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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 16 JANUARY 2017 Swan Lake, with its haunting libretto based on traditional German folktales, is the most famous and most frequently performed ballet in the world, drawing huge crowds whenever and wherever it is shown. And even though it was staged as recently as April 2015 at the Opéra Bastille in Paris, the ballet was booked out months in advance and people stood with begging notices for seats before each performance.

With Mr. Millepied out of the way, casts this Christmas were very starry indeed, with étoiles reinstated to their rightful place and premiers danseurs being programmed in the ‘secondary’ roles.  December 21st saw étoiles Mathias Heymann and Myriam Ould-Braham as the prince and the Swan Princess with Karl Paquette as Rothbart, and members of the outstanding new generation of dancers in the solo parts, including Léonore Baulac*, François Alu and Hannah O’Neill in the pas de trois of Act I. Audiences also had the pleasure of seeing Emmanuel Thibault dancing with  elegance, charm and lightness, partnering Melanie Hurel in the Danse Napolitaine of Act III while the newly appointed étoile, 23-year-old  Germain Louvet** took part in the Spanish Dance. And yet another promising young dancer, Eléonore Guérineau appeared as one of the four baby swans. With such magnificent casting, how could the evening be anything but a triumph, obliterating disappointing memories of the Lake staged last year.

Paris Opera Ballet in Swan Lake
Photo: Svetlana Loboff

The legendary ballet, which in Nureyev’s version is seen through the eyes of Prince Siegfried, tells the story of the prince’s impossible love for Princess Odette who has been transformed into a swan by the wicked magician, Rothbart. She can only be restored to human form if a man swears to love her forever. At a ball given for his 2Oth birthday, Odile, the magician’s daughter disguised as Odette appears, and Siegfried, believing her to be the Swan Princess, asks for her hand in marriage and thus breaks his vow and loses Odette. Rothbart’s spell cannot be broken.

Rudolf Nureyev, who first conceived the work for the Ballet of Vienna in 1964, reworked it for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1984, incorporating exciting new choreography for the male dancers who had very little to do in previous versions. In the 1960’s, at a Swan Lake performance featuring Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev at Covent Garden, a spectator was heard to grumble that he’d only seen the prince jump 3 times…. Nureyev remedied that. Indeed, one of his earliest innovations was the very beautiful ‘melancholy’ solo of the first act, a solo which sets the mood for the whole interpretation of the work, that of the young prince who takes refuge from his earthly responsibilities in a dream.

Mathias Heymann was the boyish and dreamy young prince, dancing with a natural grace, buoyancy and lyricism. He was the ideal partner for Myriam Ould-Braham, whose delicate, almost spiritual performance as Odette brought tears to one’s eyes. Here was a true love story, more romantic than seen in recent times at the Paris Opera. Unlike Sae Eun Park last year, a technically brilliant Odette/Odile who was out for the main chance, ready to grab onto any passing stranger to release her from the magician’s spell, Ould-Braham fell in love with Siegfried. In the last, despairing, and infinitely moving scene by the Lake, after Siegfried’s deception by Rothbart and his daughter, one’s very heart was smitten as, loving him deeply and never questioning his love in return,  she broke away from his arms and ran blindly down to the lake where she was carried off for eternity by the magician.

Mathias Heymann and Karl Paquette in Swan Lake
Photo: Svetlana Loboff 

As the seductive magician’s daughter, she gave a stupendous demonstration of her effortless technique, a shining Odile who easily bewitched and tricked the prince. As far as the latter’s performance went, much has been written about his magnificent dancing, the long, sweeping arcs of his leaps with their soft, sure landings, but these were allied to a great sensitivity and an ardent longing for Odette which had little to do with earthly duty. From the beginning, one knew that the story could only be tragic; Heymann was at first sad, then in love as he chased after an illusion, then betrayed and finally heart-broken. Rothbart is also Karl Paquette’s finest role.

The pas de trois in the first act was brilliant, with three superb dancers combing technique, grace, and spectacular pyrotechnics from Alu. There was also an interesting contrast between the two women, the more lyrical, softer Baulac, nominated étoile a week later, and the younger Hannah O’Neill, radiant with the joy of dancing.

The National Dances of Act III were remarkably well-danced, and only praise can be given to the beauty of the sublime corps de ballet with their pure, unmannered style and academic precision.

The ballet also owes much of its enduring success to Tchaikovsky’s immortal score, and it seems very strange that at its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow in 1877 the ballet was poorly received. Not only was the libretto weak, but the choreography was uninspired. It was not until 1893, when Marius Petipa took over and created a new version in collaboration with Lev Ivanov two years later, that success came at the Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg while the Paris Opéra Ballet had to wait until 1960 to stage Bourmeister’s full-length work.

Myriam Ould-Braham and Mathias Heymann in Swan Lake
Photo: Svetlana Loboff

Rudolf Nureyev’s vision of the ballet for the Paris Opera, more dramatic and theatrical than earlier versions, leaves the sublime "White Acts" untouched, but gives greater psychological depth to all the characters as well as expanding the men’s role. His superb version also benefits from the most gorgeous costumes, designed by Franca Squarciapino each one haute couture, and frequently hand-embroidered in the Paris Opera’s own workshops. They respect the traditional white acts with the sumptuous short tutus, while recall the 19th century’s vision of medieval costumes as seen in paintings and engravings  of The Richest Hours of the Duke of Berry as well as the frescoes of the Italian Quattrocento.

The décor by Ezio Frigerio, devised together with Nureyev, broke away from the conventional woodland scenery. The palace with its high Gothic walls being a sort of "huit-clos", very much to 19th century taste, yet illuminated by an immense window at the back, looking out on the lake, a backcloth with poetic overtones of Claude Monet’s water paintings. Unsurprisingly, the ballet, lengthily ovationed, is one of the jewels of the company’s repertoire.

*Léonore Baulac was nominated étoile after her performance as Odette/Odile on December 31st
**Germain Louvet was nominated étoile after his interpretation of Siegfried in Swan Lake on December 28th.

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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