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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 10 APRIL 2014 — Two major works from two of the most important choreographers of the 20th century, both women, were programmed at the Palais Garnier in March, plunging spectators into the private worlds of very different women.

Fall River Legend, by Agnes de Mille is a one-act ballet based on the real-life story of 32 year-old Lizzie Borden who was accused of murdering her father and step-mother with an axe in 1892.* The rarely performed music by Morton Gould forms an integral part of the stifling atmosphere surrounding Lizzie, the work being an exploration of the frustrations and isolation of a young woman in Fall River, a small New England town. De Mille brings in the addition of a romance between Lizzie and an attractive young pastor, a romance quickly nipped in the bud by her formidable and thoroughly disquieting step-mother, ostensibly the reason for Lizzie’s descent from despair into violence and madness. Brilliant at the time of its creation in 1948, it is a work necessitating exceptional interpreters.

Laetitia Pujol and Pierre-Arthur Raveau in Fall River Legend
Choreography: Agnes de Mille
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Anne Deniau

The role of Lizzie, on stage for the entire 50-minute work, was interpreted by Laetitia Pujol, who gave a superbly dramatic and intense performance, bringing freshness and immediacy to what was otherwise somewhat dated choreography, particularly as regards the corps de ballet.  At times, Pujol scarcely seemed to move, helpless, distraught, conveying extreme tension by the slightest movement of her arm, clenching and unclenching her hands, eyes cast down. The final scene as she stood, haggard, close to madness before the gallows accepting her fate left spectators tense and shocked. The interpretation confirmed Pujol’s reputation as one of the company’s great dramatic ballerinas. Pierre-Arthur Raveau, however, was too passive in the role of the pastor.

The realistic décor of a transparent skeleton of a dilapidated house, furnished with three rocking-chairs and an old style lamppost created by Oliver Smith was also highly effective, revolving around on itself to form a New England church before falling apart on the death of the parents.

Miss Julie, Birgit Cullberg’s 1950 masterpiece is in a class of its own. Cullberg, founder of the ballet company of the same name and mother of choreographer, Mats Ek, based this one act ballet on Strindberg’s famous play written in 1888. It tells the cruel story of Miss Julie, daughter of a count, who seduces the family’s valet and pays for her act with her life. Set again to an unfamiliar but highly evocative score, this time by the Swedish composer, Ture Rangstrom, this powerful work which centres on the clash between two worlds deals with desire and humiliation. It concentrates on the sexual attraction and repulsion between a servant and an aristocratic young woman. Restaged with striking costumes and décor by Sven X. Erikson, the ballet opens in a room of the castle, where Julie arrogantly dismisses the noble suitor chosen by her father, attracted as she is to the valet, Jean. 

Eve Grinsztajn and Audric Bézard in Miss Julie
Choreography: Birgit Cullberg
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Anne Deniau

As Miss Julie, Eve Grinsztajn was a revelation, alternating between vanity and misplaced arrogant pride in the first act but then shocking the peasants and workers by her vulgar and provocative behaviour at the Festival of St Jean which is being celebrated in her father’s barn.

As she makes a play for Jean, the barriers between the classes were dropped with the choreography becoming increasingly sensual, leading to the virile dominance of Jean who becomes in turn the seducer rather than the seduced, pushing the young girl roughly into his bedroom. Steps and gestures became more mechanical and cold in the tragic final act, where Julie, confronted by the accusing stares from the portraits of her ancestors, is consumed by guilt, and invokes the aid of the valet to end her life.

The valet, Jean, is an ambiguous character, simultaneously obsequious and humble, vacillating as he does between his fiancée, Kristin, the palace cook, and the occasion presented to seduce his master’s daughter.  

Miss Julie
Choreography: Birgit Cullberg
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Anne Deniau

The role of Jean was danced by Audric Bézard, a young man who has made considerable progress this last year. But not even his fast spins and long-legged leaps could disguise his innate lack of dramatic gifts, more than compensated by Eve Grinzstin, who, coached by Ana Laguna, the outstanding interpreter of Miss Julie, gave a superb performance in the title role. All the members of the corps de ballet, cruel, dangerous and threatening in the roles of the peasants and workers who detested Julie, were remarkable.

*Historical fact notes that 12 men from the New Bedford jury proclaimed her innocence.

Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.

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