Paris Opera Ballet, 'Défilé'

Celebrate Dance. Paris Opera Ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet once again demonstrated its incredible technical and artistic strengths in Celebrate Dance, a film introduced by the company’s retiring director Brigitte Lefèvre and recently released in Australian cinemas. Opening the program was the Paris Opera Ballet’s traditional parade of dancers from the company and its school—the défilé—seen for the first time on film. This spectacular presentation begins in a chandeliered ante-room, the foyer de la danse of Degas fame. Some 350 artists and artists-to-be, beginning with the youngest children from the ballet school and ending with the étoiles of the company, make their way from the ante-room down the stage of the Palais Garnier, giving a bow as they reach the front of the stage before moving into assigned places. There is no formal dancing as such but it generates goose-bumps to see these dancers on parade, and to hear the audience honour them with, as might be expected, the greatest applause given to the étoiles, who enter singly rather than in a group as happens with the rest of the artists. Finally they form a tableau which Robert Greskovic has described in his book Ballet 101: a complete guide to learning and loving the ballet: ‘In its final tableau the défilé amasses a garden of ballet beauty, paying homage to the art form’s continuity and freshness.’

Paris Opera Ballet, 'Défilé'
Le défilé du ballet, final tableau, Paris Opera Ballet, 2014

There is also an account of the origin of the défilé du ballet, as it is now called, in Greskovic’s book. He notes that this parade of dancers was introduced by ballet master Léo Staats in 1926, when it was called Le défilé. The name was changed to Le grand défilé when the director of the company was Serge Lifar. Currently it is performed to the March of the Trojans from Les Troyens of Hector Belioz. Staats set it to the March from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

The défilé was followed by a performance of Études, which Lefèvre spoke of in her introduction as being a rather challenging ballet! But the Paris Opera Ballet seemed to sail through the performance with all the precision and technical expertise that the work demands. I enjoyed in particular one of the opening sequences done at the barre in which the dancers showed three different types of ronds de jambe—à terre, en l’air and grands, with perfect timing and precision, every leg at the same height, every foot closing at the same time and so on. Mesmerising mechanics performed with speed! These opening sections at the barre were enhanced, I thought, by moody lighting in which the upper part of the body was scarcely visible at times. It gave absolute focus to the precise movements of the lower body, a special effect of the film not usually achieved in a stage performance.

Dorothée Gilbert danced the leading female role in Études and she was partnered by Joshua Hoffalt and Karl Paquette. It was impossible not to be stunned by their joyous dancing—in particular by Gilbert’s beautifully controlled balances and multiple turns, and the beats, turns and jumps of the two men. But every dancer performed astonishingly well. And again yes, O’Neill was there turning fabulous fouettés and making her presence well and truly felt.

I regret that circumstances did not allow me to stay to see the final section, excerpts (as far as I could tell) from Nutcracker. I would be delighted to receive comments on this last section.

Michelle Potter, 19 April 2015

Footnote: And on the subject of Études, I recently interviewed Lisa Pavane for the National Library of Australia’s oral history program. When this interview goes online, hopefully soon, it is worth listening to Pavane’s account of dancing in Études. It was after her opening night performance in this extremely demanding ballet in 1986 that she was promoted to principal.

Imperial Suite. The Australian Ballet

10 May 2014 (evening), Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House

It is a long time since I have had a seat in the circle for a ballet performance (in any theatre come to think of it), but that’s where I was seated at the Sydney Opera House for Imperial Suite, the Australian Ballet’s mixed bill of Ballet Imperial and Suite en blanc. It was certainly exciting to see Ballet Imperial from that vantage point. Looking down on a George Balanchine work gives a stunning view of the patterns of his choreography—the circles, squares, diamonds, straight lines, and flowing waves of dancers threading their way through the arched arms of other dancers—provided of course that the work on view is well danced and well staged. Which it certainly was at this performance. The ballet was beautifully led by Lana Jones and Adam Bull, with Jones the shining ballerina and Bull the gallant Balanchinian partner.

Adam Bull and Lana Jones in 'Ballet Imperial', 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet
Adam Bull and Lana Jones in Ballet Imperial, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

There were some particularly lovely moments in the pas de deux in the first movement. I loved the backwards hops on pointe with the leg in arabesque after Jones rose from a swoon-like fall with her arms around Bull’s neck, and also a little later her lift of the leg to second position followed by a slow pull in to retiré, followed by the same sequence of movement on the other side but at double speed. Both were exciting to watch and Balanchine is so good at showing these things more than once so we don’t miss them! And of course Bull was there supporting all these technical feats. Both dancers allowed us to see Balanchine’s exquisite musicality.

Hugh Colman’s new tutus are just gorgeous. Regal in blue and black and one or two complementary shades for the soloists, they are made with sharp lines to the skirt so they seem to represent the cut of a diamond or other precious stones, and they are decorated with a silver sash-like decoration at the back. Very imperial!

What a joy the performance was and it inspires me to say ‘thank you, thank you’. And with Eve Lawson on board as a repetiteur with the Australian Ballet—and what an asset she is—I am looking forward to (or perhaps ‘hoping for’ are better words) a revival of Theme and Variations soon.

Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc closed the evening. It is certainly a classically-based work and has many interesting features. Its opening scene as the curtain rises, with dancers arranged on several levels on the stage and clad in various white costumes with a very slight touch of contrasting black, usually generates a round of applause, as it did on this occasion. But Lifar’s limitations as a choreographer are, perhaps unfortunately, highlighted by placing Suite en blanc on the same program as Ballet Imperial. Suite en blanc looks very static in comparison and movement is in no way a static event.

Nevertheless, there were some outstanding performances from some cast members and it is always special to see good dancing. Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes performed stylishly in the pas de deux and Scott was a stand-out in the ‘Variation de la flûte’. But I especially admired Ako Kondo for her technical accomplishments in the ‘Pas de cinq’ and Laura Tong for a beautifully languid and delicious ‘Variation de la cigarette’.

Ako Kondo in 'Suite en blanc', the Australian Ballet, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet
Ako Kondo in Suite en blanc. TheAustralian Ballet, 2014. Photo courtesy of the Australian Ballet

Michelle Potter, 11 May 2014

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

The Australian Ballet in 2014

The Australian Ballet recently announced its season for 2014. The inclusion of Stanton Welch’s production of La Bayadère, made for Houston Ballet in 2010, seems to have caused the biggest stir in the press with reports that live snakes and a snake wrangler will make an appearance. Reptiles and their handlers aside, it is certainly a step in an interesting direction to have a new work from Welch (new to Australia anyway) on the program given that he has continued to hold the post of a resident choreographer while also being artistic director of Houston Ballet since 2003.

Although I was not overly impressed with Welch’s recent Rite of Spring, I look forward to seeing this full-length Bayadère and hope that he has tightened up the story a little. ‘La Bayadère is a recurring problem’, as American Dance Magazine noted not so long ago.

But for me the most interesting program on the 2014 list is a mixed bill entitled Chroma. It includes Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, an exciting work made on the Royal Ballet in 2006. I loved its minimalism and its collaborative aesthetic when I saw it a couple of years ago. The Chroma program also includes two short pieces by Jiri Kylian, Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze.

The Australian Ballet showed these two Kylian pieces in 2005 and who can forget those wonderfully fluid duets from Petite Mort, not to mention the fencing foils that the men manipulate in the opening sequences, or those roll-along, black ballgowns! It’s hard to forget Sechs Tänze too, a curiously playful work in which the dancers wear costumes designed by Kylian, which he calls ‘Mozartian underwear’. This program also includes a new work by Stephen Baynes.

A second mixed bill entitled Imperial Suite consists of George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial and Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc. The season also includes Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, which we have seen so many times in Australia, and Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker.

I am looking forward to an exciting season in 2014 although I’d rather something other than Manon as a third evening length work.

Michelle Potter, 6 September 2013

Here is a is a link to a Houston Ballet preview of Welch’s Bayadère. Watch out for a variation from the Kingdom of the Shades scene danced by Nozomi Iijima. It comes towards the end of the four minute preview.

Featured image: Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in Petite Mort. Photo: Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Natasha Kusen and Andrew Killian in 'Petite Mort'. Photo Paul Scala. Courtesy the Australian Ballet

Tatiana Stepanova (1924-2009)

Tatiana Stepanova, who arrived in Australia in December 1939 with the third of Colonel de Basil’s touring Ballets Russes companies—the Original Ballet Russe—died late last year in Florida. The company’s Australian debut was in Sydney on 30 December 1939 and on that night Stepanova danced in Les Sylphides and was partnered by Serge Lifar. Her performance was noted as an ‘astonishing debut’ by ‘a sixteen-year old girl, who had never before had a leading part’. One reviewer applauded her ‘floating serenity’ and ‘technical fearlessness’.

But even before she had set foot onstage in Australia, news of a potential star was being reported by the Australian press. The Orcades, on which a large contingent of company members had travelled from London, docked first in Fremantle, Western Australia, and The Argus newspaper reported from there that Stepanova was said ‘to show promise of surpassing Pavlova’.  De Basil was recorded as saying ‘She is the kind of dancer one finds once in 50 years. She has created a sensation in Europe’.

Stepanova also appeared in early performances of David Lichine’s Graduation Ball, which had its world premiere in Sydney on 1 March 1940. She danced the Sylphide in the divertissement ‘The Sylphide and the Scotsman’ partnered by Michael Panaieff. She did not created this role—opening night was given to Natasha Sobinova and Paul Petroff, but cast sheets indicate that Stepanova danced it at least as early as 5 March. A number of photographs of her as the Sylphide were shot by Melbourne-based photographer Hugh P. Hall and many show the expressiveness of her upper body and her long and exquisite line.

Hugh P. Hall, Tatiana Stepanova and Michael Panaieff in ‘The Sylphide and the Scotsman’, Graduation Ball, Original Ballet Russe, Melbourne. National Library of Australia.

An obituary of Stepanova appeared earlier this month on the ballet.co.uk site. It was written by Renee Renouf Hall who had also been working with Stepanova on her memoirs.

UPDATE: Unfortunately the link to this obituary is no longer available

©  Michelle Potter, 28 January 2010

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