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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 28 NOVEMBER 2011 — No fashionable British choreographers churning out works faster than one can blink and absent the foreign designers of the gaudy and the fey. The Paris Opera Ballet’s latest creation, La Source, which adroitly mingles the chic and elegant with the flamboyant and the spectacular, is an all-French production.

La Source, a three-act ballet with choreography by Saint-Léon to a libretto by Charles Nuitter was premiered at the Paris Opera in 1866 but disappeared soon after in a fire. All that remained was the title, the music by Delibes and Minkus, plus an outline of a story as suggested by the etchings of Henri-Alfred Darjou and Edgar Degas’ beautiful painting, Portrait de Mademoiselle Eugénie Fiacre dans le ballet La Source. It was, however, a tale which attracted the Paris Opera danseur étoile Jean-Guillaume Bart who turned towards choreography when his career as a dancer was cut short by injury several years ago. He had the idea of one day creating or recreating a full-length ballet based on La Source in his head since 1999 and the result today is not a copy , but a superb production in the style of a 19th century work.

Dancers wearing Christian Lacroix in
Jean-Guillaume Bart's choreographed ballet La Source
Photo: Anne Deniau / Opera national de Paris

The story, reworked by Bart together with the dramatist of the prestigious Comédie Francaise, (the French equivalent of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare company), Clément Hervieu-Léger, tells the story of Naila, Spirit of the Spring, who falls in love with the hunter, Djémil, who loves in vain the beautiful Nouredda who is promised to the powerful Khan of Gengeh. Set somewhere in the Caucasus, the gateway to Asia and the Orient, in a Nature unsullied by man and inhabited by supernatural beings and the purest springs, the ballet opposes supernatural love to human love, ending when Naila gives her life to make the love between the hunter and Nouredda possible. It is a work which is both exotic and emotionally troubling.

A brilliant team of French collaborators was brought together, with designer Christian Lacroix creating some of the most fabulous (and fabulously expensive) costumes yet seen on the Garnier stage. (An exhibition of the costumes is planned for the spring of 2012. The sumptuous outfit worn by the Khan, in vivid blue, be-furred and encrusted with crystals and jewels was breath taking, contrasting dramatically with the deceptively simple, perfectly cut bronze silk suit worn by Djemel, while the soft grey silk ensemble worn by Mozdock, Nouredda’s brother, with hand-sewn gold leaf embroidery, was a marvel of elegance 

Dancers wearing Christian Lacroix in
Jean-Guillaume Bart's choreographed ballet La Source
Photo: Anne Deniau / Opera national de Paris

The costumes alone put the real world into constant juxtaposition with the magic of the supernatural, for the nymphs, enchanting in the lightest of shimmering gossamer tutus in the palest hint of lilac and turquoise, were in dramatic contrast to the heavy swirls of dramatic scarlet, blue, violet and emerald of Nouredda’s worldly escort and the ostentatious pink, gold and red silken draperies and saris of the Khan’s harem. Even more amazing was the elaborate makeup worn by the elves, which again contributed to the dramatic changes of atmosphere from one scene to the next.

These magnificent costumes were shown off to advantage by the contemporary, deceptively simple theatrical sets by Eric Ruf, also known for his remarkable work for the Comédie Francaise, who created a decor of thick, heavy, hanging ropes with tassels, and torn curtains appearing from above, totally in keeping with the whole. Scenes of frenetic folk-dancing took place against a timeless background of shining silver poles ending in gleaming spheres.

Dancer wearing Christian Lacroix in
Jean-Guillaume Bart's choreographed ballet La Source
Photo: Anne Deniau / Opera national de Paris

However, it was the quality of the dancing which touched one’s emotions and made this into such a romantic production. Myrian Ould-Braham, fragile and delicate, was an exquisite, ethereal Spirit of the Spring and when dancing with the youthful Josua Hoffalt, was sublime. His lovely, long, clean jumps and effortless Russian-style, one-handed lifts were a joy to watch. That Ould-Braham fell in love with the slow, handsome, but mortal charm of Hoffalt, one of the company’s finest dancers, was self-evident, and their pas de deux with Hoffalt’s arms enfolding tenderly around her, was a moment of intense emotion. With grace and with beauty they gave meaning to each step, paving the way for the ultimate tragedy, when, in spite of the water spirit’s  pleas, Djemel demands the ultimate sacrifice from her.

Myrian Ould-Braham wearing Christian Lacroix in
Jean-Guillaume Bart's choreographed ballet La Source
Photo: Anne Deniau / Opera national de Paris

Choreographically speaking, Jean-Guillaume Bart’s creation was meticulous and well thought-out. Much hard work and careful thinking lay behind his profusion of steps, not least in the two most original and moving pas de deux performed by Hoffalt with Muriel Zusperreguy in the rather passive role of Nouredda. Allister Madin, a promising young member of the corps de ballet, was technically remarkable as Zael, Naila’s elf who desperately tries to save her, stepping in at the last moment to replace an injured Emmanuel Thibault, while Christophe Duquenne gave a magnificent performance as Mozdock, Nouredda’s brother who was escorting his sister to the Khan’s court.

Inspired by the original libretto and by the melodious score by Delibes and Minkus, Jean-Guillaume Bart has created a worthy addition to the company’s repertoire with this ambitious, flamboyant, yet poetical full-length classical ballet, which, it is said, will be reprogrammed in two years time, hopefully with Emmanuel Thibault in the role of Zael. 

The Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris was conducted by Koen Kessels

*An exhibition of the costumes is planned for the spring

Headline photo: Jean-Guillaume Bart
Photo: Anne Deniau / Opera national de Paris

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. She last wrote on Edward Villella and the Miami City Ballet 

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