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March 7, 2013 6:07 pm
Times are a-changing at the Paris Opera Ballet. In 2003, on the 10th anniversary of Rudolf Nureyev’s death, the Russian superstar who whipped the company back into shape as director in the 1980s was celebrated in a triumphant four-hour gala stuffed with prestigious guests. Ten years later, the tribute staged this week was over in a businesslike two hours, a reminder that the glorious Nureyev era is now well and truly a thing of the past.
Nureyev’s name is a byword for the classics in Paris, a prestigious figurehead for a company that has shown little interest in this repertoire in the past decade, shifting its focus to contemporary fare instead. Every season, one or two of the lavish ballets he restaged for the POB are trotted out to fill the cavernous Opéra Bastille; in recent years they have become increasingly dispirited affairs, plagued by an alarming injury rate and complacent performances at soloist level.
Granted, most of them, from Nutcracker to Raymonda, are tortuously, needlessly difficult, cramming in two or three steps where Petipa found space for just one. They were created for a Paris Opera that stood insolently atop the classical ballet world; this is no longer the case, and yet no serious thought has gone into how best to move on from Nureyev’s legacy while preserving its spirit.
And that spirit – the passion, the bravura, the fierce and uncompromising dedication to classical technique – was in short supply at the Palais Garnier this week. Here was a tribute done on the cheap, with the only serious offering besides pas de deux, the Shades act from La Bayadère, shamefully butchered to half its customary length. Little glitches marred every item; nearly every étoile on the roster was on stage, and yet, worryingly, the dancing felt half-hearted, with little risk-taking and an egregious lack of flair and attention to detail throughout. Nureyev would likely have thrown his Thermos to the stage, as he was wont to do, and few would blame him.
Still, the corps de ballet provided a beautiful descent of the Shades, Nicolas Le Riche and Laëtitia Pujol danced a sensitive, emotional scene from Romeo and Juliet, and Matthias Heymann returned to the stage after a year and a half lost to injury. For the occasion, the POB brought back a variation from a near-forgotten 1979 Nureyev ballet, the Byronic Manfred; surely a recreation of this one-act ballet wasn’t beyond the means of the evening.
Another outsider is set to assume the role of artistic director from next year: Benjamin Millepied, who rose to fame thanks to Black Swan and his subsequent marriage to the film’s star, Natalie Portman, will find himself in charge of a legacy he is unfamiliar with from his US-based career. If there is only one thing he should emulate, it is Nureyev’s fearlessness in serving the POB a wake-up call. It needed one 30 years ago, and it needs one again today.
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