Much ink has been devoted recently to the lack of female choreographers in the ballet world, but that gender imbalance can also be seen in the curating of past repertoire. The small club of women who made a name for themselves as classical dance-makers in the 20th century were often pioneers, from Ninette de Valois in the UK to Bronislava Nijinska. Yet their choreographic legacy is rapidly fading for want of performances.
It is fitting, then, than Brigitte Lefèvre, by far the longest-serving female director in ballet, has chosen to honour two of them in her last season at the helm of Paris Opera Ballet. Sweden’s Birgit Cullberg, the founder of Cullberg Ballet, and the American Agnes de Mille lived and worked an ocean apart, but in the space of two years, between 1948 and 1950, both brought maverick, repressed heroines to the stage in Mademoiselle Julie and Fall River Legend. The two ballets share a vivid theatricality – one that the opening night of this POB double bill didn’t fully exploit, though it was still the strongest statement of an otherwise pedestrian season.
De Mille’s Fall River Legend was last seen at the Palais Garnier 18 years ago. Based on the story of Lizzie Borden, accused and acquitted of the axe murder of her father and stepmother in 1892, the ballet allows itself considerable artistic licence: the Accused is found guilty and sentenced to the gallows as soon as the curtain comes up, and looks back at her life in an extended flashback.
De Mille pushed for psychological realism within the ballet vocabulary, and Fall River Legend is helped by Oliver Smith’s airy, self-explanatory sets. The Accused never leaves the stage, and while the choreographic palette is limited, her descent into despair in the suffocating atmosphere of the Borden home is told in lucid dramatic strokes. When she starts to reminisce, her hands flutter and tremble as a sign of her guilt; her childlike identification with her dead mother is evident in a dream scene after the crime. Alice Renavand, an unorthodox talent who has blossomed in contemporary repertoire, is soberly expressive in the role, her first since she was appointed étoile in December.
Mademoiselle Julie, Cullberg’s adaptation of Strindberg’s play, centres on another woman crushed by the gap between her desires and social expectations. Set to a score by Ture Rangstrom, the choreography shows Cullberg as a link between ballet, expressionist dance and the work of her son, Mats Ek.
In a dance enactment of the play’s class divide, the servants celebrate St John’s Eve with flexed feet and deep pliés, whereas pointe shoes are the province of the aristocratic Miss Julie. Jean, the valet Julie sets out to seduce, is the most ambiguous character, dutifully mimicking classical reverences when reminded of his place yet capable of dark, brutish outbursts. In his last new role with the company, Nicolas Le Riche, who retires in July, is a blaze of conflicting emotions and still youthful power. Aurélie Dupont recovered from a bumpy start to deliver a fine performance in the striking central pas de deux, where Julie’s veneer of arrogance cracks.
For all the interest of this double bill, both ballets feature scenes that can easily feel dated, and smaller roles suffered from the cool, detached approach to acting prevalent in POB. The corps of Fall River Legend, in particular, looked unconvinced by the assignment; let’s hope further performances can persuade them that de Mille and Cullberg deserve better.