Ballets go in and out of fashion, and every once in a while a production not seen in years suddenly becomes ubiquitous. This may yet be Notre-Dame de Paris’s fate: after a decade or so in the vaults of the ballet world, this 1965 Roland Petit ballet is back this month at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, will be broadcast to international cinemas on Thursday and is set for a Paris revival in the near future.
Less than two years after Petit’s death, La Scala’s staging is an opportunity to re-examine what is considered one of his masterpieces. This Notre-Dame moves on from 19th-century ballet versions of Victor Hugo’s novel to tell a streamlined, rather less sentimental story. The score by Maurice Jarre is relentlessly dark, with percussion the driving force; Yves Saint Laurent’s costumes range from simple, colourful tunics to Quasimodo’s gargoyle-like grey number, and the outlines of the cathedral used as sets are equally stylised.
Petit’s choreography, meanwhile, has a directness, a theatricality that lends classical steps an expressionistic edge. His trademark interplay between turned-in and turned-out positions is present, and he weaves ordinary gestures or images into his work at every turn, pushing them as metaphors for the characters. Grotesque poses and flexed feet give definition to the Court of Miracles; Phoebus and his archers trot as if on horses; Quasimodo’s jutting elbow is a constant reminder of his deformity.
The corps scenes overdo it, unfortunately, with much shuffling and broad gesturing reminiscent of Soviet choreography and little actual dancing. Petit’s use of the hands, however, is a striking element, starting with variations on jazz hands for the beggars and thieves of Notre-Dame, hinting at invisible bells or heavy with menace. For Frollo, they stand for both prayer and temptation, the only part of his body not covered by his severe black costume, and he hides them in horror when his desire for Esmeralda threatens to run amok.
With her corset-like tunics and sensual footwork, Petit’s Esmeralda is a cousin of his landmark Carmen, and there is no better enfant terrible to play her today than Natalia Osipova, the former Bolshoi star who ran away to St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet. Her legs are at once ordinary and extraordinary for the ballet stage: not immediately striking but lightning-fast and explosive in their effects, not least the gravity-defying jumps she is famous for. As Esmeralda she uses them to the full, commanding the stage with mischievous ardour from her initial variation, and her vividly realistic despair in Act Two is a reminder of the larger-than-life acting she has honed over the years.
Italian ballet star Roberto Bolle was making an unlikely debut as Quasimodo opposite her. Bolle routinely moonlights as a model and even in full make-up he’s still more handsome than anyone else on stage; his is a valiant artistic effort, but hampered by that oh-so-harsh reality. The company is still feeling its way into the ballet after an 11-year break, but Mick Zeni in particular was a fine, obsessive Frollo. More new casts will follow, including a debut as Quasimodo for Osipova’s long-time partner, Ivan Vasiliev.