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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 30 MAY 2018  — The works of three choreographers, all newcomers to the Palais Garnier, plus the return of one of last season’s most successful pieces made for a very promising evening at the Paris Opera Ballet.

And indeed, the reshowing of Crystal Pite’s monumental The Season’s Canon had the audience on its feet, cheering vociferously. At the dress rehearsal and at each subsequent performance, the dancers received a standing ovation for their interpretation of this tremendously thrilling work.

Shown again this year, to the delight of those who had already seen it and to the amazement of those who hadn’t, the work enthralled spectators even more than on its previous showing. Set to an astonishing, highly personal version of Vivaldi’s The Four Season’s, recomposed by Max Richter, a score that the Canadian choreographer had long ago fallen in love with and dreamed of setting a ballet to. She used to, she recalled, play the music full blast driving along in her car.

Crystal Pite’s The Season’s Canon
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Based on natural phenomena, on the world around us where everything has become possible, she imagined a series of succeeding, interlinking tableaux for 54 dancers. The dancers glided, swept and undulated across the opera stage, their smooth naked backs gleaming in the shadowy lighting. The large ensembles were handled with mastery, with each highly structured formation more intricate than the next as the men and women soared in unison in pulsing, breathing masses. From time to time, single figures hurled themselves across the heaving multitude, while François Alu, actually one of the finest dancers in the company, held the audience spellbound with a series of lightening, meteoric jumps, incredibly complex and extremely high.

Crystal Pite, after having created the ballet for the opera two years ago and now familiar with the troupe, took every opportunity given to her with these highly trained, adaptable artists. While her choreography might not enthrall everyone, no one can doubt her skillful handling of the huge ensembles, or the technical excellence and precision of the dancers enhanced by Tom Visser’s incandescent lighting in a darkened universe.

However, the earlier part of the evening proved disappointing, particularly the eagerly awaited contribution by James Thierrée, over ambitious and at 50 minutes, too long by half. He is a much loved showman and magician, a dancer himself, touched by grace, but at best, not really a choreographer for other interpreters. With Frolons, performed off stage, in the Grand Foyer, the grand staircase and the "Rotonde des Abonnés", the dancers in elaborate, silver and gold costumes with masks over their faces, part insect, part monster, part human, issued from some sort of science fiction film, slithered their way around all the public areas of the Palais Garnier. It was momentarily entertaining, but once the surprise element had worn off, people were more afraid of stepping on the dancers’ hands or bared, scaly toes. One was also afraid of them getting injured as they crawled and wormed their way down the staircase between the goggling crowds. With so many people craning their necks and surging to see where the action was taking place, one was never in the ‘right’ place at the right time. The idea of spectators wandering around the opera might have seemed original and not without interest, but in practice, it wasn’t successful.

James Thierrée's Frolons
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Happily, when spectators had returned to their seats, there was a grand finale on stage, with a large, airy, billowing curtain providing a superb setting for the half humanoid dancers gathered below.

Hofesh Shechter, who trained at the Academy for Dance in Jerusalem and claims German and Russian descent, is a highly gifted choreographer who has been working in Britain since 2002. Possessing an inventive and exciting language all of his own, he won the Critics Circle National Dance award for the best modern choreography in 2008, the same year in which he founded his own company. 

The Art of Not Looking Back, which followed the Thierrée offering, is a reworked, fast-moving, autobiographical piece originally created for his troupe a year later. Initially conceived for 6 women, the Paris version was adapted for 9. Set to a musical montage of Shechter’s own scores with extracts of Johann Sebastian Bach, John Zorn’s Six Litanies for Heliogabalus, and Fragile Wind, composed by Nitin Sawney, the piece was inspired by the choreographer’s relationship with his mother who left him when he was two years old; on the accompanying soundtrack, he informed his audience that he had never forgiven her.

"Then she tries to do everything for me,

because she’s nothing to me",

was repeated several times along with the comment that it was like having a bucket with a hole in it, for no matter what you pour in, the water runs away.

The strong, feisty choreography matched the hard, cynical words generating both tension and atmosphere. However, it became particularly unpleasant when someone, presumably the choreographer, incorporated the unpleasant sounds of vomiting into the text. Sitting in the Palais Garnier listening to a person noisily throwing up was disconcerting to say the least no matter how superb the interpretation one saw. The group scenes, first in unison, then breaking up were stunning and the dance movements beautiful, particularly if one watched Hannah O’Neill, an outstanding young ballerina, both in classical and contemporary.

Hofesh Shechter’s choreography had a rapid and extremely light quality where the dancers seemed to be reaching for the unattainable. Highly musical, for the choreographer was first and foremost a musician who studied percussion, it was buoyant and fast-moving. Hopefully, with another piece perhaps created for these highly trained dancers, his work will be less pessimistic, less anguished and therefore more enjoyable.

Ivan Perez: The Male Dancer
Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Agathe Poupeney

Next to such a powerful piece, The Male Dancer by Ivan Perez, a dancer with the Netherlands Dans Theater from 2003 to 2011, was a bit of a non-event.  The best thing one could say is that spectators were given the opportunity to see 10 magnificent male dancers giving their all to a nondescript piece against a stark grey backdrop. Set to recorded music by Arvo Part, Perez, according to the programme notes, "deconstructed the attributes of masculinity to establish new imaginary worlds". The idea might have seemed promising and the beginning of the piece not without interest as Stéphane Bullion, dressed à la Corsaire in billowing blue silk, gave a parody of Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a faun, but after that, the piece went downhill. The costumes, by Alejandro Gomez Palomo were hideous and the choreography monotonous and limited, the reverse of what it should have been for the piece to make sense. The work never took off. One applauded the dancers who surely deserved better.

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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