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MARINA ABRAMOVIC JOINS CHERKAOUI AND JALET FOR A DANCE

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 21 JULY 2013 — Three superb ballets and a creation, set to scores by Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, interpreted by some of the finest dancers in the world were on offer at the Palais Garnier. What more could one ask for?

The evening began with Firebird, Maurice Béjart’s risky but highly acclaimed venture where he swept away the original Russian fairytale based upon the magical Firebird, replacing it by a militant interpretation of the French students’ revolt of May 1968. The ballet like so many of his works is a reflection of the time, and thus might be considered dated, but when danced as it was with étoile Mathias Heymann in the central role of the young poet, it became timeless, a hymn to joy and to life itself.


Firebird
Choreography: Maurice Béjart
Photo: Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris

A group of nine young partisans dressed in grey emerges from the darkness of the stage, when abruptly, one in bright scarlet bursts forth in a sudden blaze of light. Heymann, first violent then tenderly lyrical, was magnificent. Each of his movements was electrifying, his high, soft, silent leaps mesmerizing. Spiritually indestructible, he carried the hopes and dreams of everyone, giving them the force and courage to continue the combat, while at the moment of his death a new phoenix appears, followed by yet another.

L’oiseau de feu, set to Stravinsky’s haunting score, the first of many composed for dance, was created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1970, and was inspired and immortalized by a young Michael Denard.

The work was followed by Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1912 masterpiece, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, set to Debussy’s score of the same name. With the colourful, ‘contemporary’ backcloth and exotic costumes created by Léon Bakst, revolutionary at the time, it is a sumptuous feast for the eyes even before the dancing begins. The work went against all the expected conventions of the time.


L’Après-midi d’un Faune
Choreography: Vaslav Nijinsky
Photo: Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris

Judged obscene at its creation at the Theatre du Chatelet, the ballet tells the story of a faun who watches a group of nymphs going to bathe. He tries to embrace one of them but she runs away, dropping her shawl on the way. Seizing it, he returns to his rock where, lying down upon it, he lifts his head in ecstasy at the sexual release.

Not only did the ‘bestial’ content matter shock, the choreography itself with the turned in feet and sharply angled legs and feet, with the hands flattened, caused a scandal. Over 100 years later, the work which has lost little of its original impact, was admirably interpreted by étoile Jérémie Bélingard with Eve Grinsztajn as the nymph.

Jerome Robbins returned to Debussy’s score in 1953, with an entirely different version. His Afternoon of a Faun which followed takes place in a ballet studio where two young dancers are working and looking at each other in an imaginary mirror, the audience. Are they absorbed in their own reflections or is this a game of seduction?


Afternoon of a Faun
Choreography: Jerome Robbins
Photo: Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris

From the beginning the ballet is charged with emotion and sensuality as the young girl enters, on this occasion the exquisite étoile Myriam Ould-Braham, her hair freshly washed, with her new pointe shoes and pretty new outfit. Believing herself to be alone, she looks at herself in the mirror and then tries out a few dance steps before realizing the presence of the boy, étoile Mathias Heymann, as much at ease in this lyrical, delicate work as in the more virile "Firebird". She’s a little taken aback, but decides to continue with her exercises. The boy also begins to dance, then picks her up effortlessly and she floats onto his shoulder.

The tension between them intensifies as he leans gently forward to give her a kiss. She finally looks directly at him and at the picture they form, before turning to flee, preferring the ephemeral souvenir of their encounter to any more sexual demands a future might bring. It’s a deceptively simple work which requires not only youthful dancers, but also requires assurance and sensitivity, qualities in which both these exceptional artists abound. They were sublime.

It was a daunting task for French choreographers Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damian Jalet to follow such outstanding ballets with their creation, a new rendering of Boléro, but they rose to the challenge. Together with the collaboration of Marina Abramovic, they choreographed a radically different version to that of the acclaimed and now legendary work of Maurice Béjart, in the company’s repertoire since 1970.

Eleven dancers clad in long black robes were silhouetted along the back of the stage moving slowly forward as the famous score began to thrum softly, so softly that one could hear the gentle swishing of the dancers’ movements. One by one they shed their capes to reveal long white fluid dresses of a transparent material on top of white, lacy justaucorps. Men and women alike were dressed the same, while behind them was an immense mirror in which their reflections swirled and swayed in big, generous spiral-like movements. Ingenious lighting threw concentric circles of white on the floor, moving circles which were also reflected in the slanted mirror.


Boléro
Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damian Jalet
Photo: Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris

All the steps, whether arabesques, jumps, portés, or pirouettes were performed by the dancers turning incessantly round and round as if in a trance. Repetitive movements echoed the music while there was always one, two or three figures emerging from the spiral in the centre to be drawn back in again leaving others to take their place.

Praise can be given to all the dancers, and in particular to Aurélie Dupont, Marie-Agnès Gillot, and Alice Renavand, artists with strong personalities as well as phenomenal technique, who were just about discernible in the swirling masses. Visually the work was most spectacular, particularly when clouds of white mist billowed out from the sides of the stage, a climax being reached when the entire orchestra and conductor were reflected in the mirror. It was a fitting end to a superb evening.

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 the Irish choreographer Michael Keegan–Dolan.

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