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December 10, 2013 6:24 pm
This year marked the tercentenary of the Paris Opera Ballet School, and while the accompanying celebrations of the French style wrapped up last season, POB’s December programmes both explore the company’s aristocratic past – albeit from very different perspectives.
Opéra Bastille’s Christmas special is The Sleeping Beauty. After a decade in mothballs, Aurora and her suitors are back in Paris, in a production that may well be Rudolf Nureyev’s grandest. First staged in 1989, it is on a scale that only the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi can match. That the production never strays too far from good taste is a mighty achievement: the Prologue alone introduces its seven fairies with more than 20 attendants and a few knights thrown in, all on a stage framed by a forest of columns, statues and paintings.
The production goes back to the French heart of Petipa’s ballet. Its references to Louis XIV were once a metaphor for Russian imperial power, but Nureyev’s opulent court is both a literal nod to the company’s roots in court dances and a tribute to classical order at its most radiant. As the curtain rises on Act 3, a corps of courtiers is arranged in concentric circles around the monarchs, in a tableau worthy of the Sun King; the ensuing Sarabande is among Nureyev’s most solemn creations for the corps de ballet.
And few productions suit the cavernous Opéra Bastille so well. It may even be better seen from the gods, the cheaper seats in the house, as consecutive performances showed last weekend. Nureyev’s eye for large-scale geometry, the complexity and brilliance of the patterns registered perfectly from afar, as did the clarity of the dancers’ classical style. Up close, from the first rows of the orchestra, this Beauty seemed a different beast, impressive yet occasionally lacking in heart.
The acting throughout is subdued, with the fight between good and evil a mere footnote: the lack of true character dancers in the company is all too evident. Few of the dancers luxuriate into the movement, filling Tchaikovsky’s music with meaning, nor do their hearts always seem at one with the clear-eyed classicism of Petipa’s variations. Yet of all his repertoire, Beauty lends itself best to the French style and its natural restraint; one hopes more performances will allow the dancers to settle in and find their academic footing.
Individual dancers captured the filigree charms of the fairytale characters. In the first cast, Myriam Ould-Braham and Mathias Heymann stole the show with an enchanting Bluebird pas de deux. The next day, hierarchy was restored with Ludmila Pagliero and Josua Hoffalt as Aurora and her Prince. The unflappable Pagliero led an academic demonstration to remember: the way she presents each step, brushing off the floor carefully as she rises on pointe, is captivatingly stylish, and, while Hoffalt altered the choreography in Act 2 to sidestep a difficult section, the pair delivered a regal pas de deux in Act 3. At the same performance, two newly promoted soloists shone in smaller roles: the expansive Amandine Albisson in the sixth Prologue variation, and François Alu as a high-flying if slightly tense Bluebird.
Meanwhile, the Palais Garnier offers a more intimate experience with Le Parc, Angelin Preljocaj’s earliest and strongest work for the company. It delves into the Carte de Tendre, a mischievous 17th-century guide to love first published in a novel by Madeleine de Scudéry, and speaks to the company’s contemporary streak with its minimalistic, often ironic realisation set to Mozart. In a garden overseen by four gardeners – sinister, quasi-mechanical figures who manipulate the other characters – eight couples go from games of musical chairs to dalliances behind trees. Initially bold and mischievous in knee breeches similar to the men’s, the women return to giggle and faint in crinolines before following their partners into the night.
The choreographic material is not especially rich, but Preljocaj’s blending of baroque or classical steps with more pedestrian, modern moves is just right for the POB, and the dancers revel in the piece’s playful innuendos. Isabelle Ciaravola, a picture of old-fashioned glamour, and Karl Paquette as a handsome libertine led the performance. They don’t yet reach the erotic heights of the original cast – but, as Ciaravola embraced Paquette in the high-flying kiss now better known as an Air France commercial, the tapered line of her legs and exquisitely arched feet in the air sent a palpable frisson through the audience.
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