For years now the Paris Opera Ballet has been proactive in its efforts to acquire new works by contemporary choreographers, but nearly every one of them has come unstuck in their attempt to meet the venerable classical company halfway. The latest to fall short of the hype is Belgian star Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, whose new Boléro was commissioned to replace Maurice Béjart’s in the repertoire.
In fact, it is the polar opposite of Béjart’s compact crescendo of tension. As often in Paris, the choreography is dwarfed by the big names assembled to preside over its birth. No fewer than three (Cherkaoui, longtime collaborator Damien Jalet and that priestess of performance art, Marina Abramovic) are credited with the “concept” for this 15-minute piece. Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci was also drafted in to create the less-than-fetching costumes: nude-coloured suits peppered with white bone prints.
To match the repetitive nature of Ravel’s heady score, the team’s central idea is spiral motifs. Abramovic has contributed an impressive overhead mirror nearly as large as the stage, designed to reflect Urs Schönebaum’s vortex-like pools of light. The choreography follows suit, with swirling patterns and constant motion for the 11-strong cast. The dancers enter as cloaked, war-painted figures, and shed layers as they start to spin – alone at first, their paths occasionally crossing as the work unfolds.
Such seamless, curving trajectories may be second nature to Cherkaoui’s dancers, but they are mostly anodyne on his Paris Opera cast, who had issues with the low turns and contemporary fluidity required of them. The specific talents of some star dancers involved, including Aurélie Dupont and Marie-Agnès Gillot, have gone unused; the result is an ensemble-driven Boléro of grand visual effects, but lacking in choreographic urgency.
In the end, the main event of this Ballets Russes-themed programme was the confrontation between two Afternoons of a Faun: the Nijinsky original and Jerome Robbins’ 1953 reinterpretation. Nijinsky’s is a literal reading of the tale in a bas-relief Bakst decor while Robbins’ takes Debussy’s score to a ballet classroom, but subtle instances of intertextuality emerge when they are seen in succession.
Both are tales of suffocating sexual tension, played out in a narrow, restricted space open only to the audience. In the Robbins, the woman’s turned-in skips on pointe as she enters mark her out as a modern nymph, and her stretched-out pose in the man’s arms echoes the Faun’s expression of desire. The man’s sensuous exploration of space, meanwhile, is a more restrained version of the Faun’s overwhelming physical presence.
A year from his retirement, Nicolas Le Riche is still the company’s foremost male dancer, and he gives a lesson in potent stillness and simmering presence as Nijinsky’s Faun. In Robbins’ Afternoon, Eleonora Abbagnato and Hervé Moreau emphasise the narcissism in their fascination with the ballet mirror. The programme opened with a cheerless revival of Béjart’s Firebird, the revolutionary fire of the original entirely missing, with the exception of a bright turn by Allister Madin as the Phoenix.