Paris Opera Ballet features contemporary dance classics.
By Franz Anton Cramer
The Paris Opera Ballet boosts the longest tradition of all European dance institutions. Since its founding in 1661 by the dancing king Louis XIV, it has now almost 350 years of history – not quite as much as the Vatican. But maybe luckily so, for at the prestigious Palais Garnier, the ballet is far more apt to respond to the needs of changing times – or rather: the changing needs of the time – all while maintaining its envied high standard of academic dancing.
Times are long forgotten in which an innovator and genius such as Noverre was chased out of the premises. In 1930, the Board of Directors called on Serge Lifar and thereby introduced the aesthetic formulae of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the ensuing neo-classical dancing. It was to be an era of glamour, success and triumphant achievements. In 1974, a new initiative was started by then director of the Paris Opera, Rolf Liebermann, when he installed US-American legendary dance protagonist Carolyn Carlson as resident choreographer. She was to work in a contemporary style within the artistic expression of this traditionalist institution.
For several years, it has been the policy of Brigitte Lefèvre, Artistic Director of the ballet, to invite contemporary choreographers from the so-called independent scene to create work for the prestigious troupe. From Jérôme Bel to Michèle-Anne de Mey, from Claudia Triozzi to Saburo Teshigawara, and, most recently, Abou Lagraa, formerly with Rui Horta’s Frankfurt based company SOAP, and active throughout all of France’s rich choreographic landscape.
Lagraa, of Algerian descent, has claimed that his work for 15 dancers deals with the different rhythm and respiration in cities, villages, and other social environments. What he presented on 16 march as “Le soufflé des temps” (The Breath of the Times), however, was more of neo-expressionist movement choir, loosely inspired by the 1920s projects by Rudolf Laban or Martin Gleisner. Marie-Agnès Gillot, a splendid figure clad in greyish rugs, compassionately, but without much motivation, shakes her body in some kind of a cramp, alone on stage, until she sinks down. Wilfried Romoli and Manuel Legris, both distinguished Étoiles, appear from behind a vast round backdrop made of a mousseline-type fabric. They mime breathing patterns with their arms, strangely move sideways and agitate their heads and necks, as if suddenly turned into some kind of machine.
Slowly but surely the rest of the cast enter, spread over the barren stage, and are arranged to shifting groups, occupying back, middle, and front of stage, sometimes falling into identical steps and movement patterns, sometimes executing different combinations. It never becomes quite clear, though, why they do what they do, and to what end. The sometimes frantic expressionist gestures fall flat, as Lagraa never achieves some kind of congruency in his spatial arrangements. Dancers form couples, they roam about in flocks like anguished sheep, they hide away behind the vast backdrop only to reappear by sticking out their hands – but all this remains without internal motivation. Indeed, cohesion in the work is created more by the dramatic musical score, “Vortex Temporum”, by composer Gérard Grisey, a commissioned work for this night, than by Lagraa’s choreographic endeavours. The Ensemble Court-Circuit, directed by Pierre-André Valade, render all shades and nuances of the music, indulge in the sometime shrieking clusters and impose a sombre atmosphere of looming apocalypse. At the end, Marie-Agnès Gillot is being raised up to the sky, whereas her two escorts, Romoli and Legris, have tried to melt their shape into each other like two liquids. This final image remains a riddle.
Lagraa's “Le souffle du temps” was given in between two works that largely made it worthwhile to spend a night at the opera. Saburo Teshigawara’s „AIR“ was created for the company in 2003, and it has lost nothing of its incandescence, its precious movement quality, its translucent shades of presence and energy specific to Teshigawara’s own dancing. He succeeded astonishingly well in transferring this ethereal subtlety to the Paris dancers. It is breathtaking to see Étoile Kader Belarbi in his first solo “Dream” to John Cage’s eponymous piano composition. He moves in utter slowness, but without just doing slow motion: His energy is so concentrated and so fully visible that it seems to be enough for an entire performance. Later, Belarbi evolves in “One” as though he was a post-modern Wili, an aerial being detached from physical constraints, just softly blowing like a summer breeze.
The only shortcoming consists in the fact that the choreographic arrangement Teshigawara suggests is not always as benign as the movement quality. It is, however, a sheer pleasure to see the supremely trained classical dancers, imbued with all of the sometimes crystalline, even sharp edged graciousness which makes for much of the specific Paris style, to see these dancers melt into the softness Teshigawara has brought to them. “AIR” is undoubtedly a contemporary classic.
The third and final part of the triple bill evening was Kylián’s elegiac “Bella figura” (premiered in 1995 at the Nederlands Dans Theater, entered in the Paris repertoire in 2001). Here, too, Kader Belarbi is brilliant in rendering Kylián’s playfully melancholic style, the humorous duet with Aurélie Dupont to Lukas Foss’s “Salomon Rossi Suite”. And even in the sequence to Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater” when he is just standing in the back, as a kind of breathing sculpture punctuating a fine duet by Eléonora Abbagnato and Jérémie Bélingard, he is stunning. So is Kylián’s piece, playing with the dancer’s fate of presenting him or herself on stage, off stage, out there, in here, alone, with someone, and always trying to look good, to make “Bella figura”. Kylián integrates the stage machinery itself in his choreography, lowering curtains, making them fly away or move sideways, always revealing yet another dancing hero in their half-lit world of contemporary ballet which seems to have long forgotten the stories of lush fairy tales and psychological commonplace because it dwells in the refined sphere of understated style.
Franz Anton Cramer