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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 5 FEBRUARY 2008 — Two glittering "super-productions" were programmed in Paris over the holiday season and each night, no matter what the cast or theatre, every seat at the Palais Garnier and Opera Bastille was sold. Pierre Lacotte's elegant and refined reconstruction of the Joseph Mazilier (1846) and Petipa (1882) work, Paquita , set to a score by Deldevez and Minkus, was presented at the Palais Garnier, and heralded in the New Year on December 31st.

Commissioned by Brigitte Lefèvre, artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, the company for which the full-length work was originally made, the two- act 19th century ballet was beautifully restaged in 2001. It had fallen into obscurity after the Bolshevik revolution and only a succession of classical dances, often presented as part of a divertissement programme by visiting Russian troupes, had survived. In Paris, all that had been danced of the work was the Grand Pas, and the pas de trois.

The legendary ballerina, Lioubov Egorova, who had been coached in the role of Paquita by Marius Petipa himself, was one of Pierre Lacotte's early teachers.

"She explained in detail to me what Petipa had asked of his interpreters, and that, together with everything another of my teachers, Carlotta Zambelli, who had danced Paquita in front of the Czar, told me, was enough to give me a solid picture of the style", Pierre Lacotte told me. "And then after discovering ballet archives in Paris, Russia and the U.S., and then finding lithographs and rare documents in Germany including Mazilier's original 1846 choreography, I had everything I needed to reconstruct the complete work", he said.

The ballet, set in Spain under the Napoleonic occupation, tells the story of Paquita, a girl of noble birth who as a small child, the sole survivor of the massacre of the Valley of the Bulls, was taken away and brought up by gypsies. She meets and saves the life of Lucien d'Hervilly, a handsome officer who falls madly in love with her at first sight, but believing that she is of an inferior class, she refuses his offer of marriage. However, the truth of her birth comes out and the happy couple is free to marry. Everything ends happily ever after in this enchanting work, which, antique though it may be, is a living heirloom, steeped in romantic history.

Agnès Letestu in Paquita
Photo: ICARE

Both corps de ballet and principals have an enormous amount of varied and virtuoso dancing including plenty of showy Spanish-style dances; there is even a mazurka for 16 pupils from the opera school. All is precision, lightness and speed. Much, however, depends on the performance of the heroine who is on stage most of the time. Agnès Letestu was a quick and fun-loving Paquita, adorable throughout the first act when she falls in love with Lucien and where she gives the glass of drugged wine meant for him to Inigo, the rough gipsy chief who has set his mind on her, and whose intention it is to rid the world of his noble rival. In act two, carefully partnered by the tall, romantic Florian Magnenet, she was breathtaking. She is a ballerina who possesses the charm, expressivity, musicality and impeccable technique for the role, and was shown at her best by a young partner who was very much in love with her, who was admirable artistically, but who fell a little short on his solos, having neither the technique nor stamina for the part. Nevertheless, he proved most credible and the pyrotechnics were left to the ballerina, which after all, was much the case in the 19th century and which remained so until the arrival of Rudolf Nureyev.

And despite the fact that the wonderful pas de trois from the first act, so brilliantly danced by Emmanuel Thibault, Nolwenn Daniel and Mélanie Hurel in the 2003 film, was undercast, the performance of the company as a whole plus the decors and extravagant costumes by Luisa Spinatelli made for an enjoyable evening.

What can be added to what has already been written on Rudolf Nureyev's magical and highly theatrical Nutcracker? Inviting my Austrian friend of "Nutcracker fame" to see it, I found myself seeing the ballet through her eyes, and being swept away once again by a world of enchantment. The story telling is clear, the choreography lovely, the party scene is fun and the battle of the toy soldiers and Rat King most exciting, if not frightening, even for adults.

Paris Opera Ballet in The Nutcracker
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

Petipa based his 1892 ballet, a work essentially created as Christmas entertainment for the Tsar Alexander III and family, on the version Alexander Dumas senior wrote of Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann's supernatural tale, The Nutcracker and the King of the Rats. It has become the quintessential treat for children at Christmas and is one of the most popular ballets around. However, when Tchaikovsky created the score, he nevertheless brought out the somber undercurrents inherent in the more romantic original version by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and while Rudolf Nureyev followed in the choreographic tradition of Petipa, he chose to interpret Hoffmann's story as that of a young girl on the verge of womanhood who dreams of meeting a prince who will carry her far away from her uneventful bourgeois background and love her for ever. She falls asleep, cradling her toy, but subconsciously she is afraid of the unknown and the forbidden, and her peace of mind is disturbed by nightmares of monsters.

Myriam Ould-Braham was a Clara full of charm. With her gentle face, spontaneous manner and delicate, childlike physique, she was a playful little girl with her doll, and yet she grew overnight, so to speak, to become a woman, magically transformed into a "real" ballerina in the second act. Jerémie Bélingard, a superb contemporary interpreter, was her dashing prince, but despite his excellent dancing, he seemed just a little too robust, muscular and viril for this exquisite, small-boned ballerina. I found myself clenching my fists for fear he would bruise her!

In her dream, he sweeps her off round the world, where she sees Arab, Chinese Russian and Spanish dances, all performed by the people she knew.

Paris Opera Ballet in The Nutcracker
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

Nureyev has not only modernized but transformed a rather empty, sugary ballet for children into a work of art for all audiences of all ages. Together with the glorious music of Tchaikovsky and the outstanding costumes and décor of Nicholas Georgiadis, inspired by the 1900's, it is one of the jewels of the company's repertoire. Because he knew that Nureyev's heart was in Russia with Petipa, the legendary Greek designer set the Waltz of the Snowflakes in the gardens of the Imperial Palace at Saint Petersburg, while the Waltz of the Flowers of the second act takes place in the banqueting halls of eighteenth century France. Both decors are simply stunning, complementing the ballet which remains the most remarkable restaging to be seen today. The pas de deux of the last act is heart-melting, the prettiest of any version I've yet to see, on stage or on film. My Austrian friend has talked of nothing but that and is now anxious to see Nureyev's Don Quixotte. On her return to Vienna, I suggested she get in touch with Mr. Harangozo!

Patricia Boccadoro is dance editor at

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