L’anatomie de la sensation, Opéra Bastille, Paris

Don’t be put off by the pompous title or the strike currently playing havoc with Paris Opera performances: Wayne McGregor’s first evening-length creation for a ballet company, L’anatomie de la sensation, is a welcome surprise at the end of a rather pedestrian season. After a glacial first collaboration with the POB in 2007, Genus, this work for eleven soloists and a corps de ballet has uneven moments but brims with a more relaxed inventiveness.

Billed as a tribute to Francis Bacon, the piece intermittently references the painter, with silent screams among the corps de ballet and bursts of violence in one pas de deux. McGregor’s work, however, is too idiosyncratic to take the connection much further, and relies on his customary bright, minimalist sets and costumes for visual effect. Instead, the driving force in L’anatomie is the score, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s own homage to Bacon, Blood on the Floor. Its jazzy accents bring out a new playfulness in McGregor’s customary menu of fast, quirky, hyper-articulated twists and turns, and this light touch works particularly well in the eighth movement, “Crackdown”, where Alice Renavand’s zippy pointe work and seeming improvisations with Josua Hoffalt light up the stage.

Ballet companies have brought a lot over the years to McGregor, currently the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, and it shows again with this new work. While he can spin out original movement with astonishing facility, his choreography is a blank slate emotionally speaking, and works best with performers used to intertwining technique and subtle layers of narrative. Royal Ballet dancers often bring a sense of vulnerability to his alien-like distortions; the Paris Opera Ballet’s nonchalant sophistication and brisk placement accentuate the affinities with William Forsythe. Crucially, McGregor is now learning to use the corps de ballet for counterpoint, with crisp patterns on display at the Opéra Bastille.

One of his great gifts, however, lies in the way he brings out traits in his soloists that the audience wasn’t aware of, and L’anatomie is ripe with highly individual performances. A slow, sensuous pas de deux highlights the connection between the placid Aurélie Dupont and Jérémie Bélingard, a modern Faun if ever there was one. The company’s resident Amazon, Marie-Agnes Gillot, has a monologue tailor-made for her long, flexible limbs and more outlandish side, and Myriam Ould-Br turns in a stunning performance in the fifth movement.

L’anatomie, like most of McGregor’s work, is weakest when the choreography starts freewheeling without much concern for structure or expression, as if hypnotised by its own surface ingeniousness. The last movement, a coda of sorts, is long-winded, and the men are mostly ill-served, looking at times like underwear models going about a particularly awkward posing contest. One almost wishes he would run out of ideas in order to delve deeper into each movement. Fortunately or unfortunately, his unique creativity shows no signs of running dry.

Opéra Bastille, Paris

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