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LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS: EXTREME MAKEOVER

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 FEBRUARY 2009 - While Angelin Preljocaj turned to Grimm's fairytales for inspiration for his latest creation, dance directors Matthew Bourne and Brigitte Lefèvre looked to the film world for ideas. But whereas Bourne's music and scenario were given to him on a silver platter, much hard work, thought and research went into staging the ambitious Les Enfants du Paradis, the newest full-length ballet based on Marcel Carné's film, which received its premiere by the Paris Opera Ballet in November.

Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise), which was released in 1945, is a huge, romantic fresco of the Paris of yesterday. Inspired by the mime, Jean-Gaspar Debureau, who rendered Pierrot famous in the 19th century, it has the world of popular theatre with its street traders, colourful artistes and travelling fairs as its centre. With dialogues by Jacques Prevert and with legendary French actor, Jean-Louis Barrault (1910 -1994) as Baptiste Debureau, the mime who is secretly in love with Garance, interpreted by the equally mythical Arletty (1898 - 1992), the film ranks as one of the greatest of French classics. Such is the work that étoile, José Martinez, has effectively transported to the stage of the Opéra Garnier.


Jean-Louis Barrault and Arletty in Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis
(
Children of Paradise) (1945)

His ballet opens on a public square where a mime, Baptiste, remarkably interpreted by Mathieu Ganio, sensitive and refined, witnesses a theft which the heroine, Garance, attractive Isabelle Ciaravola, is unjustly accused of committing. Crowd scenes abound, and Martinez, strongly supported by the excellent sets of Ezio Toffolutti and an original score by Marc-Olivier Dupin which never intruded upon the action, handled them well, but as the ballet progressed there were just too many street scenes, interesting though they were, particularly during the first half of the work.


Les Enfants du Paradis
Choreography: José Martinez
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

Martinez was simply not given a free hand. He was hampered from the beginning, as in order to get the rights to stage the film in dance, he was obliged to follow the directions of Jacques Prevert's grand-daughter who asked him to remain as close as possible to the dialogues and story of the film.

And so it's all just a little too complicated and confusing, especially for those who have never seen the film. The programme notes were detailed, but it proved impossible to read and understand them before the performance began, so all that most of us could do was sit back and enjoy the pageant we saw.


Les Enfants du Paradis
Choreography: José Martinez
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

Pantomime and theatre, at which the company members excel, dominated the first part in which magicians, jugglers and acrobats performed in the midst of various plots and amorous rendez-vous, and a theatre show within the theatre where Martinez cleverly used all the means put at his disposal. But with all the goings-on and arrival of not only Garance and Baptiste, but also Fréderick Lemaitre, the Count, Lacenaire, Madame Hermine and all the characters from the film, academic dance was postponed to the second half of the ballet. There was a well-choreographed sequence with the corps de ballet in tutus led by a wonderfully virtuoso Alessio Carbone partnering Nolwenn Daniel. But what was the point of it? Was it merely to show off the attractive and highly original tutus, in black and white, as was the film?

In fact, the saving grace of the ballet lay in the mobile sets reflecting the places where the film was shot, and in the beautiful costumes designed by danseuse étoile, Agnès Letestu.

She had, she told me, spent two years researching and designing them, her ideas coming mainly from books as well from the movie itself which she saw for the first time when the project was well underway.

"I watched the film, which is in black and white, some five or six times before deciding with José Martinez and his co-author, Francis Rousillon, that the main characters as well as the characters from the boulevard theatre scenes would be in colour whilst the crowd behind and the scenery would stay in monochrome. At first we couldn't quite decide on the epoch, but it was finally set in the 1840's. I then took six months to complete the maquettes."


Les Enfants du Paradis
Choreography: José Martinez
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

"In all, I completed more than 200 drawings, of which ninety were kept. So", she added up, "150 of the costumes were my designs, while the rest were adapted from costumes the opera already had in stock. I redesigned them, adding bows here, discarding frills there, to suit the bodies of the dancers. And then, we had to find the materials and for that I went to Walder's in Lyon, a store which has an enormous choice of fabrics. All choices were made after discussion with Martinez."

A pleasant evening was spent by all.

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.com

Title photo: Jean-Louis Barrault as Baptiste in Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis (Children of Paradise) (1945)

Video Clip: Les Enfants du Paradis

Video Clip: Les Enfants du Paradis 2

Video Clip: Arletty in Hotel du Nord

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