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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 10 DECEMBER 2012 — At first glance it seemed unfair to bill a work choreographed by a virtual beginner, albeit a danseuse étoile de l’Opéra de Paris, on the same programme as Merce Cunningham, one of the greatest artists of 20th century modern dance, a leading figure of the American avant-garde. Yet Marie-Agnès Gillot, an intelligent, articulate woman, who had never before staged a full-length work at the Garnier, gathered together some of the finest dancers in the company, chose sublime music, superbly interpreted, and picked a tandem of designers who created fresh, quirky costumes.

Paris Opera Ballet in Sous Apparences (Beneath outward appearances)
Choreography: MarieAgnès Gillot
Photo: Julien Benhamou

Gillot, however, is not exactly an unknown quantity as was danseur étoile Nicolas le Riche with his calamitous Caligula, saved by the brilliance of his interpreters, nor yet étoile Kader Belarbi with his less than memorable Wuthering Heights. She has created several short pieces of interest, not least her remarkable Rares Differences created for 3 hip-hop dancers for the Suresnes dance festival. She created Artère for dancers of the Paris Conservatoire, Blanche marine and Black back for the festival de Royan, in which she was joined by Alice Renavand, who was also invited to create a main role in Sous Apparences, which translates as "Beneath outward appearances".

Commissioned by Brigitte Lefèvre, Sous Apparences is an abstract work conceived as a tribute to Cunningham regarding Gillot’s choice of collaborators as well as in her choreographic research for innovative steps leading to her decision to put all the men on pointe, having them run and glide across the stage much as ice-skaters. It was a risky venture considering that the Paris male corps de ballet is one of the strongest in the world and having them on pointe, no matter how good they were, decidedly lessened their potential. No matter, premier danseur Vincent Chaillot, graceful and very much at ease, rose to the occasion, partnering Laetitia Pujol who was in excellent form, and Alice Renavand, one of the finest young dancers in the company who was already familiar with the work of the young choreographer.

Paris Opera Ballet in Sous Apparences (Beneath outward appearances)
Choreography: MarieAgnès Gillot
Photo: Julien Benhamou

Aided in her choice of score by Laurence Equilbey conducting the Ars Nova Ensemble Instrumental choeur Accentus, a musical structure was built up using extracts from the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 5th movements of Rothko Chapel followed by the divinely interpreted Kyrie et Agnus Dei extracts from the Mass No. 2 in E Minor which guided the dancers’ movements. Although it was difficult to understand just what Gillot had in mind, it was not at all hard to watch the events on stage, particularly as the work ended after a short 30 minutes. One barely had the time to look at the costumes designed by Walter Van Beirendonck, attractive for the corps de ballet and leading dancers, more dubious for some soloists, resembling intentionally or otherwise, furry pine trees, wasps, clouds or giant caterpillars. It is not a ballet that will go down in the annals of dance history, but neither was it intended to be.

Paris Opera Ballet in Sous Apparences (Beneath outward appearances)
Choreography: MarieAgnès Gillot
Photo: Julien Benhamou

After this modern, trendy production, the audience was treated to Merce Cunningham’s landmark work, Un jour ou deux, created for the Paris Opéra in 1973 to a score by John Cage and revived by Nureyev in 1986, a work which broke with all classical and accepted modern dance conventions. Performed by dancers clad in grey, against a décor of grey, and with an unexpected score of what were perceived as uncoordinated sounds, it was poorly received by audiences and critics on both occasions, neither being ready to look at dance with fresh eyes. But tastes have changed, with audiences being somewhat more receptive to the spirit of freedom and feeling of serenity which runs through the ballet and given the remarkable casting, Cunningham’s genius has rarely seemed so obvious. Spectators who find his isolated dance movements, where the dancers seem to be continually improvising, tiresome, were rewarded by moments of intense beauty, which in the 1970’s was what Cunningham was all about.

Emilie Cosette, Hervé Moreau and Fabien Revillon in Un jour ou deux
Choreography: Merce Cunningham
Photo: Julien Benhamou

The style of the Paris Opera dancers with their classically trained bodies is well-suited to this work, and the performance of étoile Emilie Cozette in a central role was mesmerizing. One movement in the choreography, when she was carried across the stage in arabesque was breathtaking and the pas de deux which followed of great beauty. With her tall, slender loveliness and pure, clean lines, she personified all that Cunningham stands for in his determination to free the dancer from what he considers unnecessary narrative and emotional burdens. She was also ideally partnered by étoile Hervé Moreau, now back on stage after a too-long absence due to injury.

Emilie Cosette and Hervé Moreau in Un jour ou deux
Choreography: Merce Cunningham
Photo: Julien Benhamou

The reason behind the re-programming of the work staged by Robert Swinston, Cunningham’s assistant for many years, and member of the Merce Cunningham Trust, was to mark the centenary of the birth of John Cage, Cunningham’s long-time companion and musical collaborator.

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 reviewed an all Balanchine evening at the Paris Opera Ballet 


All titles are chosen by the editors as being of interest to Culturekiosque readers.

Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage
By Kenneth Silverman
Hardcover: 496 pages
Knopf (October 2010) 
ISBN-10: 1400044375
ISBN-13: 978-1400044375

No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33"
By Kyle Gann

Paperback: 272 pages
Yale University Press (January 2011)
ISBN-10: 0300171293
ISBN-13: 978-0300171297

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Review: Merce Cunningham Dance Company : World Heritage Tour

Merce Cunningham: 1919 - 2009

Marie-Agnès Gillot: A New Star at the Paris Opéra Ballet

Merce Cunningham Dance Company Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary

John Cage at 100

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