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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 8 MARCH 2011 — A Swan Lake where evil triumphs and a Rite of Spring where a young girl is sacrificed hardly qualify as festive fare. And yet the two programmes on offer over the Christmas season, at the Opéra Bastille and the Palais Garnier respectively, were so superbly staged and danced that audiences did indeed leave the theatres with their hearts full of joy.

The mixed bill at the Opéra Garnier, beginning with Balanchine’s Apollo and closing with Bausch’s Rite of Spring, with Trisha Brown’s O zlozny/ O composite sandwiched in the middle, was an ambitious programme covering nearly a century of dance. It was presumably assembled to shed light on the bonds between ‘neoclassicism’ and ‘postmodernism’, and was eclectic to say the least. But such was the interpretation, choreography and staging of these apparently ill-assorted works that, to echo George Balanchine, Who Cares?

Balanchine’s beautiful and serene 1928 creation of Apollo with its luminous blue backcloth is generally regarded as being the first example of neo-classical ballet. It is a fluid, timeless work, a "white ballet", where the choreography, classical, sober and elegant, visualises Stravinsky’s elegiac score. Nicolas Le Riche, a supreme artist, gave an outstanding interpretation not only becoming the god, but also reinventing the game of love with his three muses, Calliope, Polymnie, and Terpsichore danced by , Aurelia Bellet and Ludmila Pagliero .

Marie-Agnès Gillot and Nicolas Le Riche in Apollo
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

It was followed by the recent O zlozny/O composite by Trisha Brown, one of the most important choreographers of post-modern American dance, albeit one without much of a classical background. Commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2004, the work is described as being "an investigation into the visualization of poetry", and interweaves movement with verses by the poets, Czeslaw Milosz and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Recited in Polish, one could nevertheless read the translation in the programme notes.

The creation, Oda do Ptaka ("Ode to a bird"), is a romantic, and original twenty minute piece for three dancers who move, float, and spin in inventive patterns, for all the world ethereal, elegant birds against a star-lit sky. In one sublime movement, both men lift the woman, exquisite Isabelle Ciaravola, lighter than air in her filmy white costume, and support her on either side high above their heads. An impressive performance was given, not only by Ciaravola, but also by Vincent Chaillot and Josua Hoffalt. And whether one appreciated it or not, the musical accompaniment by Laurie Anderson gave a certain coherence to the work.

Trisha Brown: O zlozny/O 
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

Events culminated on a high note with Pina Bausch’s electrifying version of The Rite of Spring set to Stravinsky’s legendary score. Notwithstanding the oddity of such programming in a Paris knee-deep in snow, the audience sat as if glued to their seats during the interval, when some fifteen to twenty people dressed in black began shovelling earth onto the stage of the Palais Garnier. Some twelve cubic meters of dirt served as scenery for Bausch’s masterpiece, created in 1975 for her own dancers. 

There was a powerful performance from each of the thirty-two dancers, a block of bare-chested men clad only in black tights on one side, facing the closely-knit group of women, in fluid, flesh-coloured transparent shifts on the other.

Pina Bausch: The Rite of Spring
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

Gone is Stravinsky’s celebration of a harmonious world where beauty and intelligence reign. It has been replaced by the chaos of a primitive civilisation where a violent war of the sexes leads up to the sacrifice of the ‘chosen one’, a woman who beats her breasts in a desperate fight for survival and resists death until the bitter end. The performance by Geraldine Wiart, member of the corps de ballet, who was chosen to be the sacrifice by Bausch herself when the work entered the Paris repertoire in 1997*, tetanised the audience, who, as the curtain came down, sat as frozen in their seats before thunderous applause broke out.  

Geraldine Wiart in The Rite of Spring
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

Over at the Palais Garnier, the corps de ballet also came into its own with the magnificent staging of Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake, the story of an impossible love between an earthly prince and a princess metamorphosed into a swan, a ballet booked out months before. The women were superlative in the two white acts, while the men came into their own with Nureyev’s splendid enlargements of both the prince’s and Rothbart’s roles, as well as his addition of a spectacular Polonaise, an exciting dance full of high jumps and technical difficulties faultlessly executed by a superb young male corps de ballet. The only weak moment was the dance of the baby swans, possibly under-cast or under-rehearsed in the two performances I saw.

The magic of the couple, Letestu/ Martinez was broken when the ballerina was injured after the Black Swan pas de deux and the last act, which she interprets all in emotion, saw her replacement by première danseuse, Ludmila Pagliero who had made her debut in the role that afternoon. Unfortunately Pagliero, small and slight, was not shown to advantage with José Martinez, the tallest dancer in the company who towered above her. She also lacked the depth of interpretation and beauty of movement of Letestu.

José Martinez in Swan Lake
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

But Agnès Letestu was not the only ballerina unable to perform, for one by one, the Paris étoiles due to illness or injury backed down and company history was made when étoile, Emilie Cozette, danced no less than ten performances of Odette/Odile with three different partners including three performances on three consecutive days.

"I loved every minute of it", the young ballerina told me shortly before her departure to dance Le Parc and Lifar’s Le Cigarette in Moscow. "I was only sorry when the series of performances ended as each time I progressed in my interpretation and now I can’t wait to dance the role again."

The only occasion which worried her was when she had to replace Agnès Letestu for the première, and only heard she was dancing that night when she awoke in the morning. But after, she explained, she was given more time to rehearse and prepare and think the role through with each of her partners, it was again interesting because each performance was different. She also added that having two different personalities to interpret ensured that she was never bored!

"It was very special dancing with José Martinez", she said, "not only because he is a dream partner with whom one feels completely safe, but also because he was so gentle and poetic. I felt he truly loved me by the very way he looked at me; he made me believe that I might be rescued and that there was hope for the future. And then with each consecutive performance, I felt freer to let myself go. I forgot all about my technique and just let myself move with the music."

With Stéphane Bullion and with Karl Paquette as partners, Cozette let her Odette sink into despair, but although she was ideally paired with the handsome, melancholic Bullion, her partnership with Paquette verged on the somewhat rocky. One only had eyes for her. An absent Siegfried, particularly in the ballroom scenes when one actually forgot he was there, Paquette excels as Rothbart, a role he danced in the filmed version, and which he has since perfected.  His dancing when cast as Siegfried’s tutor opposite Letestu and Martinez was superb.

Karl Paquette and Emilie Cozette in Swan Lake
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

"Of course it was tiring", Emilie Cozette told me, " but Swan Lake is a ballet I adore and although it’s technically very hard, the choreography is so incredible and so cleverly created that each act leads up into the next and can almost be said to be easy compared, for example, to Millepied or Forsythe, choreographers whose works are physically exhausting. The only changes I made in my lifestyle were that I ate well and slept a lot!"

It should also be said that the young ballerina possesses not only a considerable intelligence, but also the perfect physique for Petipa’s choreography which she gives the impression of dancing effortlessly. She has a natural purity of style coupled with innate musicality and grace, and due to her training with Christiane Vaussard, has learnt how to dance without forcing her body.  As Odette, she is lyrical and tender, every inch a princess. With her long slender legs and blonde loveliness, she embodies the role from the moment the curtain rises, yet such is her temperament, she shines as Odile, the magician’s daughter who is disguised as Odette, revelling in all the tricky technical difficulties, Odette’s harder and flashier double.

It is of course, the challenge between the romantic purity of Odette and the showy seductiveness of Odile which make this dual role one of the most demanding and dramatic in the repertoire of classical dance, and one which a senior ballerina rarely interprets for more than three performances. Emilie Cozette will go down in the annals of classical dance.

The Orchestre de Colonne was admirably conducted by Simon Hewitt

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe and is the dance editor for Culturekiosque. She was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev.

Headline image: Ballanchine's Apollo
Photo courtesy of Paris Opera Ballet

Related Culturekiosque Dance Archives

Please click here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of interviews with international choreographers and dance stars.

Please click here for Patricia Boccadoro's archive of dance reviews of performances by troupes and companies from all over the world.

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