Have ballet’s superproductions lost the plot? Like Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, which had its world premiere at Covent Garden in February, the Paris Opera Ballet’s Les enfants du paradis is a balletic reinvention of a work of art made for another medium. The appeal is obvious: the audience knows the story and, where ballet is concerned, familiarity breeds contentment, particularly at the box-office. Squeezed between lavish designs, a commissioned score and convoluted storytelling, however, neither work has much time for its raison d’être: choreography.
Les Enfants du paradis, choreographed by étoile José Martinez in 2008 and now revived for the first time, follows nearly every twist and turn of Marcel Carné’s much-loved 1945 film. Similar black and white cinema sets attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the bustling theatre life of 19th-century Paris, where the heroine, Garance, is pursued by a mime, Baptiste, and by star actor Frédérick Lemaître. From the outré crowd scenes to the mix of period costumes and stunningly original tutus (designed by another étoile, Agnès Letestu), the idea of life as theatre and theatre as life is clearly developed, and Martinez makes clever use of the Palais Garnier with an abundance of metatheatrical devices – such as the Pierrot who welcomes the audience on the majestic staircase before the performance.
All would be well if Martinez, an active dancer (he retires on July 15) with little choreographic experience, had the chops to complete the picture, but this was evidently a premature commission. His style, a mishmash at this point in his career, becomes wildly incoherent when faced with the responsibility of a full-length ballet. The second act alone brings together an abstract neoclassical ballet within the ballet, a grand ballroom scene straight from John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, and original pantomimes from the film. Martinez’s influences are also mainly Paris-centric, from Nureyev to Patrice Bart, and the result highlights POB’s typically careless treatment of music, with hurried, indifferent, two-dimensional phrasing throughout. It’s the dance equivalent of shallow chit-chat, where Jacques Prévert had devised complex, poetic dialogues for the film, and the characters are much poorer for it.
As entertainment, however, Les Enfants du paradis does the trick, with committed performances by the long list of soloists involved. The role of Garance fits the witty, sophisticated Letestu like a glove, and while Stéphane Bullion is clearly no mime and lacks something of Baptiste’s innocence, Florian Magnenet, who has come on in leaps and bounds this season, delivered with panache as Frédérick Lemaître. Vincent Chaillet (Lacenaire) and Valentine Colasante (Madame Hermine) schemed with verve, but while the film is far from betrayed by this stage adaptation, the choreography is a missed opportunity.