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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 6 JUNE 2012 — A stupendous evening of dance resulted from the unlikely combination of Jerome Robbins’ incredibly beautiful ballet, Dances at a Gathering, followed by Mats Ek’s quirky Appartement, works vicariously linked by the theme of human relationships, but where one of the dominant features in both pieces lay in the brilliance of the interpretation by the Etoiles and premiers danseurs of the Paris Opéra Ballet. The dancers were enjoying every step of the works being performed and their enthusiasm was contagious, their joy in dancing spilling over onto a delighted public.

Dances at a Gathering, created in 1969 on Robbins’ return to New York City Ballet after an absence of 13 years, and danced to 18 romantic works for the piano by Chopin, is no less than a celebration of classical dance. As sole décor, there is a changing sky, and to quote Robbins himself, there are no stories or roles; it is simply an outpouring of pure dance, the dancers performing for each other. And it is that which makes each of the sequences evolve so smoothly into the next, that and the atmosphere of serenity, the quiet comradeship which reigns between the ten interpreters, five women and five men.

Paris Opera Ballet in Jerome Robbins Dances at a Gathering
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

Playful, grave or contemplative, the dancers evolve in a series of solos, duos, and larger groups but rarely do we see the whole cast on stage at the same time. Mazurkas and waltzes dominate the changing, highly inventive choreography, choreography which ideally suits the French dancers. It’s well-known that Jerome Robbins considered the Palais Garnier as his second home and came regularly to stage his works here, and now it is Jean-Pierre Frolich, creator of many of Robbins’ works and now ballet master at New York City Ballet since 1990 who is ever present, watching over these ballets with a careful eye.

Although all the dancers deserve praise, special mention must be made of the radiant Aurélie Dupont as the girl in rose. She illuminated the ballet with each and every entrance, as did the superbly graceful Mathieu Ganio, the man in brown who opened the work, imposing from the beginning with his long, high leaps and soft landings. He was totally at ease with the choreography despite belonging to the new generation of étoiles who never had the occasion to work with Robbins himself.

Fortunately, there was an interval and a twenty minute break before the programme continued in a blatantly different vein.

Accompanied by the group Fleshquartet, the Swedish choreographer, Mats Ek, one of Europe’s leading choreographers, has transposed eleven scenes from everyday life into a colourful piece, which, despite moments that are frankly grotesque, is full of humour and excess. Each scene takes place in a different room in the Appartement, the bathroom, the kitchen, the living-room.  If, on a first viewing, at its creation for the French company just over ten years ago, one left the theatre with the image of the baby, still smoking, who is burnt to a cinder in the oven and with the fabulous Marie-Agnès Gillot spending much of the evening with her head stuck down the bidet, on a second viewing, the facetiousness in the piece as well as the magnificence of the interpretation comes to the fore. And despite the mundane setting, suggested by the television, the oven, the armchair now made legendary by the lean and sinuous José Martinez making a welcome guest appearance, and the door, not forgetting the upside-down bidet or lavatory seat leering at the forefront of the stage, the work abounds with life.

Marie-Agnès Gillot in Mats Ek’s Appartement
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

Fleshquartet, with its lively music, a mix of rock, classical, jazz, and invented chords and clashes of its own, is placed at the back of the stage, and adapts the score to each change of scene in front of it. And the choreography is both disturbing in its evocation of atmosphere as well as extraordinary. Being created for the opera dancers, it is full of high jumps and technical demands despite its contemporary style.

At its centre revolves étoile Marie-Agnès Gillot, who, since she created the work, has made the central role her own. She opens the ballet with the bidet scene, on a stage that has been built out over the orchestra pit, plunging one right into the centre of the action. She was stunning, both in her first solo, and subsequently in the march of the vacuum cleaners where she leads an army of irate housewives, a highlight of the work and one viewed with a good deal of amusement by the public.

And although the passage piétonnier, the zebra crossing is not directly associated with the objects found in an apartment, it is included as it actually exists in front of the Parisian Bistro "Le Mistral", where Ek spent much of his time observing the passers-by when his company was appearing at the Theatre de la Ville next door. It gave the occasion for Le Riche and other members of the French company to explode in virile, adrenalin draining and exuberant twisting leaps across the stage, reminiscent of West Side Story, right under the noses of a mesmerised audience. 

Nicolas Le Riche in Mats Ek’s Appartement
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

The work also possesses a very lovely pas de deux, full of dreams and poetry, interpreted by Alice Renavand and Nicolas Le Riche, the latter being without a doubt one of the greatest dancers of this century.  There was no location in particular, simply an encounter behind and around a door.

This was a programme not to be missed, an evening of dance, great dance by some of the most fabulous dancers of our generation.

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. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque and wrote most recently on the Vienna State Ballet.

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