendary choreography in one immense, magnificent, unforgettable whole. Conceived by Bausch in 1975, it is visionary, subversive, savage or poetical, but call it what you will, the work remains one of the outstanding masterpieces of the 20th century. The choreography, violent yet poetic, reflects the clashing tonalities and irregular, brutal rhythms of the score. The company knows the work well, as do many spectators; this was the 51st performance, but even so, the piece left several members of the audience slumped in their seats, overcome by so much emotion.

Paris Opera Ballet in Rite of Spring
Photo: Julien Benhamou

Life and death are danced out on a stage covered in tons of dirt as sole scenery. The women, in soft, transparent flesh coloured shifts, their hair streaming down over their faces, fight for their survival, each rejecting the red dress to be worn by the one condemned to die. Unable to escape her destiny, a young girl, Renavand, is sacrificed to the God of Spring. Refusing her inevitable fate with her whole being, jolting her head backwards, shaking, trembling, hands over her eyes and then with  arms beating against her breast, she fell, exhausted, face downwards in the dirt. Her immersion in the role was total; never resorting to melodrama in the midst of violence, she remained dignified to the end. The company deserved every minute of the standing ovation which closed a memorable evening.

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.

Headline image: Alice Renavand in Rite of Spring
Photo: Julien Benhamou

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