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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 13 AUGUST 2010  When the Netherlands Dans Theater, one of the finest troupes in the world at the time, first presented Kaguyahime almost twenty years ago at the Paris Opéra, it caused a sensation. Not only did it carry a message of peace, but the music stunned by its force and originality, the staging was spectacular, and the choreography as superb as the dancing. Now part of the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire, its visual impact rests intact while its significance in the actual context of world events is even greater.

It is one of Czech choreogreapher Jiri Kylian’s rare narrative ballets, created at a time when his works were more lyrical and fluent and more emotional in content than today. It also happens to be a ballet where music, décor, choreography and dance all fuse together to make a perfect whole.

Jiří Kylián (b. 1947, Prague)
Photo: Anne Deniau

Kylian has adapted the ancient Japanese fable, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a story that dates back to the tenth century and tells the tale of Kaguyahime, the moon princess who comes down to earth. Her tremendous beauty is such that she awakens love and desire in all who see her, but knowing her time on earth is fleeting, she refuses her hand to her many suitors and returns to the moon.

In 1985, Maki Ishii, the Japanese composer, wrote a ballet score for the fable, adding a battle scene between Kaguyahime’s village suitors and an aristocrat accompanied by his warriors who had come from afar, attracted by the stories of her beauty. By demonstrating that men would kill each other in order to possess her, Ishii brought a deeper meaning to the text, underlining the juxtaposition between the princess’s message of peace and spirituality and the incessant rivalry of men on earth.

Paris Opera Ballet: Kaguyahime
Japanese percussionists (
Gagaku: Imperial Court tradition)
Photo: Elena Bauer  

This latest production by the Paris Opera Ballet opens with a glowing white light on the centre of the stage, and as the curtain slowly rises, three flowers of pure white can be seen to the left. The field of bamboo, where the moon child was originally found, is suggested by some sixty or seventy glinting steel poles swinging down from above, each reflecting small moving circles of light on the ground. A large moon shines down from the back of the stage, highlighting the luminous moon princess who moves forward — first in slow-motion and then with rapid, whiplash movements — before descending to earth. Her five suitors stride slowly towards her to the strident rolling of drums.

Three very different ballerinas — different in physique, style and temperament —  were chosen for the role of the moon princess, with fascinating results. Agnès Letestu is one of today’s most beautiful classical ballerinas. Tall, fair and slender, with gentle grey-green eyes, she was an evanescent, spiritual being who infused the moon princess with all the generosity and grace of her own personality. She effortlessly dominated the stage and her movements evolved in an unbroken connection with the music. Clad in an exquisite, white, shimmering costume, she was a goddess to worship from afar.

Agnès Letestu in Kaguyahime
Photo: Anne Deniau

Alice Renavand, a ravishing young dancer with star quality, who has long attracted the attention of visiting choreographers though not yet of the Opera administration, was custom made for the role of Kaguyahime being herself of Asian origin. Her dark exotic beauty, high cheek bones and exquisitely held small head were enough to capture all men’s hearts even before she drew breath. More feline than Letestu, she was a creature from another world; feminine yet strange and unearthly, radiating purity and innocence both in her solos and in the beautifully sculpted duets. Rapid, precise and light, each of her large, generous movements conveyed her retained emotion.

Alice Renavand in Kaguyahime
Photo: Anne Deniau

(Marie-Agnés Gillot, an outstanding contemporary ballerina, also danced Kaguyahime in what was yet another, different interpretation of the role.)

The choreography, big and flowing, eloquent, and innovative even today, was stupefying and it is difficult to realize that the work, although created for the Netherlands troupe, was not made expressly for the French company. The men particularly threw themselves into the powerful solos and special mention must be made of the exceptional performances given by Josua Hoffalt, Alessio Carbone, Marc Moreau, and Mathias Heymann. They combined the precision and innate grace of their classical training with the muscularity and speed of Kylian’s dance.

Marie-Agnés Gillot in Kaguyahime
Photo: Anne Deniau

Not least, mention must also be made of the orchestra, a magnificent fusion of East and West conducted splendidly by Michael de Roo. It was made up of European and Japanese percussionists and combined the ancient Gagaku court tradition with the newly revived art of the drum. The musicians, on view, even moved like dancers, the drummers beating their instruments in unison. It was also the first time that the renowned Kodo Ensemble from the Isle of Sado, who performed the first concert version of the score, participated in a fully danced programme.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. For many years, she 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.

Headline image: Kaguyahime
Choreography: Jiří Kylián
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet 

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