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Pierre Lacotte and Paquita at the Paris Opera Ballet


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 20 February 2003 - Although French director and choreographer Pierre Lacotte has created several short ballets of his own, he is best known in Europe for his remarkable reconstructions of 'lost ' 19th century works, including Paquita, Joseph Mazilier's 1846 work, currently being filmed at the Palais Garnier.* Until he was invited to re-stage the ballet by Brigitte Lefèvre in January 2001, all that had been danced in Paris in recent times was the Grand pas de deux and the pas de trois added by Marius Petipa and first performed in 1881.

"Nobody would dream of building a modern apartment block on top of a Greek temple", commented Lacotte over coffee at the Paris Opéra. "When you re-stage the ballets of the great French choreographers such as Arthur Saint -Léon (Coppélia Paris Opéra 1870), Jules Perrot (Giselle, Paris Opéra 1841), or of Italian-born Philippe Taglioni (La Sylphide, Paris Opéra, 1832), not omitting Frenchman Marius Petipa, you must respect their work and keep the original atmosphere. Above all, the style of the period must not be lost. In music, opera and dance, you cannot do away with everything and pretend it never happened. It's up to today's dancers to use their artistry and intelligence to bring them up to date."

Lacotte recalled that even as a twelve-year old pupil at the Paris school he had been fascinated by the history of the company and had spent all his spare time exploring the archives. He'd persuade the museum curator to give him all the old documents no one cared about, and the more dust they had on them, the more precious they seemed.

Clairemarie Osta, Emmanuel Thibault, Laëtitia Pujol in Paquita
© Photos: Icare

"And then everything began with La Sylphide when I came across documents no one had seen before," he told me." Many papers had been put into storage in the Louvre, and it became only a question of time, patience and determination before I reconstructed the work which was subsequently filmed, and attracted the interest of the Paris Opera. Small details plus a dose of good luck can sometimes make a whole. Furthermore, I was helped by one of my teachers, Madame Lubov Egorova who had worked with one of Marie Taglioni's** partners, and her souvenirs helped me create steps to fit in with the style."

" It also happened that Egorova, who lived to the lively old age of ninety-three, had been coached in the role of Paquita by Petipa himself before emigrating to Paris in 1918", he continued, " and she'd recall stories of her great rival, the legendary Mathilde Kshessinska, mistress of Tzar Nikolai II, of their quarrels over the colour of their tutus. However, at the same time she was able to tell me what Petipa demanded of his interpreters, while another of my teachers, Carlotta Zambelli, who'd danced Paquita in front of the Tsar, recounted all the mime, so between the two of them I got a pretty good picture of the style.".

With the hope of finding descriptions of some of the steps, much painstaking research followed in archives in Paris, Russia and the U.S., but a lot was illegible, and not everything clearly marked. Lacotte finally found lithographs and rare documents in Germany, including Mazilier's original 1846 choreography which a ballet master had thoughtfully written down.

"At that point", he added, "I had all the staging instructions and mime, including two important variations, so when I was commissioned to recreate the ballet I contacted Luisa Spinatelli who designed new costumes and decor from the maquettes of the time, and I collaborated with David Coleman to revise the music."

Agnes Letestu and Jose Martinez in Paquita
Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in Paquita
Choreography: Pierre Lacotte (d'après Mazilier et Petipa)
© Photos: Icare

The story, set in Spain, centres round the gypsy girl Paquita, whose only connection with her mysterious past is a small medallion. Inigo, the chief of the gypsies, is in love with her and schemes with the Spanish governor of the province of Saragossa, to do away with Lucien, a dashing young French officer, who has also lost his heart to her.

However, Paquita discovers the plot, the villains are thwarted, and all ends happily when it is discovered, thanks to the portrait on the medallion, that Paquita too is of noble birth and can wed her handsome suitor.

The gay, melodious score by Edouard Marie-Ernest Delvedez, lends itself to Lacotte's brilliantl re-stagings of the varied big ensemble dances with the gypsies and the village folk including a delightful mazurka, inserted by Petipa, for a group of sixteen pupils from the Opéra school.

In an earlier performance I saw the show-stopping pas de trois danced to perfection by Laetitia Pujol, Clairemarie Osta and Emmanuel Thibault, but this time round the two girls programmed were a little undercast, while Thibault in the taxing male role which demands a perfection of technique beyond the reach of most, was simply stupendous. Nijinsky himself who danced the role in 1907 could have wished for no better substitute. Thibault, light, quick, neat, aerial, with giant leaps in immaculate style where he hung in the air, is now one of the finest dancers of his generation in the world. Buoyant and joyous, he revelled in every minute of it bringing roars from an audience grown accustomed to more prosaic fare.

Emmanuel Thibault in Paquita
Emmanuel Thibault in Paquita
© Photos: Icare

Only Letestu and Martinez with their special blend of charm and elegance could have followed that, and Martinez, romantic as ever was in excellent form. He turned, he jumped, he spun with impeccable finish and bravoura, while in the ravishing Agnès Letestu he had the prettiest of partners. It must not have been very difficult to be tender and ardent to such a lovely girl. But what extraordinary stamina they needed, especially Letestu who is almost constantly on stage.

Warm, loving, mischievously affectionate , she sparkled at the centre of events, both in the first half of the ballet where her dramatic gifts have free rein, and in Act two, in the ballroom at the French General's residence which is totally given over to pyrotechnics. Her engagement party was a feast of classical dance, culminating in a spectacular virtuoso show where both étoile's gave a magnificent display.

Particular praise should also be given to Luisa Spinatelli for the extraordinarily beautiful costumes. At times, it was hard to know where to look.

Legend has it that the wonderful pas de trois, known as the "pas de trois in gold", brings luck to its interpreters. It's certainly time that Emmanuel Thibault, repeatedly chosen by the classical choreographers, is brought more frequently to the forefront of the scene. He is a most gifted dancer, a crowd-pleaser, the likes of which are not too often seen.

*The ballet is being filmed by French television, and hopefully, a D.V.D. should be brought out at the end of the year. The cast of Agnès Letestu, José Martinez and Emmanuel Thibault was chosen by Pierre Lacotte.

**The role of the Sylphide was created for her by her father.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes 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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