A woman in black held aloft by a man among a chorus of mourners, a bare tree fallen to the ground, the lifeless bride Eurydice presiding over her own musical tombeau: as soon as the curtain rises on Pina Bausch’s 1975 Orphée et Eurydice, the scale and austere beauty of her take on the myth become apparent. A true Gesamtkunstwerk, this “dance opera” set to Gluck entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet in 2005, and the current revival does it complete justice.
Indeed, Bausch has seemed more and more part of Paris Opera Ballet’s DNA in recent years. Paris tours by her Tanztheater Wuppertal in the early 1990s sparked a fertile relationship with the company, which lasted until her death in 2009; last season POB paid tribute to her with harrowing, enthralling performances of her Rite of Spring.
Orphée is another apt homage, and much more. Influenced by modern dance, this early work divides each of the three main roles between an opera singer and a dancer, who have their own understated relationship on stage. The choreography is distilled down to seemingly simple phrases, low to the ground; the stark design, by Rolf Borzik, Bausch’s then partner, adds to the atmosphere, with white walls in most scenes and long, semi-transparent tunics for the women. Eurydice’s red dress in the last tableau stands out like a symbol of hubris among the palette of nude, black and white tones, a visual emblem of the feelings that will be her downfall.
The corps de ballet is the heart and soul of Orphée, a true Greek chorus, and Paris Opera’s decision to cast mostly experienced dancers paid off. Most of them worked with Bausch, and their reverence for her is evident on stage. As mourners and Furies, they strike a balance between weight and fluidity, like bas-reliefs come to life.
Stéphane Bullion (Orphée) was still coming to grips with his complex character on opening night, but as Eurydice Marie-Agnès Gillot is larger than life, her angular, stately silhouette lending poignancy to the last scene. Muriel Zusperreguy was similarly touching as Amour, the luminous, innocent messenger of the gods. Bausch brought out the humanity in her dancers like no other, and Orphée is no exception.