How different would the ballet world be if George Balanchine, who spent six months as ballet master at the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947, had stayed on in France to lead the company? The current company has been of two minds in recent years about the Russian-born choreographer, with only occasional revivals of his works. The Balanchine evening that opened the new season on Tuesday brought into focus the company’s current form, however, with stark contrasts between the three works.
In a departure from recent history, the ballet that fared best was black-and-white classic Agon. The edgy, witty neoclassical dynamics of this abstract exploration of Stravinsky don’t come naturally to French-trained dancers, but eight perfectly cast soloists was all it took this time, and theirs was a performance of clockwork exactness. Veteran stars Aurélie Dupont, a marvel of musical clarity, and Nicolas Le Riche capped off the ballet with a shrewd interpretation of the pas de deux: together they bring an adult maturity to the choreography’s power games, expertly weaving the slow-burning tension between them up to the very end.
Preceding Agon was a careful rendition of Balanchine’s 1934 Serenade. The Paris Opera has had the ballet in its repertoire since 1947, and its post-Romantic style, with hints of Giselle here and there, should be an easy match, but the company hasn’t quite gotten to the heart of Balanchine’s mysterious sisterhood yet. Much of the solo work saw the dancers second-guessing themselves at every turn, and while the corps de ballet came into its own with gossamer precision in the second half, spontaneity will likely only come later in the run.
The last item on the programme was The Prodigal Son. This dance version of the biblical parable was Diaghilev’s last commission for the Ballets Russes before his death, but its over-the-top theatricality hasn’t aged well, and on the Garnier stage it seemed as hopelessly dated as a Balanchine ballet can be: Jérémie Bélingard was an eager Son, but it is an uphill struggle to connect with his character as he mopes his way back to his father after his encounter with the cartoonish Siren.
The evening was prefaced by the grand Défilé that traditionally marks the opening of the POB season. As the entire company and school parade to Berlioz’s Marche troyenne, it gives us ballet in all its hierarchical and formal glory, with row upon row of corps de ballet members interspersed with soloists and étoiles, who alone greet the audience with individual bows.
Two of them, Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham, soaked in the applause for the first time following their promotions last season, and they went on to give perhaps the most vividly drawn performances of the evening. Pagliero is just starting to revel in the expressive possibilities of her considerable technique, and in Serenade she let her instinctive, full-bodied musicality speak for her. The petite, delicate Ould-Braham, a long-time audience darling, displayed a new-found aplomb in the second pas de trois from Agon to match the natural perfume of her dancing. The coming season is theirs to dominate, and many will be watching.