Stars are born in the best way imaginable at the Paris Opera: on stage. Here a full house witnessed one of those moving occasions at the Opéra Bastille, as Josua Hoffalt was promoted to the rank of étoile (Principal) at the end of La Bayadère. On cue, the director made a speech, colleagues hugged the chosen one, the audience stood and screamed, and an ocean of phones and cameras recorded every second for posterity.
Hoffalt is 27, and while nerves got to him towards the end of the ballet, as the warrior Solor he showed that he is a very welcome addition to the company’s patchy male line-up. With his light jump, boyish looks and elegant technique, he has the potential to be that rare jewel, a genuine, versatile prince. The road is long, however, and in recent years some étoiles have struggled to maintain momentum after their solemn appointments.
The performance itself was a worthy Bayadère, but strangely devoid of the emotion the announcement eventually triggered. Guiding Hoffalt through his debut was Aurélie Dupont, a cool, slightly stiff Nikiya who offered only glimpses of her usual musicality and sense of phrasing. For six years now, her rival of choice as Gamzatti has been Dorothée Gilbert, the most delightfully arrogant princess on the ballet stage. The fierce drive that made Gilbert’s dancing so exciting when she danced the role as a young soloist isn’t quite there any more, but she breezes through every difficulty with the confidence of a predator who knows the outcome.
The Paris Opera Ballet also trotted out its resident Golden Idol for the Act II divertissement, the mighty Emmanuel Thibault. Few have made this three-minute virtuoso role so entirely their own, and from his uniquely flamboyant gold body paint to the mannerist precision of his hand flourishes, he delivered a miniature for the ages.
The rest of the evening belonged to the corps de ballet, at its very best on the vast Bastille stage. The entrance of the 32 Shades went by like a dream, each arabesque beautifully stretched, the formations so clear-cut their geometry became pure poetry. Even Rudolf Nureyev’s obsession with giving men more to do is welcome here, and the dancers were impeccably stylish in the additional choreography.
It is a relief throughout to see designs that do La Bayadère justice. Nureyev’s 1992 version, his last gift to the Paris Opera Ballet, has the elegance and dignity the Mariinsky’s or the Bolshoi’s Soviet-era productions increasingly lack. Many cringe-inducing details, from over-the-top costumes to the fake tiger and elephant, have been toned down or tastefully altered by Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino. The bright lighting robs the Shades scene of some of its mystery, but it is a small price to pay.