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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 6 AUGUST 2013 — Each time Carolyn Carlson's visually arresting Signes is staged, the ballet seems to change and take several steps forward from its creation in 1997 with Marie-Claude Pietragalla. On a second staging some years later, Carlson herself chose the superb Marie-Agnès Gillot to interpret the main part, a role to which she owed her nomination as étoile to, in 2004. An outstanding contemporary dancer, she understood the spirituality Carlson was looking for and gave the work a greater dimension than at its first showing. However, at the Opéra Bastille in July this year it was the essentially classical ballerina, Agnès Letestu, partnered by Stéphane Bullion, both sublime, who gave an even greater depth to the work. They were the linking figures in Signes a series of seven attractive tableaux evoking emotions, sensations and memories which move and interact with the dancers, set to an original score by René Aubry.

Agnès Letestu and Stéphane Bullion in Signes
Choreography: Carolyn Carlson / Sets and costumes: Olivier Debré
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

When the painter, Olivier Debré, abandoned his idea of an exhibition based on the smile, which he considered to be the first of all ‘signs’, he proposed developing his project with the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. Brigitte Lefèvre, highly enthusiastic, introduced him to Carolyn Carlson who in turn suggested that the composer, Aubry, should join them to create a work which would be a unique union of painting, dance and music.

In July this year, when the ballet was interpreted by Bullion and Letestu, the work took on a dream-like quality, of the man in search of the girl, a girl who floats away each time he approaches her, forever drifting away into the next tableau. Agnès Letestu, stunning in the beautiful dresses designed by Debré, was graceful, fluid and elegant as she glided through the inventive, original choreography, very much Carlson at the peak of her form. The music, the choreography and decor all blended together in a magnificent, harmonious whole, while the scenes in slow-motion took on a timeless, shadowy quality.

Olivier Debré first conceived the scenery, presenting the American choreographer with a series of paintings onto which Carolyn Carlson superimposed her choreography. Inspired by Debré’s colours and images, the tableaux were felt by Carlson to be more of a poem and interpreted as it was by the company, Signes, where each action flows graciously on to the next, became the ultimate illustration that dance expresses what words cannot say. It alludes to the relationship between beings, exploring lives which cross via a smile, whether gay, sad, serious or serene.

Paris Opera Ballet in Signes
Choreography: Carolyn Carlson / Sets and costumes: Olivier Debré
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Each tableau had its own charm, from the spectacular second tableau, Loire du Matin,  dominated by the superlative dancing of Stéphane Bullion, to the spiritual beauty of the fifth tableau, L’Esprit du bleu, where the heart-stopping pas de deux between Bullion and Letestu lifted the work into a higher sphere than ever before. Perhaps the fact that this would be the first and only time that this exceptional ballerina would interpret the work gave an added poignancy to their performance, as 10 October will be her last appearance as a member of the Paris Opera Ballet. Incredible as it seems, the company will lose one of its greatest international stars due to the arbitrary ruling that both men and women must bow down at the fatal age of 42 and one half, no matter how outstanding their dancing.

Headline image: Stéphane Bullion in Signes
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

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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