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Paris Opera Ballet

‘Caligula’

by Cassandra

4th November 2005 -- Opera Garnier, Paris

After having watched in horrified disbelief the latest BBC drama series “Rome”, an hour of sickeningly gratuitous violence along with graphic sex and nudity, I approached a new ballet called “Caligula” with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried though, as compared with what I had watched a couple of days before this was a work of tastefulness and restraint.

Nicholas Le Riche has turned to Suetonius, an author who pulls no punches, as his source for a ballet about the life of Caligula, and it is to M. Le Riche’s credit that he has not chosen to portray the more lurid episodes in the life of this Roman emperor who was the most dissolute and debauched of the entire Julii clan. Instead Le Riche concentrates on the effects of early celebrity and mental illness, describing Caligula in the programme notes as “a tortured soul”, a more sympathetic view of this subject than most would take.

This is Le Riche’s first major work for the company and is a full evening ballet of around ninety minutes given without an interval. It consists of five acts danced to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” punctuated by electronic interludes. I was surprised at the choice of music, so beloved of every call-centre from London to Bombay, but perhaps this admittedly rather beautiful music isn’t considered a cliché in France. It provides quite a contrast to what is depicted on stage, but then Monteverdi’s “Coronation of Poppea” is a work of genius despite being concerned with the love life of another depraved pair of Romans.

The set is simply a colonnade on each side of the stage with red tinged columns (looking more Minoan than Roman) topped off with what appears to be an iron girder and above the width of the stage there is a video screen. The named characters, with the exception of Caligula himself, make their entrances mostly in blocks of dancers, for example the senator Chaerea (Jean-Chrisrophe Guerri), a leading character, is indistinguishable from the other senators that include a couple of girls dressed as chaps. Similarly the group described as “the following” includes Sidonia, the mistress and eventually wife of Caligula, this group is predominantly female with a couple of men in drag. Sidonia was danced by one of POB’s finest – Miteki Kudo, but she gets precious little to do other than wear a very glamorous costume, the likes of which I suspect was never seen in ancient Rome.

Caligula makes an impressive entrance when the backdrop partially rises to reveal a vast staircase down which he descends. The very young, recently appointed etoile Mathieu Ganio takes the title role, but makes a very low-key emperor indeed. Although he isn’t first cast, I felt an older, more experienced dancer might have been more appropriate in the role. Other featured roles include that of an enigmatic moon (perhaps a symbol of lunacy?) danced on pointe by Muriel Zusperreguy, and a scene stealing performance from Laurent Hilaire as the famous mime, Mnester.

Le Riche’s choreography seemed to show the influences of both Neumeier and Kylian, the pauses and moments of stillness in certain passages put me very much in mind of Kylian. But clearly Le Riche is searching for a voice of his own and the short scene of Caligula with his horse Incitatus was both moving and tender with Caligula feeding the animal from his hand. And the sight of a man (Stephane Phavorin), depicting a horse with a bit and bridle in his mouth, which could so easily have appeared ridiculous, was instead a passage of honesty and originality. M. Le Riche has chosen a difficult subject and has taken an unusually charitable view of one of history’s monsters but in doing so has shown a boldness of purpose coupled with a choreographic talent that will hopefully develop into a more distinctive voice in the future.

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