Lyon Opera Ballet, Lyon Opera, France

You can interpret Balanchine in different ways, but you can’t fake it. The dancing itself is the event, and on Saturday night, the Lyon Opera Ballet, a company better known today for its large repertoire of modern works by Mats Ek, Maguy Marin and Merce Cunningham, returned to the classical canon with mixed results.

Strictly academic technique is no longer the company’s natural language, and there is nowhere for them to hide in Concerto Barocco, a pared-down ballet whose only plot is its Bach score. Playful interaction between technique and music is crucial for the two female soloists who impersonate the two lead violins, and while Mariane Joly’s expansive arabesque worked well in the adagio section, no one in the cast delves deep enough into Balanchine’s architecture to create the abstract drama the steps call for. Fluidity and co-ordination at an individual level were also missing in the eight-strong corps de ballet; if they are to dance this repertoire, what they really need is time and experience.

This New York City Ballet classic was the prelude to a programme designed as a homecoming for French choreographer Benjamin Millepied, who trained in Lyon before joining Balanchine’s company as a dancer. The PR for him is solid gold: choreographer of the hit film Black Swan (as the poster for the run obligingly points out), potential heir to Balanchine and Jerome Robbins in New York, photogenic face of several advertising campaigns. His ballets come wrapped in the hype, and in the case of Sarabande and This Part in Darkness, don’t quite have what it takes to stand on their own.

His 2009 Sarabande, freely inspired by Robbins’s A Suite of Dances, invites comparison. As in its 1994 predecessor, seven Bach pieces are played by musicians on stage. Four dancers introduce themselves through dance, alone or in small groups, their mood shifting throughout. The choreography has Millepied’s signature loose, nonchalant edge, but misses his model’s depth of feeling. It’s a little like ballet speed dating: by the end you’ve met a quartet of charming, good-natured boys, but real emotion wasn’t on the cards.

This Part in Darkness¸ created last April for the Pennsylvania Ballet and reworked in Lyon, is a more ambitious ballet for 17 dancers, and it serves the company well. Here again, Millepied has the cool factor, with a large video installation showing the dancers backstage, from above or dancing in close-up as the cameraman weaves among the cast. The work’s purpose, however, is as vague as its title: the choreography is workmanlike, neither bad nor really memorable, with a casual relationship to the music and just enough angst and sweep to be effective.

Oddly, Millepied has chosen to set two scenes to part of the haunting Max Richter score for Wayne McGregor’s 2008 Infra. One of these is a perfect vehicle for Karline Marion, a tall, fiercely individual dancer, but otherwise This Part in Darkness streamlines the outlandishness McGregor captured without quite taking it elsewhere. For all his influences and references, Millepied the choreographer remains curiously insubstantial.

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