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Agnès Letestu and Angelin Preljocaj:
"Le Songe de Médée" at the Palais Garnier


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 4 January 2005—Hardly a season goes by without a creation or re-programmation of a ballet by Angelin Preljocaj, the French-born choreographer, at the Paris Opéra Ballet. He feels at home there he told me recently, and enjoys working with the dancers he knows, but this year he hoped that Agnès Letestu, who had not yet danced in any of his works, would agree to take part in his creation. And just hours later, Letestu, a traditionally classical ballerina, told me that she had long admired such ballets as The Parc*, and Annonciation**, and had asked Brigitte Lefèvre, artistic director at the Opera, whether she could work with the contemporary choreographer some time ago.

"It was totally new for me and I felt like doing something different", the ballerina told me. "I've danced Mats Ek, William Forsythe, and Jiri Kylian, but they all use classical language and work on pointe. Angelin's work is cruder, blunter; it resembles everyday life and I'd not had the opportunity to do this kind of work before. Even in Kylian, a ballerina has a tendency to decorate each movement." .

The ballet is not the exact narration of the myth, where Médée, having fallen in love with Jason, deceives her father to enable Jason to obtain the Golden fleece and is subsequently betrayed when Jason marries the daughter of the king of Corinthe. Surprisingly the choreographer has chosen to present Médée, daughter of the king of Colchide and niece of the magician, Circe, as a tender, loving mother.

Le Songe de Medee
Angelin Preljocaj: Le Songe de Médée
Photo: Laurent Philippe

"Preljocaj is not a story-teller", Agnès Letestu said. "He brushes lightly over the subject matter, conveying his narrative by movement. The ballet is actually the dream of Médée, where he has emphasised the sentiment of injustice because she's a woman who has sacrificed everything for love. He sees her as a victim, who"is" because she dances.

At the beginning of the ballet I'm happily playing with my two children, and it isn't until the arrival of Jason and his mistress, Créuse, that the atmosphere darkens. The intricate pas de trois where I dance with the two of them is then dominated by hatred and jealousy as well as fear. It was very carefully choreographed down to the merest detail, but even so, it was physically hard to do.

"At one point I had to carry Alice Renavand, who interpreted the mistress, and learn how to position myself differently. I'd never done anything like it before. Every day, seven days a week, for over three weeks we immersed ourselves in his universe. We had something to do all the time, and in trying to separate Jason and Créuse, I had to pass underneath them, over the top of them, and even between their legs. It was very acrobatic and I also had to learn how to fall heavily, without looking pretty. Moreover, it was the first time I'd danced barefooted. I had a totally different contact with the ground."

"But he adapted his choreography to us and on occasion didn't dare tell us what to do but waited until we'd done it before blurting out that it wasn't at all what he wanted. But that's what makes a creation so interesting. In the space of fifteen minutes I had to go from tenderness to complete folly!"

"Médée is in utter despair and wants to get her man back not only because she loves him, but because if he marries his lover, she will be exiled from the kingdom and her children will have neither status nor future. In a sense, she kills to protect them."

Le Songe de Medee
Angelin Preljocaj: Le Songe de Médée
Photo: Laurent Philippe

The scene with all the blood was extremely well done as Preljocaj made the killing into a sort of tribal rite, and the audience didn't actually see how the heroine killed the children as there was no knife, only swift gestures covering them with blood. Letestu said that the choreographer had wanted the scene to be of an extreme violence, but in fact, had given little guidance.

"What bothered me most," she told me, "was that logically, I think she should have taken her own life too..... and she doesn't. Médée is an enchantress yet we had to pass it off as a modern story. It was a little ambiguous and at that point I had to invent things of my own, such as recoiling in horror when I looked at the carnage and saw the consequences of my act. I automatically sought refuge in the past."

It was also interesting because although Agnès Letestu had said that she wanted to work with Preljocaj no matter what the ballet, Médée might have been made for her. In this work, the ballerina, a great dramatic interpreter who has made the roles of the nineteenth century heroines her own, reigned supreme. Against a spectacular decor of hanging silver-steel buckets, fifty, sixty or seventy of them, her tall slender figure in a sombre red dress, a long black coat swung around her shoulders, dominated the stage.

Partnered by Laurent Hilaire in a slow and harmonious pas de deux, she then slept at peace with her children, while the darkly beautiful Alice Renavand, Créuse, seduced her husband thus provoking the drama.

"I was very marked by the ballet", Agnès Letestu commented. "It was rather like being in a trance, a little like when I danced in the Sacre de Printemps, with the choreography by Nijinsky! I thought I'd gone as far as I could, but I was only halfway through the work; there's another energy that comes when you are exhausted.".

The music, an amalgamation of computer generated sounds and instruments, was composed for the piece by Mauro Lanza and played by the Ensemble Court-Circuit.

* Le Parc won the prize, Benois de la Danse (Moscow) in 1995

** Annonciation, created in 1995, won the "Bessie " award, (New York) .

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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