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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 10 OCTOBER 2008 - The 2008 - 2009 dance season in Paris began with the eagerly anticipated visit of the New York City Ballet to the Opéra Bastille, the first time a guest company has ever performed there. It is also the first visit of the American troupe to the Paris Opera in 43 years* , a most surprising fact when one considers the close associations of both Balanchine himself and Jerome Robbins to the French troupe. Both choreographers were very much attached to the idea of passing on their repertoire in France and both were very frequent guests there, particularly Jerome Robbins who liked to say that Paris was his "second home."

The current director, Peter Martins, the superb Danish star who joined Balanchine in 1967 and who took on the awesome task of running the company after Balanchine's death in 1983,** chose to present four different programmes over a 12 day period. But the opening all-Balanchine evening did not live up to expectations.

Divertimento No. 15 proved disappointing despite the presence of excellent young soloists including Megan Fairchild. The corps de ballet, in their sad little tutus - poorly cut, albeit designed by Karinska - went mechanically through the steps. Were they under-rehearsed, poorly trained, or just plain nervous confronted with a Paris audience?

Set to a score by Mozart, never one of Balanchine's favourite composers, the ballet has its roots in the 1933 Mozartiana and was premiered in 1952 when it was known as Caracole. Reworked, it finally joined the company's repertoire in 1956 under the title we know today. And while one can understand the historical significance of such a work, this cannot alter the fact that it was neither sparkling nor well-danced.

Choreography: Balanchine
New York City Ballet
Photo: Paul Kolnik

The evening subsequently took off with Episodes , the four-part work created in 1959 which owes much to both Les Quatre Tempéraments, Balanchine's 1946 masterpiece, and to Agon, created 2 years before. With angular lines, turned up feet and the women upside down with their entrechats in the air, it is a timeless work, as modern as if it had been created last year. It was, moreover, well danced by Abi Stafford and Arch Higgins, Teresa Reichlen and Ask la Cour, followed by Janie Taylor and Sébastien Marcovici as the third couple, and positively illuminated in the final movement by the graceful beauty of Sara Mearns partnered by Jonathan Stafford. Mearns, an extraordinarily musical young ballerina with a lovely expressive face, found joy in what she was dancing and subsequently swept the audience along with her.

The work proved the highlight of the evening, for with the third ballet, Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, the company found itself back on shaky ground. For while the principal dancers showed qualities unique to the New York company with their rapidity and combination of European tradition and American contemporary, the performance of the corps de ballet inevitably invited comparisons to other troupes, particularly in Paris where almost every other member of the company is a potential soloist. Tchaikovsky Suite No. 3, which should have sublimated the female corps de ballet, simply didn't. We had to rely on the strengths of the principal dancers to carry the work. And certainly, the high- jumping, effervescent Gonzalo Garcia who partnered Ashley Bouder, herself an excellent technician, livened things up. Garcia, freshly arrived in the company from his native Spain, is a welcome addition to a roster of fine men.

The third programme - presumably aimed at showing the development of the present repertory as it included works by British choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon and by the American director, Martins, as well as two outstanding ballets by Balanchine and Robbins - was of far greater interest. The only surprising fact was that there was no orchestra and all four ballets were for soloists. The audience was left with the uncomfortable feeling that the company dance certain works better than others. Balanchine's Duo Concertant has long been one of his best loved works, both by its creator and its audiences. It opens with a piano, a violin, and a girl and boy on stage, in this case , Yvonne Borree and Robert Fairchild, the latter interpreting the role created by Peter Martins himself in 1972. The dancers stand next to the piano, listening to the music before beginning to dance, and break off frequently to concentrate on the music. The work is music made movement and the interpretation full of youthful charm, first lyrical whilst following the music before becoming more sculptural and more complex and ending with the spotlight on the girl's hand which the boy bends to kiss. The ballet ends with him kneeling at her feet: the creator paying tribute to his muse. Of particular note, too, was the interpretation of violinist Eric Lacrouts.

Hallelujah Junction
Choreography: Peter Martins
New York City Ballet
Photo: Paul Kolnik

It was therefore not ideal programming to follow, within minutes, such a perfect work with Martin's own Hallelujah Junction, set to a score by John Adams. The work opened with two grand pianos on stage, the black and white silhouettes of the pianist being extended to the black and white costumes of the dancers. Rapid movements to the jazzy music alternated with slower, almost languid gestures. Admirable though it was, being a showcase for the speed, precision and energy of the dancers, it brought nothing new or original. These pyrotechnics have been seen before, although Gonzalo Garcia, despite a certain brashness, received an outbreak of spontaneous applause.

The highlight of the evening, indeed of all the ballets I saw, was the sublime pas de deux, After the Rain, created by Christopher Wheeldon for the company three years ago. Set to the exquisite Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Part, it was danced to perfection by Wendy Whelan, at the height of her art, and the softly virile Craig Hall.

As the title of the music suggests, Spiegel im Spiegel (mirror in a mirror), is a precise description of what happens in the second section of the piece where the piano mirrors the violin part twice over. Reflecting the score, the two dancers led us into a new, ethereal world. Whelan, serene, supple and tender, floated from one position to another around Craig Hall whose every gesture towards her was marked by an infinite delicacy. At the end, the entire sequence took on an intimate, dreamlike quality as he slid gently beneath the curved body of his partner who sank slowly down on top of him. It was a moment of true beauty.

Dances at a Gathering
Choreography: Jerome Robbins
New York City Ballet
Photo: Paul Kolnik

After such a breathtaking work, the tension dropped, so that the interpretation of Robbins' one act ballet, Dances at a Gathering (1969), guided along by Chopin's music, was just a little insipid. This wonderful work, first conceived as a pas de deux but then extended to include a number of waltzes, mazurkas, a nocturne and a scherzo, became little more than a pleasant 63 minutes. One just tended to sit back and admire the swirling skirts of the girls, particularly Abi Stafford as the girl in blue. Perhaps I had been too marked by other stagings, particularly the first time, when a performance featuring Edward Villella and Allegra Kent marked me for life. Maybe I simply expected too much.

Dances at a Gathering entered the repertoire of The Royal Ballet, Covent Garden in 1970 and the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1991.

* Since then the company has performed at the Théâtre des Champs- Élysées and at the Théâtre du Châtelet

** He shared the directorship with Jerome Robbins and John Taras until 1990 when he became the sole director.

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

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