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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 27 MARCH 2014 — After an absence of 9 years, Rudolf Nureyev’s majestic restaging of Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty  filled up every seat at the huge Opera Bastille at each of the 23 performances of the work over the Christmas season, and had there been more, then they would have been filled too. His productions, not least this one which keeps so close to Petipa’s spirit and structure, are magnificent; every time one of his works is programmed, seats are immediately snatched up by an avid public and 'La Belle’, as it is affectionately known in Paris, was no exception. The spectacular fairytale atmosphere as well as the splendid baroque dance of Act 3 makes it a feast for the eyes as well as for the heart, a true homage to 17th and 18th century French ballet. It was a key work in Nureyev’s career, the ultimate expression of the Saint Petersburg style which lies at the root of all his dancing.

As early as 1966, Nureyev had created a version for La Scala of Milan, followed by other productions in Toronto, London and Vienna, refining his work until his last version, one of his finest, for the French company in 1989. With Ezio Frigerio’s sumptuous décor, evocative of the Chateau de Versailles with all its elegance, ritual and power, Franca Squarciapino’s exquisite jewel encrusted costumes, and the fairies, courtiers and princes in a last act worthy of the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King and is indeed the ‘ballet of ballets’, as Nureyev himself was wont to say.

Rudolf Nureyev's Sleeping Beauty
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

He kept close to the original plot as well as to much of the traditional choreography, but developed the role of the Prince who, in the original version, did not arrive on stage until three-quarters of the way through the ballet, a fact which distressed many balletomanes in London in the early 1960’s.

Prince Désiré was thus transformed from a quiet, conventional hero into a romantic, charismatic young aristocrat, who strode arrogantly around the stage before falling passionately in love with the princess seen in a dream. Moreover, being frequently on tour and lacking time to warm-up before a performance, Nureyev put his lessons and exercises into Act 2, many of them difficult and complicated steps, in order to be ready for the spectacular solos and pas de deux later.

But while Florian Magnenet as Désiré accomplished the tricky ‘warming up’ exercises with grace and softness, his dancing showing evidence of excellent coaching, he had difficulty with the virtuoso solos which were not virtuoso at all. A tall, pleasant-looking boy, he might have had the allure of a prince, but not for Nureyev’s ballets. He lacked both charisma and the bravoura technique the role demands.  

There was excellent dancing from Sabrina Mallem, brilliant and beautiful as the sinister Carabosse who personifies the forces of darkness, who pricks the princess herself with a fatal, glittering pin taken from her own headdress, as well as from Marc Moreau and Charline Giezendanner as the Bluebird and the princess Florine.

Rudolf Nureyev's Sleeping Beauty
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

However the ballet, as its title suggests, revolves around the Princess Aurore, one of the most difficult roles in the classical repertoire, both technically and artistically. The ballerina must evolve from a joyful young girl to a serene, mysterious spirit in the vision scene, and finally to an aristocratic, radiant young woman in the space of a couple of hours. Programmed for one performance but finally interpreting four, Amandine Albisson, member of the corps de ballet until her promotion to première danseuse this year, was an adorable Princess Aurore. From the instance she arrived on stage, a bubble of lightness and joy, she was Aurore, bringing freshness and charm to the stultifying atmosphere of the court. Technically, the complex choreography held no difficulties for her, with her effortless, airy jumps, while the greeting of the four princes come to seek her hand in marriage, a pitfall for many ballerinas, was accomplished with delicacy and precision. Twenty-five years old on the day of our interview, she is a young dancer able to reach out to touch the hearts of her audience, whose future holds great promise.

"I was so very happy and excited when I learned I’d been programmed to dance Aurore", Albisson told me in between rehearsals for her next important role, Tatiana in John Cranko’s Onegin.

"However, I felt a lot of stress wondering whether I was ready to interpret Aurore, but once I began working with Agnès Letestu in October, my apprehension faded. I’d hurt my foot shortly before," she added, "so at the beginning I wasn’t on form and was full of doubts which Agnès quickly dissipated. She is a wonderful teacher, not only as regards the technical and artistic side, but she instills a quiet confidence in her pupils being so patient and generous in every way."

"Sleeping Beauty has the reputation of being the most technically difficult of all the classical ballets as well as being artistically demanding", she continued, "as the character of the princess develops throughout the work. But it’s the kind of role I love as well as being the first time I interpreted the heroine in one of Rudolf Nureyev’s magical productions."

Rudolf Nureyev's Sleeping Beauty
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Sebastien Mathé

Amandine Albisson, blessed also with a perfect ‘ballerina’ physique, with her ideal proportions, lovely feet and expressive face, grew up in a theatrical atmosphere. Her mother, now a ballet teacher, was a dancer with Roland Petit’s famed company in Marseilles, while her father, a baritone, was a singer by profession, so her early years were often spent in the wings of theatres, watching her parents perform.

She began dance at the early age of three, loving the fun of movement, before beginning classical lessons, but it wasn’t until she came to Paris at the age of 7 to take part in a dance competition that she first visited the Palais Garnier, and went to see a ballet there.

"That’s where I want to dance", she told me she declared to her mother, and so she took the entrance examination to the school, passing it at the age of 10. Enjoying every moment of her training, first with Claude Bessy and then with Elisabeth Platel, she entered the French company at the age of 17, where she relished both classical and contemporary work.

"I love to dance different things, and while going from classical to modern isn’t easy, it does avoid the monotony of routine. I’ve danced in ballets by Kylian, Mats Ek, Pina Bausch, and of course, Roland Petit. Interpreting Le Loup with Audric Bezard as my partner was a wonderful experience. I regret we don’t get the time to see much of what is happening outside of the opera, apart from when visiting companies, such as the Bolshoi come. Practically all I have time to see comes from what is shown on the internet."

"I particularly loved watching the Bolshoi star, Evgenia Obraztsova, in La Sylphide, a role I also danced last year. And we are fortunate to have so many étoiles here who are all different, both temperamentally and physically. There is no ‘norm’."

This is also true of the male étoiles, both Mathieu Ganio and Mathias Heymann giving excellent, but radically different interpretations of Nureyev’s prince in different casts.

*Subsequent casts also saw corps de ballet members, Laura Hecquet and Heloise Bourdon, give remarkable performances although neither was partnered by Ganio nor Heymann.

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.

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