Is Paris Opera Ballet about to enter a brave new world? Six months before Benjamin Millepied officially takes over as artistic director, the company’s new Balanchine/Millepied mixed bill – programmed by outgoing director Brigitte Lefèvre – may be a taste of things to come as the troupe rediscovers its neoclassical chops.
Millepied’s new Daphnis et Chloé is certainly a promising statement of intent. Set to Ravel’s shimmering score for the Ballets Russes, it builds a semi-abstract ballet around the original characters. The Arcadian heroes are already in love when we meet them, while Lycénion and Dorcon emerge from the corps de ballet as figures of temptation.
Millepied has updated their pastoral world with appealing softness: all the dancers are in flowing white costumes in the early scenes, and the choreography demonstrates craftsmanship like few recent creations on the Opéra stage. There is a summer breeze to the dancers’ seemingly effortless low lifts; Millepied’s eye for talent, and for choreography that suits and challenges it, is likely to be a key aspect of his tenure. Aurélie Dupont and Hervé Moreau’s gift for elegant, unhurried phrasing infuses the steps for Daphnis and Chloé, while François Alu, a bright young star, has a tailor-made virtuoso role as Bryaxis. The lithe Léonore Baulac is a standout in the corps de ballet.
What Daphnis lacks is the elusive soul to sustain fully an hour-long ballet. Millepied’s fluid choreography doesn’t illuminate the characters from within; by the time the dancers change into bright attire for the final scene, the ballet has lost some of its freshness. It is also saddled with incongruous sets by artist Daniel Buren, who felt compelled to hang enormous coloured shapes above the stage, all framed by his signature stripes.
It was not the evening’s only example of the star-studded collaborations the POB has pushed in recent years at the expense of artistic logic. Daphnis was preceded by a welcome revival of Le Palais de cristal, Balanchine’s sole creation for the French company, better known in its subsequent American production, the black-and-white Symphony in C. Much of Le Palais’s originality lies in its colour scheme for the four movements, which prefigures the later Jewels – but instead of the original costumes and sets by Leonor Fini, Balanchine’s French palace now boasts eye-poppingly elaborate and not entirely fetching new designs by the POB’s go-to high-fashion tutu maker, Christian Lacroix.
Of more interest is the choreography, which is a departure on several counts from Symphony in C. More traditionally virtuosic, it lacks some of the iconic moments associated with the later piece, particularly in the adagio; its focus is on intricate leg work, and the French accent that is so problematic in other Balanchine ballets is fully justified here.
The opening-night cast illustrated the POB’s ongoing problems with nurturing the next generation of talent, particularly at soloist level. Young new étoile Amandine Albisson contributed a bright first movement alongside the elegant Mathieu Ganio, but the second and third parts were subdued at best. The demi-soloists offered far more neoclassical allure, and are clearly waiting for Millepied to shake up the status quo.