Reconstructions of 19th-century ballets often involve a dose of artistic pastiche, but few stagings have taken the Sisyphean task of reviving lost choreography as far as Ballets de Noverre, a double bill presented this month at the Opéra Comique. Created by L’Eventail, a company dedicated to baroque dance, it purports to bring back lost ballets by Jean-Georges Noverre, the 18th-century ballet master to whom we owe crucial developments in the history of European dance, including the ballet d’action and the famous text Letters on Dancing and Ballets.
While notation has contributed to recent efforts to recreate baroque-era dances, none survives of Noverre’s work. For Renaud et Armide and Médée et Jason, the two ballets presented here, the librettos, scores and some stage directions are the only clues as to what 18th-century audiences saw. Choreographer Marie-Geneviève Massé has made no secret of this, but rather than taking a strong stance either for historical reconstruction or free reinvention, she has chosen to sit on the fence.
Renaud et Armide, first presented in Lyon around 1760, shows from the get-go that the resulting hodgepodge of imitation and anachronism makes for dubious theatre. Based on Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, it follows the witch Armida as she falls in love with her mortal enemy, the Christian knight Rinaldo. Massé attempts to close the gap between the ballet d’action and contemporary tastes by shunning some elements, including pantomime. The result – not helped by rather shallow performances – is neither here nor there: faintly ridiculous yet not coherent enough to pass for verisimilar Noverre.
Médée et Jason, created in 1763, is much more convincing, despite similar flaws. The production gives particular weight to the court scenes, with a large corps and elegant, elaborate patterns. Tighter dancing helps to give us a better sense of the dynamics and forms of bravura Noverre favoured, particularly the fast, low-to-the- ground turns and beats. The addition of an acrobatic performance by one dancer on a rope is best forgotten, but the contrast between the sprightly Emilie Brégougnon (Créüse) and Sarah Berreby’s imposing presence as Medea is well judged, as is the simplicity of many touches, including Medea’s murder of her children in one symbolic stroke of the arm.
Visually and musically, the programme is able to give us a more accurate historical picture. Antoine Fontaine’s sets adhere to 18th-century conventions, with painted backdrops and elaborate set changes in full view of the audience: the collapse of the courtly setting for Médée is impressive in its economy of means. The scores for both ballets, by Jean-Joseph Rodolphe, are rarities in their own right, and elicited more applause than the dancing on the night.
What the programme cannot do, however, is show the audience why Noverre was such an important choreographic link, both as a theoretician and as a force for modernity, between baroque dancing and the blooming of ballet as we know it in the 19th century. Which raises the eternal question: are such stagings better than nothing, or is lost choreography best left to history? The prosecution rests.