"The Paris Opéra Ballet" by Ivor Guest
In many ways the long history of the Paris Opéra Ballet is almost the history of ballet itself. Chronicling each new innovation in the art form from the shedding of masks, the introduction of female dancers, to the innovation of separating ballet from opera, the POB has led the way.
This is the first English edition of a book originally commissioned from veteran ballet historian Ivor Guest in 1976 to mark the centenary of the Opéra Garnier and which was updated in 2002. It is both informative and entertaining and benefits from comprehensive appendices of all ballets danced up to 2004, also the names of all the ballet masters (or AD’s as we refer to them today), the etoiles, the guest artists, and, together with actual numbers, the most frequently performed ballets in the company’s history: no surprise that top of the list is Coppelia with Giselle coming in second. Both ballets of course received their premieres in Paris.
Ivor Guest is perhaps best known as a chronicler of 19th century ballet, but the stories of all those personalities that developed the art of ballet from 1661 to the present day come vividly to life under his pen and indeed the careers of many of the earliest artists made the most intriguing reading of all for me. Since listening to a CD of early ballet music recorded by William Christie I’ve been fascinated by those early years. Astonishing tempi. How did they dance in those far off days? Fast. Although subservient to the opera at that time, these were among the greatest years in the company’s history.
It was the romantic era that Guest considers the company’s heyday when ballet was at the forefront of the entire Romantic Movement that swept across Europe impacting on all the arts. The careers of those famous ballerinas (not all French) that danced their way into the history of the art are all lovingly described here, though Guest very fairly informs us that it was the now almost forgotten Geneviève Gosselin who first rose onto her points - a decade or more before Taglioni.
The company has experienced its highs and its lows and the anonymous and undated quote from the early 19th century concerning the sad state of contemporary ballet claims that: there was “no elegance, no taste……legs ungracefully stretched stiff and raised to the level of the eyes or the chin all evening long”. Not much different to today then. Another low was the famous, or perhaps I should say infamous, period of ‘The Decadence’ when male dancing was all but banished from the Opéra stage in favour of a bevy of pretty girls to please the abonnées, and when Italian guest ballerinas pretty much ruled the roost. But it wasn’t a total write off artistically if you remember that Jules Perrot was still teaching, Delibes was writing his masterly scores and Degas captured the soul of the French ballet for posterity.
The style of the book is documentary and Mr Guest lays before us the facts that make up the company’s history without adding personal opinions about the main events, though he clearly feels more warmth towards some of the Opéra’s great personalities than others. One might have expected some ambivalence towards the egotistical Serge Lifar for example, but Guest sees him as a timely reformer finally cutting back on the privileges of those disreputable abonnées and above all, “reinvigorating a company that lacked any strong sense of artistic mission”
The story is brought up to date with Guest’s appreciation of the turn around that has occured in the past century with the ballet finally eclipsing the opera in terms of public recognition. However the present is documented without reference to the present disquiet amongst the ballet going public regarding the neglect of the classical repertory in favour of more modern works.
My only reservation about this book is that it lacks footnotes, as I would have liked to have followed up some of the quotes and references, particularly those relating to the earliest years. But this small omission won’t spoil anyone’s enjoyment. This is a great book. Go out and buy it!
ISBN: 1 85273 109 5.