Ballet is in thrall to Chopin this autumn in Paris, and it has been a trying run for dance lovers. After John Neumeier’s La Dame aux camélias at the Paris Opera Ballet, the nocturnes, waltzes and ballads used to lull the consumptive courtesan in that work were back at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées last week for a world premiere: the Lang Lang Dance Project.
This strange beast of a creation was born, we are told, of the superstar pianist’s desire to foster dialogue between music and dance. To do so he has flown in the Houston Ballet for its Paris debut. The company’s artistic director and choreographer, Stanton Welch, provides the visual answer to the 12 Chopin pieces Lang Lang has assembled.
The result is titled Sons de l’âme (Sounds of the Soul), and its focus on music is laudable in theory. Musicians are rarely in the spotlight in the dance world, and it is not unusual to see scores used and abused as mere wallpapers to movement. Welch and his 16-strong cast are clearly still in awe of the opportunity, and make every effort to surrender to Lang Lang’s musical vision, toned down for the evening to an expressive, mostly delicate romantic reverie.
The dancers act as clay shaped by the music on a bare stage, and the genuinely affectionate connection between them and the piano is perhaps the one surprise of the evening. At the start and near the end, the cast faces the piano, heads respectfully bowed, and the instrument is the focal point throughout; even as a woman soars into a lift, she looks down to share a wistful glance with Lang Lang.
A full evening of Chopin is a risky endeavour for any choreographer, however, and while Welch’s is a capable neoclassical realisation of the score, he lacks the imaginative chops to incorporate the music into a larger abstract fantasy, as Jerome Robbins so memorably did in his Chopin-inspired Dances at a Gathering. He is at his best with solos, particularly for the men; the lively, careful first movement never lets go of the music. Unfortunately, pas de deux fall into stale patterns and fail to tell us who these people might be in relation to the music.
Alert, vivid musicality has been an attribute of American ballet since Balanchine and Robbins, however, and the Houston dancers are proud exponents of that tradition. Their eagerness to realise every musical phrase and the unfussy expressiveness of their upper bodies were the highlights of the programme.