Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in 'Herman Schmerman'. Photo: © Ann Ray/Opera national de Paris

‘Merce Cunningham. William Forsythe.’ Paris Opera Ballet

22 April, 2017, Palais Garnier, Paris

Recently The Times (London) carried a short article entitled ‘Learn language while you wait for web page to load’. It concerned newly developed apps that ‘test you on vocabulary in idle moments, such as when you are connecting to a network or waiting for an instant message.’*  The timing of the article was serendipitous. It came to my attention as I was about to see Paris Opera Ballet’s triple bill, Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe. It seemed like it was an update to what Merce Cunningham was interested to explore with his Walkaround Time (1968), the first work on the POB program. I set off for the theatre with even more anticipation than usual. Cunningham truly was ahead of his time I mused.

The title Walkaround Time, according to Cunningham, comes from computer language. ‘You feed the computer information then you have to wait while it digests.’** Cunningham mentions, however, that it isn’t clear whether it is the computer or the user who is doing the walking around, although for him it is clearly the people!

Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in Walkaroud Time, 2017. Photo: Ann Ray/Opéra national de Paris

The dancers of POB handled the Cunningham choreography beautifully—staging was by ex-Cunningham dancers Jennifer Goggans and Meg Harper. I admired especially the dancer who took the role originally danced by Carolyn Brown. Many of the artists appearing in this program (at least at the performance I saw) were not high enough up in the POB hierarchy to warrant a photo in the printed program, so I don’t know who she was. In any case, she was exceptional in her ability to display the balance and stillness this role requires at times, but also showed a beautiful fullness to her dancing when moving was part of the choreography. But all the dancers I saw, with their finely honed bodies and inbuilt understanding of shape and space, brought a wonderful quality to the work, showing as they did the clarity of Cunningham’s deceptively simple choreography.

Jasper Johns’ set, which referred to Marcel Duchamp’s dada-ist Large Glass, and David Behrman’s score …for nearly an hour…, set the work firmly within the Cunningham collaborative tradition, highlighting the independence of the collaborative elements. Watching Walkaround Time was a truly evocative and quite exciting experience.

The first of the two works by William Forsythe that made up the rest of the program was Trio. It had some conceptual similarities to the Cunningham piece, even though Forsythe, unlike Cunningham, works within the vocabulary of classical ballet. Trio was a kind of slapstick piece, reminding me a little of something from Cirque du soleil. The dancers came forward pointing out different parts of their body in between dancing and engaging in a kind of rough and tumble physical contact. But, with its stop-start musical accompaniment (a Quartet by Beethoven), and with several sections of dancing being executed in silence, the link back to Cunningham was uncanny.

Herman Schmerman, consists of two parts (made at different times in the 1990s)—a pas de cinq followed by a pas de deux. It probably was the work that showed the dancers of Paris Opera Ballet at their balletic best. The pas de cinq, fast-paced and showy, gave them the opportunity to display speed, intricate beaten work and extended limbs. I especially enjoyed the dancing of Chun Wing Lam. He moved brilliantly, using every part of his body. He twisted, turned, bent all ways, moved so smoothly and fluidly, and looked as though he was having the best time. Wonderful to watch.

The pas de deux, danced by Aurélia  Bellet and Aurélien Houette, was a little unusual. In its vocabulary, it had Forsythe’s signature elements of extended limbs, off-centre poses, startling lifts, and the like, scattered throughout the piece. But the communication between the two dancers was not what one might have expected. They were sometimes off-hand with each other, and sometimes they seemed to be in teasing mode. They were a little cheeky and often amusing in the way they related to each other. A bit like life really.

Both the pas de cinq and pas de deux had delightful and surprising endings. As the pas de cinq came to an end, all five dancers disappeared behind a low barrier that stretched across the back of the stage. The accompanying lighting, by Tanji Rühl and Forsythe, was gorgeous and was enhanced by the appearance of two large orange/yellow circles of light on the backcloth as the dancers popped their heads up over the barrier. In a similarly surprising and delightful way, towards the end of the pas de deux both the woman and the man added short, yellow, pleated skirts over their black, close-fitting costumes (costume design by Gianni Versace and Forsythe) and continued the dance with skirts swinging jauntily.

Merce Cunningham and William Forsythe was an inspired program. It was through the vision of Benjamin Millepied, now no longer dance director of POB, that these three works entered the repertoire. Together they made up a program that clearly showed what dance can accomplish in the hands of two exceptional intellects and two inquiring choreographic minds.

Michelle Potter, 24 April 2017

Featured image: Artists of Paris Opera Ballet in Herman Schmerman, 2017. Photo: © Ann Ray/Opéra national de Paris

* The Times (London), 22 April 2017, p. 5
** Quoted in the app Merce Cunningham 65 Years

‘Le palais de cristal’ & ‘Daphnis et Chloé’. Paris Opera Ballet

Watching dance on the big screen has many pleasures. Perhaps the biggest joy these days is being able to see, so soon after a premiere, works presented by major companies from the other side of the world. The recent screening in Australia of a filmed performance from the Paris Opera Ballet is a case in point. Filmed just days after the opening at the Opéra Bastille, this program brought together Le palais de cristal from George Balanchine and Daphnis et Chloé, a new work from Benjamin Millepied, shortly to take over at POB from Brigitte Lefèvre.

Le palais de cristal opened the program. Made by Balanchine in 1947 especially for POB, it is better known around the world in a revised form as Symphony in C. One of the aspects of the filming that I especially liked was that the recording was often made from a position high up in the theatre. As a result the precise and very formal patterns Balanchine created for Le palais de cristal were easily appreciated. But we were also given many occasions to see the dancers as if we were  sitting in the best seats in the house. The closer shots provided a good view of the costumes, newly designed by Christian Lacroix. Some have seen them as overly decorative. I thought they suited the work and I was especially fascinated by the tutus for the corps de ballet. They seemed to have a hoop-like addition to the skirt that gave them a kind of puff-ball look.

But of course the highlight was the dancing. It is always amazing to see the precision of the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet. Never a foot wrong! One dancer from amongst the soloists stood out. Not knowing the dancers as much as I would like I don’t know her name but she was, I think, of Japanese extraction. What appealed to me was the way she stepped forward into the space in front of her, generously, and the way her movements seemed to have an ongoing existence. A lift of the arm didn’t finish at the finger tips but looked as though it continued through space. Beautiful.

Paris Opera Ballet, 'Le palais de cristal'. Photo: Agathe Pouponey

Amandine Albisson, Matthieu Ganio and dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet in Le palais de cristal, 1st movement. Photo: © Agathe Poupeney

Daphnis et Chloé had a certain fascination, given that I remain an admirer of Graeme Murphy and his works made for Sydney Dance Company made over a thirty year period between the mid 1970s and the early 2000s. Murphy’s Daphnis and Chloe, made in 1980 and designed by Kristian Fredrikson, could not have been further apart from that of Millepied. But I have no wish to make a comparison, just a comment on what a different take it was, visually, choreographically and in terms of portrayal of the narrative.

I found Millepied’s work hard to follow. The choreography certainly flowed and there were some lovely moments of mass movement from the corps. But the storyline wasn’t really conveyed strongly. It was something of a cross between a story ballet and an abstraction, but in the end neither. The standout dancer was François Alu as Bryaxis. Millepied gave him a solo full of spectacular jumps and turns and he rose to the occasion.

Daniel Buren’s large, brightly coloured shapes that descended from the flies and then withdrew back upwards were beautiful in themselves but they didn’t help with understanding the story. In the interview Buren gave to Mme Lefèvre prior to the start of the performance he talked about voids and the idea of occupying space. He is a conceptual artist but the concept he was aiming for with his design to my mind didn’t help the ballet. And why, at the conclusion of the ballet, were the dancers’ costumes transformed into colour from the white they were throughout the rest of the work? At the same time, Buren’s shapes were removed only to reappear a little later for a curtain call. The whole thing escaped me. I wondered whether, for this work, I would have been more satisfied had I been in the theatre watching live.

Despite my problems with Daphnis et Chloé, it is always a huge pleasure watching Paris Opera Ballet performances. The practice of filming live and then transmitting around the world is a great initiative. May it continue.

Michelle Potter, 30 July 2014

Some thoughts on ‘Giselle’ and the Paris Opera Ballet

Interesting news from Paris is that Benjamin Millepied will take up the position of Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet following the retirement of Brigitte Lefèvre in 2014. Millepied, dancer and choreographer whose performing career has included a significant stretch of time with New York City Ballet where he rose from corps dancer to principal, is perhaps best known to a wider public for his work with Natalie Portman on the movie Black Swan. Millepied’s stage choreography was most recently seen in the southern hemisphere in 2012 in the Royal New Zealand Ballet season of NYC. RNZB staged Millepied’s 2005 work 28 variations on a theme by Paganini.  

Meanwhile, the Paris Opera Ballet, a company with a long and illustrious heritage, opens its Sydney season of Giselle at the Capitol Theatre tomorrow. It has been a while since a full production of Giselle has been danced in Australia, and this is a perfect opportunity to see it performed by the company whose forebears danced it at its world premiere.

Gisellefirst took to the stage in Paris in 1841 at the theatre of the Paris Opera. The ballet was developed by a first-rate team of European creatives. Its libretto was written by poet and critic Théophile Gautier and dramatist Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and was based on a story by the German writer Heinrich Heine. Its music was composed by Adolphe Adam and its choreography created by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot. On opening night the role of Giselle was danced by Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi and her performance that night established her as a major star.

Since that opening performance Gisellehas hardly been out of the ballet repertoire making it one of the most enduring of all the classics. It has undergone various changes over time, as happens with all works in the performing arts, but essentially it remains the story of a young peasant girl, Giselle, who falls for Albrecht, a nobleman in disguise. She has her heart broken and dies when it becomes clear that Albrecht is engaged to a noblewoman, Bathilde. Giselle returns in spirit form—as a Wili, that is a spirit of a betrothed girl who has died before her wedding night. Led by their queen, Myrthe, the Wilis are intent on pursuing to their death all men who enter the forest at night. It falls to Giselle to save a grieving Albrecht from this fate.

But like all works of art that have endured over centuries, Giselletakes place in a complex world. We encounter many differences of life-style—peasants appear alongside noblemen; and different realms of nature—a fertile countryside where a bountiful grape harvest is celebrated in Act I contrasts with a forest graveyard and the chill of night in Act II. In the Paris Opera Ballet production flower symbolism also plays a significant role. White flowers appear in both acts. They are daisies and field flowers in Act I. Giselle’s peasant admirer, the gamekeeper Hilarion, leaves a bouquet of white daisies outside Giselle’s cottage rather than the dead rabbit or bird he leaves in productions by many other companies. A single daisy also hints that all is not well when Giselle and Albrecht engage in the ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ game with daisy petals.

In Act II Hilarion returns with daisies for Giselle’s grave but the flowers of Act II include lilies, white roses and flowering myrtle, powerful symbols of love, immortality, purity, and in the case of myrtle used for centuries in bridal bouquets. The Queen of the Wilis, Myrthe, carries a branch of flowering myrtle as her sceptre; Albrecht enters with an armful of lilies for Giselle’s grave; Giselle pleads with Myrthe to spare Albrecht and a handful of white roses tumble from her arms and fall at Myrthe’s feet. The forces of nature are powerful throughout.

Gisellealso presents us with a number of conundrums. Where or who is Giselle’s father for example? We only meet her mother, Berthe, who in Act I superstitiously tells the story of the Wilis and provides a foretaste of what will occur in Act II. Could the father be the Duke of Courland, who in Act I arrives with his hunting party and is served with refreshments by Berthe? In the Paris Opera Ballet production (at least on its current video manifestation) he takes a particular interest in Giselle, cupping her chin in his hands and looking into her eyes. He seems quite familiar with Berthe as well. And why did Giselle die? Was it of a broken heart? Was it from all the dancing in which we see her engage in Act I, just as Berthe prophesied? Or did she inherit a weak constitution? And how does she die? Does she stab herself with Albrecht’s sword, which Hilarion uses to expose Albrecht’s real identity? And what of Albrecht? Does he really love Giselle? Or is he living a lie and wreaking havoc on the life of a young peasant girl as he plays at being a peasant himself? Marie-Antoinette and her fake rustic village at Versailles come to mind.

The dancing itself in this Paris Opera Ballet production is almost flawless in a technical sense. In addition, the dancers, male and female, have an elegance and a perfection in the way they carry themselves that not only reflects their impeccable training but somehow also seems to reflect their royal heritage. The Paris Opera Ballet can trace its lineage back to 1661, when the French monarch Louis XIV, the Sun King, established the Académie royale de danse. Louis XIV was an enthusiastic and accomplished dancer himself. His familiar name, the Sun King, is reputed to date from his appearance as Apollo, god of the sun, in one of the sequences in Les Ballets de la nuit in 1653. He was just 14 at the time and was dressed in a costume replete with golden rays that fanned out around him as we imagine the rays of the sun radiate from a golden orb. Legend also has it that he had such slim and elegant ankles that he loved to pose with his heel pushed forward to show the royal ankles in all their glory. Ballet technique, the story goes, has been characterised by a ‘turn out’ of the feet and legs ever since.

There is so much to ponder on as the story of Giselle unfolds. I am filled with anticipation!

Giselle, Paris Opera Ballet, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 29–February 9

© Michelle Potter, 28 January 2013

Postscript (29 January 2013): Shame about the misspelling of Laurent Hilaire’s name in The Sydney Morning Herald‘s article (p. 7) this morning. Not a good advertisement  for Australian media on the morning of the Paris Opera Ballet’s opening. And, although the same article also notes that Millepied has no official ties with the Paris company, Millepied has made a work for the company, his Amoveo (2006). Excerpts from this work and others by Millepied made recently are on his website.

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‘NYC’. Royal New Zealand Ballet

22 March 2012, St James Theate, Wellington

The first program by new artistic director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, Ethan Stiefel, opened in Wellington on 22 March. After a regional tour that began in Auckland in February the program, NYC: three short works from the Big Apple, had clearly worked itself into a very smooth operation by the time it reached Wellington. We saw a diverse, exuberant and beautifully danced show.

The program opened with 28 variations on a theme by Paganini, a work by Benjamin Millepied made originally in 2005. Danced to a piano score by Brahms, the choreography is as varied as the music. Under a single chandelier, and against a black background, five elegantly dressed couples whirl and swirl across the stage. Sometimes they dance in canon, often they execute fabulous lifts and move with unexpected changes of direction. They engage in a luscious performance of the classical vocabulary and occasionally there are subtle undercurrents that suggest relationships between them. I especially enjoyed the dancing of Bronte Kelly whose pleasure in being in this very dancerly work was patently clear. 28 variations on a theme by Paganini

Antonia Hewitt and Brendan Bradshaw in 28 Variations on a theme by Paganini, 2012. Photo Evan Li. Courtesy the Royal New Zealand Ballet

There were, however, a few moments when for me the choreography was jarring. At one point Gillian Murphy entered walking on pointe, stiff-legged and looking a little like a dancer-doll who had suddenly stepped off a music box. Not even Murphy’s strong onstage presence and expressive face could save this section from looking out of place.

Taking the middle spot on the program was Larry Keigwin’s Final dress, created especially for the Royal New Zealand Ballet and danced to a fast-paced score for violin, cello, clarinet and electric piano by Adam Crystal. On a stage stripped right back to basics, this work is full-on dancing from beginning to end. Mixing contemporary movement with more classical steps, the dancers explore the adrenalin rush associated with getting a show onstage. They run, throw themselves at each other and exude constant energy. I didn’t read into it what the program note told me it was about, ‘the boundaries between the public and the private, and the territories we guard’, but Final dress deservedly got a loud and enthusiastic reception as it came to an end.Scene from 'Final dress'

Dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet in Final dress, 2012. Photo Evan Li. Courtesy the Royal New Zealand Ballet

Closing the evening was a performance of the vintage Balanchine work Who cares? set to a Hershey Kay arrangement of songs by George Gershwin. This is sassy Balanchine in his Hollywood/Broadway mode and to a certain extent it is a little outdated in terms of the dance style and era it references: it is four decades old, compared with later works in a similar vein such as Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs (made a mere two decades ago). But that aside, the dancers of the Royal New Zealand Ballet did themselves proud. Gillian Murphy and Paul Mathews danced an as smooth as silk pas de deux and the two other soloists, Abigail Boyle and Lucy Green, shone like Hollywood stars. I also admired the lovely-limbed dancer, Maree White, who took the middle spot in the line-up of the five chorus ladies.

A small grumble about the printed program: why didn’t it contain costume design credits? There wasn’t much to worry about with sets as there weren’t really any to fuss about, other than the New York skyline (minus the Chrysler Building) for Who cares? But the costume designers did deserve a billing, even if some costumes were apparently hired from New York-based ballet companies. Someone must have designed them. And why were there no captions for photos in the program? For those who are not regulars at Royal New Zealand Ballet performances it would have been nice if the dancers in some lovely photographs had been identified. But NYC was a wonderful start for Stiefel’s directorship and the prospect of more is definitely something to anticipate.

Michelle Potter, 23 March 2012

‘Jewels’. New York City Ballet

27 February 2010, David H. Koch Theater, New York

What a pleasure and a luxury it is to those whose home is not New York to see the full length Jewels. Made by Balanchine in 1967, each of its three distinct sections—’Emeralds’, ‘Rubies’ and ‘Diamonds’—is set to music by three different composers, Fauré for ‘Emeralds’, Stravinsky for ‘Rubies’ and Tschaikovsky for ‘Diamonds’. Many have suggested that Jewels is also in homage to three different countries—’Emeralds’ to France, ‘Rubies’ to Balanchine’s adopted homeland, America, and ‘Diamonds’ to Russia. But in the end, Jewels is an evening of delicious and diverse dancing.

‘Emeralds’ is at once moody and mysterious, romantic and sombre, and sometimes like a whisper in a forest glade. ‘Rubies’ is all sass and neon. Diamonds is pure and clean, a dance in an arctic cave filled with cool yet intricate ice carvings.

The structure of ‘Emeralds’ calls for two leading couples. On this occasion Abi Stafford and Jared Angle were a gracious couple, transcendent in their pas de deux, while Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford showed breathtaking expressiveness and expansiveness of movement. Robert Fairchild was impressive as the male member of the pas de trois of soloists, showing his courteous partnering without losing his own strong presence.

‘Rubies’ showcased a pert and prancey Janie Taylor and a boisterous Benjamin Millepied. They were more than ably supported by Savannah Lowrey and a strong corps de ballet whipping off the clean, fast footwork, flicking wrists and eye catching head movements of this section.

The big disappointment, however, came with ‘Diamonds’. There were some uplifting moments—a polonaise for the corps de ballet that was just joyous Balanchine, for example. But Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal lacked attack in their pas de deux and so the brilliance and strength that should characterise this act was lost. And Whelan seemed hugely uncomfortable in her 1960s style ‘powder puff’ tutu.

New York City Ballet’s Jewels could well do with a redesign in my opinion. While choreographically it remains as modern as today, as the French ballerina Aurélie Dupont has remarked, both Karinska’s costumes and Peter Harvey’s scenery for New York City Ballet are fussy and look outmoded. Christian Lacroix and Brigitte Lefèvre have made the Paris Opera Ballet’s staging of Jewels a cut above that of New York City Ballet. Lacroix’s scenery verges on the minimalist and his costumes, while they recall those of Karinska, have a more contemporary feel (especially the tutus for ‘Diamonds’), which to my mind allows the choreography to maximise its ‘as modern as today’ image.

Michelle Potter, 13 March 2010