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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 30 DECEMBER 2014 — While Roland Petit’s Notre Dame de Paris  is a great favourite with Paris audiences, previous restagings have seemed a little dated, but today it is so much a product of the era in which it was created that it has become vintage, and vintage is top fashion!  Petit’s 1965 work, with its superbly colourful costumes by Yves Saint Laurent and exciting original music by Maurice Jarre, the French composer who became known for his score for the film, Lawrence of Arabia,  is as  fresh and entertaining now as it was at its creation in 1965.

Despite its three murders – one victim being stabbed in the back, a second hung for a crime she did not commit, and a third strangled in just retribution for his heinous crimes, hordes of happy people streamed out of the Opera Bastille in July, their faces wreathed in smiles. This could only be after a work by Roland Petit, that Grand ‘Old’ Man of French dance.

Karl Paquette as Quasimodo in Notre Dame de Paris
Choreography: Roland Petit

Petit, who died two years ago, loved to tell stories, particularly those involving femmes fatales, and Notre Dame de Paris is no exception, with three men falling in love with the beautiful gipsy girl, Esmeralda. His ballet is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel with Quasimodo, the cathedral’s hunchbacked bell ringer at its centre.

It takes place in 1482 and opens with the spectacular scene of all the villagers, clad in Saint Laurent’s vibrant costumes of yellow, lemon, mustard, red, rust, orange, pink, leaf green, lime green, sky blue, ice blue, dark blue, violet, purple, celebrating the feast of fools. It is indeed a feast for the eyes.

Ballet de l'Opera de Paris in Notre Dame de Paris
Choreography: Roland Petit

The austere archdeacon of the Cathedral, Frollo, the man who found and raised Quasimodo, abandoned at his birth, is obsessed by Esmeralda whom he has seen dancing in the square. Believing her to be possessed by the devil, but in reality, infatuated with her, he orders the hunchback to put the girl in jail. But, in turn, Quasimodo is attracted to the young gipsy, who, to all events and purposes is in love with Phoebus, the handsome captain of the guards.

The arrival of Phoebus marching on stage at the head of his troops caused a positive ripple of amazement throughout the audience, taken aback by the effect of the costumes worthy of a museum and which no designer today would dare to produce. They wore white leotards with black stripes and bright red and blue check evoking the little Mondrian dresses from Yves Saint Laurent’s Autumn collection.  Was this a pop show?

Not really, for events soon darkened with a sublime pas de deux and pas de trois between Esmeralda and her soldier love, ending with the latter being stabbed by a Frollo mad with rage, out of his mind with jealousy who then accuses Esmeralda of the crime.

François Alu as Frollo in Notre Dame de Paris
Choreography: Roland Petit

At this point, all praise must go to the cast, to the atmosphere of fire and passion dominated by the magnificent performance of Francois Alu, the finest interpreter of Frollo I have seen. Not only was his technique brilliant, his high, light leaps with neat landings reminiscent of those performed by Mikhail Baryshnikov in Dame de Pique, a ballet Petit created in 1978, but artistically, he made one shiver. The moment Alu was on stage, all the cast perked up. Confronted by a dancer of such intensity, for one’s eyes were drawn to him even when the main action was elsewhere, Petit’s ballet took on the dramatic force the choreographer intended. Yes, Frollo was evil, but he was also very ambiguous, sombre and confused.

Amandine Albisson danced the role of Esmeralda, but one felt she enchanted her lovers rather than seduced them. She was naïve, innocent, possibly lacking in passion, being more poetic than sensual and it was hard to believe that she would make men burn up with desire to possess her; she was too sweet.

Amandine Albisson as Esmeralda in Notre Dame de Paris
Choreography: Roland Petit

But while Fabien Révillion camped a credible Phoebus, it was hard to be moved by Karl Paquette’s Quasimodo. Paquette’s great advantage at the Paris Opera is his allure of a prince, with his tall, blond, blue-eyed good looks. Disguised as the hunchback, sporting a dirty brown wig, he did not convince, and when he moved, he tended to forget that Quasimodo was not only a hunchback, but he also had one leg shorter than the other. 

True to Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, Petit, aged 41 at the time, invited talented contemporary artists to collaborate on his ballet. Not only was there the young, virtually unknown Yves Saint Laurent, Maurice Jarre with his percussion, electric guitars and banjos, but there was the painter and stage designer René Allio, and the blue and green spectacular tinted lights by Serge Arpuzzese giving the scene with the beggars and lunatics the "allure of soulless ghosts". Staging, choreography and the interpretation of Quasimodo in 1965 was by Roland Petit.

Petit had the gift of translating poems into dance, stories with a moral into dance, but above all, with his highly dramatic, theatrical works, he paved the way for all those who came after him, not least in the U.S.A. To quote Alvin Ailey, "I owe everything to Roland Petit. We all do". 

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. Based in Paris,  Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque

Related Culturekiosque Dance Archives

Obituary and Remembrance: Roland Petit 1924 - 2011

Proust According to Roland Petit

Murder and Suicide Bring Paris Audience to its Feet

Dance Review: Petit and Robbins at the Palais Garnier

Golden Oldies: Roland Petit at the Palais Garnier

Roland Petit and the Ballet of Marseille


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