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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 8 FEBRUARY 2006—After the Kirov's drab staging of Swan Lake with its wheezing choreography and regimented corps de ballet, followed by Matthew Bourne's entertaining and clever version, which, after ten years, is still trotting its way around the world, its tired dancers reaping the price of their success, it was such a relief to see Rudolf Nureyev's personal but utterly sublime production at the OpĂ©ra Bastille!

Created for the Paris OpĂ©ra Ballet in 1984 to replace Bourmeister's empty work, it is the most typical of all Nureyev's productions, being theatrical and dramatic with a strong psychological side. The story is both convincing and moving and the staging is most spectacular with exquisite costumes by Franca Squarciapino, each handmade in silks or satins and encrusted with embroidery.  It is also superlatively danced.

The ballet tells the tale of the Swan Princess who, in her white tutu, has become the symbol of classical dance, and Nureyev's version returns to the sources of the Kirov for the white acts while eliminating the superfluous and the "added on" elsewhere. The production was  based on a video of the Kirov  as well as upon his prodigious memory,  Elisabeth Platel, who created Rudolf's Odette/Odile, told me in 1984 when the ballet was first mounted in Paris and taken on tour to the United States the following year.    

Ballet de L'Opéra national de Paris: Swan Lake
© Photo: Maurizio Petrone

The first time Rudolf Nureyev danced Swan Lake in Saint Petersburg he had tried to convey the melancholy he heard in Tchaikovsky's music by walking around the stage with a mandolin, an idea he developed in London in 1962 when he added what became known as the melancholy solo at the end of act I. This slow, dreamy variation is of great dramatic importance as it sets the mood and scene for his whole interpretation of the work, that of the prince who takes refuge from his responsibilities in an imaginary world.

Charles Jude, who created the role of Siegfried told me that Nureyev had initially wanted him to fall asleep reading a book at the beginning of the ballet to emphasise the fact that it was a dream as young men do not fall in love with birds.   It is logical that his spirit takes off as it were, making sense of the story. And if there is another villain to the piece as well as his strange, ambiguous Rothbart, it is Siegfried's mother who appears as a force to be reckoned with as she precipitates the tragedy by ordering her son to take a bride.

Logical too, that the twenty-three year old Nureyev would not interpret the prince as did stout Mr. Gerdt, in his fifty- second year, the creator of the role over a century ago, and he developed the part to display virtuoso skills the elderly dancer had long out-lived. And then when staging his first full-length Swan Lake two years later for Vienna State Opera,* Nureyev contributed several new dances and ensembles which he subsequently perfected for his French company. The infamous Polonaise for the men, which shocked certain specialists when they saw it in Paris, brings out their virility  and gives them a chance to dance in a ballet previously dominated by the women.   It also serves the practical purpose of linking Acts one and two.

Ballet de L'Opéra national de Paris: Swan Lake
© Photo: Maurizio Petrone

The expressive and dramatic mime scene in Act two which the Russian star had originally refused to do with Margot Fonteyn, saying that he would feel silly standing around while she told the story in gestures, has also been added as a tribute to the legendary ballerina. This does not come from the Kirov, but from Covent Garden.
And as anyone in the enthusiastic public who crammed into every last seat in the Opéra Bastille for all 23 performances in December and January can tell you, the ballet showcases the company's incomparable female corps de ballet with their academic precision, musicality, and their pure, unmannered style. Twenty years after its creation, they were rehearsed by ballet mistress Clothilde Vayer, who worked with Nureyev from 1983, and whose own interpretation of Odette/Odile remains one of her most treasured memories.

Seven very different Odette/Odile's were programmed, including Agnès Letestu, who, partnered by José Martinez, was filmed by Francois Rousillon for a DVD to be released in a few months. On the two occasions I saw them, their dancing was sensational, and Letestu in particular was magnificent. She was soft, lyrical yet aristocratic as Odette, as befits her slender, long-limbed body and her mime scene was of intense beauty.

Far from a clichĂ©d stereotype of the bitchy, glittering Black Swan, the magician's daughter, Letestu is outstanding as Odile, both in her technical prowess and artistic interpretation. In  Act three, spinning effortlessly, she introduced some dazzling triple turns during her famous thirty-two spectacular  fouettĂ©s, if there were not  many more. Her Odile was feminine and charming, warm and womanly, and she flirted deliciously with Siegfried. All the court fell in love with her, not only the bewitched Prince, making Odette's subsequent rejection of him at the lake, after he has broken his vow, even more credible.
From showing courtly, reserved charm at the party to helpless despair at his eventual separation from her, JosĂ© Martinez convinced as the pale, vulnerable prince as well as being an excellent partner. The anguish of the separation was wonderfully illustrated by some incredibly sustained movements when Letestu balanced backwards on the palm of his hand. Yet she does not forgive him; evil triumphs, and when Siegfried's dream fades, his reason has gone too. 

Agnès Letestu - José Martinez: Swan Lake
© Photo: Maurizio Petrone

There was absolutely superb dancing from buoyant Emmanuel Thibault partnering Dorothée Gilbert and Nolwen Daniel in a joyous pas de trois full of lightness and charm, while the dance of the four baby swans can rarely have been equalled for homogeneity, grace and the quicksilver footwork of all four dancers. Fanny Fiat, Mathilde Froustey, Dorothée Gilbert and Myriam Ould-Braham , ravishingly pretty and stars in their own right, gave a stunning interpretation of this dance which can so easily fall into a caricature.

Unfortunately, Karl Pacquette, a last minute replacement of the injured Wilfried Romoli as Rothbart and who will be in the film, reduced the part to that of a black booted Victorian villain, although technically he danced his variation well, particularly when he knew the cameras were on him. In contrast, sujet Stéphane Bullion who possesses the intelligence to understand the nuances of the role, gave a vastly superior interpretation in another performance both artistically and technically. The exciting swirling ensembles of Act 3 were also brilliantly danced, and that at each performance.

Partnered by Nicolas Le Riche in January, Letestu's Odette was more poetic and more spiritual than with Martinez, while her Odile remained as beautiful and dazzling as in earlier performances, as she tricked Le Riche into believing she was the girl by the lake. But while José Martinez tended to bring out her technical brilliance, Le Riche responded to each flicker of emotion, each nuance of movement, with great tenderness and they were, artistically, infinitely more moving.
Le Riche danced magnificently, like the true star he is, soaring through the air with high, wild leaps in an impassioned rendering of Siegfried, vibrant and passionate. Odette had a hot-blooded man to contend with rather than a tormented prince. At the moment of his ultimate betrayal, Le Riche shook his head in bewilderment, before the horror of events sent him back to the lake in an anguished, impassioned search for Odette. He has lost her, but his betrayal has been involuntary, and he makes Letestu forgive him. He fights to the last second against Rothbart but Odette, meltingly beautiful, has to incline to her fate.

What we have grown used to at the Paris Opéra, and what ensures that dance here remains a living art, is seeing different ballerinas interpreting roles in individual ways. What we now have is the same ballerina giving different interpretations with another partner, and the result is most exhilarating. It ensures that Nureyev's restaging remains as fresh and exciting as when it was first premiered.

The ballet was also the occasion to see twenty-four year old Emilie Cozette, the revelation of the season, make her debut in the central role. She seemed lit up from within. Tall, fair and slender, with great sweetness of expression, she combined purity of style as Odette with a mysterious expressive force. Her Siegfried was Jean-Guillaume Bart who completely identified with the role and proved an excellent partner.

Emilie Cozette and the Ballet de L'Opéra national de Paris: Swan Lake
© Photo: Maurizio Petrone

Emilie Cozette sparkled and spun as Odile, seeming to revel in the technical difficulties, making subtle changes of her own so that only the audience were aware of her change of manner. One could actually believe in Siegfried's mistake; there was only a slight hardening of movements, her performance being all in nuances. And although she must return to the world of the supernatural with Rothbart in accordance with the choreographer's wishes and the tragic dimension of the music, her love for Siegfried never wavered, and one left the theatre uplifted with the certitude that it is better to have loved and lost than never loved at all!

The music, one of the finest scores ever written for dance, is tormented, Siegfried was tormented, and there was also a side to Rudolf Nureyev himself that was tormented, resulting in this supremely romantic, idiosyncratic version of  Swan Lake, one of the jewels of the Paris OpĂ©ra Ballet's repertoire.

* A DVD is now available of Swan Lake by the Vienna State Ballet with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev.
**Other casts included Marie-Agnès Gillot, Aurélie Dupont, and guest stars Svetlana Zakarova, from the Bolshoi, Diana Vishneva from the Kirov.


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

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