Gillot/Cunningham, Palais Garnier, Paris

History contradicts the idea that star dancers automatically make good choreographers, but the Paris Opera Ballet has forged ahead regardless, commissioning one étoile after another to create major new works. The results have ranged from middling to downright embarrassing, and the latest in this misguided series, Marie-Agnès Gillot’s Sous Apparence, is no exception.

Pink rockets

With her tall frame and striking authority on stage, the 38-year-old is one of the company’s most popular dancers, and a favourite with visiting choreographers. Her own claim to choreographic fame until now has rested on a few small-scale essays and a music video, but this first work for the Palais Garnier stage simply shouldn’t have made it to the spotlight.

For a piece titled Sous Apparence (Beneath Appearance), there is little to see below the hip and trendy surface. The visuals are extravagant: sets courtesy of visual artist Olivier Mosset, and costumes that range from sado-masochistic garb to furry representations of Christmas trees, wasps and pink rockets. Colourful minimalism meets the Village People, with neoclassical movement sprinkled on top: dancers slithering on the floor, gliding on pointe as if at an ice-skating competition, looking entirely lifeless. Form as substance, glossy and empty.

Even Gillot’s potentially fruitful decision to have both men and women wear pointe shoes, and the androgynous silhouette that results, yields few returns. The fascination turns fetishistic with the strangely phallic tubes of pointe shoes used as props. And while Vincent Chaillet in the lead role is wonderfully at ease with the devilish accessory, the dancers revert to traditional roles whenever partnering is involved. In this most gendered of art forms, Sous Apparence hardly digs deep.

If Gillot was all tricks on Halloween night, the treat came in the form of an overdue Merce Cunningham revival. Un Jour ou Deux was one of the company’s first forays into modern dance in 1973. Its creation met with controversy, but the deceptive simplicity and integrity of this hour-long work are a lesson in dance-making.

It’s up to the viewer to make the connection with Cunningham’s quietly introspective stage world, here set to a John Cage sound installation. The journey is exacting, but concentration is rewarded with moments of utter dance clarity and beauty: a birdlike ensemble suddenly flooding the stage, a motif recurring in unexpected directions, the lead woman’s piercing jetés over her partner’s reclining body.

Cunningham purists may have qualms about the dancing: a ballet narrative occasionally creeps in with a flourish of the arms or a jump pushed to its virtuosic limit. The resulting tension isn’t unwelcome here, however, and the Paris style, with its upright posture and hieratic way with technique, lends itself surprisingly well to Cunningham. It took 26 years to reconstruct Un Jour ou Deux; let’s hope it is here to stay.

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