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Ballet Speaks French

By Sylviane Gold
11 Apr 2012

photo by Julien Benhamu

This summer, for the first time in 16 years, New York’s dance fans will be able to experience ballet in its original language, when the Paris Opera Ballet settles into the David H. Koch Theater for 12 performances as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival.


The Italians, the Russians, The Danes, and even the English can lay claim to classical ballet’s grand heritage. But they all recognize, deep in their hearts, that ballet as we know it owes its existence to France.

The profession began there. It developed there. And from Sydney to Buenos Aires to Moscow, when ballet speaks, it speaks in French. This summer, for the first time in 16 years, New York’s dance fans will be able to experience ballet in its original language, when the Paris Opera Ballet settles into the David H. Koch Theater for 12 performances as part of the annual Lincoln Center Festival. But the Company, which traces its roots to 1661 and the patronage of the world’s first balletomane, Louis XIV, has more in its dance bag than a glorious past and some of the most glamorous and accomplished dancers to be found anywhere.

“The world changes, the world of art changes, the audience changes,” says Brigitte Lefèvre, since 1995 the Director of Dance at the Paris Opera. “A company like ours must continually evolve. My job is to try to maintain the past in the present and to join the present to the future.” It is, she says, a matter of “conjugation,” not “revolution.”

Speaking in French from her office at the Palais Garnier, one of the two theaters where the Paris Opera Ballet performs year-round, she is clearly proud of the history she oversees and the leading dancers – étoiles, in the Company lexicon – she has brought along. And as she talks about the works that will be showcased at Lincoln Center, the themes of evolution and conservation jostle each other side by side. The run begins July 11 with an anthology of 20th-century one-acts: Suite en blanc, by Serge Lifar, the Russian-born star who joined the Paris Opera Ballet in 1929; L’Arlésienne, by Roland Petit, whose sexy, modernist choreography became synonymous with French dance in the 1950s; and Boléro, by Maurice Béjart, who brought the rebellious spirit of the Sixties to the ballet stage.

“We call it the French program,” Lefèvre says, “because all three pieces are set to French music. But we can also say that these three choreographers participated in the history of the Paris Opera Ballet.” Moreover, the works in the program, which will be repeated July 12 and 15, all take the classical dance vocabulary into unexpected and idiosyncratic territory. “Suite en blanc, made in 1943 to the music of Edouard Lalo, is, as the title suggests, a white-tutu ballet, but one that eschews Romanticism in favor of plotless neoclassicism. L’Arlésienne is tied to the 19th century by both the Georges Bizet score and the tragic plot of Alphonse Daudet’s 1872 play of the same name; but its 1974 vintage is evident in Petit’s stylized storytelling and ritual imagery. And the deliberate frenzy that ends Boléro, Bejart’s 1961 setting of the beloved Ravel score, still sends shock waves through the audience.

With its soloist dancing on a table surrounded by a crowd, Boléro carries a faint echo of another encircled dancer driven to an emotional peak: Giselle, in the mad scene that ends Act One of this classic. Predating the Béjart by more than a century, Giselle was choreographed in Paris by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to music of Adolphe Adam in 1841, and it was in its day just as sensational. It fell out of the Paris repertoire later in the 19th century and wasn’t restored until the 20th, by way of the Russian émigrés who converged on Paris after the revolution. But it remains the touchstone for all the ensuing Romantic ballets featuring flocks of women in diaphanous white tutus – whether swans, sylphides, or bayadères – Giselle “is one of the foundations of the Paris Opera Ballet,” says Lefèvre. So even though she knows “that all the great companies dance Giselle, and dance it quite well, … it really represents the history of the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s truly intrinsic to the French style.” Not surprisingly, the company is bringing its production to Lincoln Center, on July 13. (Additional performances will be presented July 14, 17, 18 and 19.)

If the first two programs represent the Paris Opera Ballet’s pre-Lefèvre history, the third, Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice, reflects the direction the company has taken since Lefèvre took it over. She began her dance life at the famed Paris Opera Ballet School, joined the corps de ballet at 16, and began climbing its famously hierarchical ladder, which culminates in the coveted rank of “étoile.” But in 1972 she left to create a company of her own, the Théâtre du Silence. She brought her commitment to contemporary ballet back with her when she returned, and has made a point of bringing choreographers like Trisha Brown, Mats Ek, and Wayne McGregor into the repertoire. An early fan of Bausch’s intense, hyper-theatrical work, Lefèvre says it was her dream to “introduce the Paris Opera Ballet to this great artist.” She persuaded Bausch, who died in 2009, to allow the Paris Opera Ballet to stage her groundbreaking Rite of Spring. And, says Lefèvre, Bausch “was so happy with her experience with the dancers that she offered me the opportunity to take Orpheus and Eurydice into the repertoire.”

The Orpheus myth is a familiar one, but Bausch’s 1975 version will make its U.S. debut at Lincoln Center Festival. It is a grand undertaking, an elaborate melding of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s gorgeous 1762 opera, performed by vocal soloists, the Balthasar-Neumann ensemble, and Bausch’s fiercely expressive choreography. Set for July 20, 21, and 22, it is, Lefèvre believes, the “most European” item in the tour schedule, and she is curious about how it will be received in New York.

Whatever happens, she knows that the repertoire she is bringing to Lincoln Center conveys the philosophy underlying her tenure at the head of the Paris Opera Ballet: “For me, a ballet that doesn’t innovate for its moment is problematic. But at the same time, a ballet that just lurches forward, ignoring everything that’s been learned, is incomplete.”


Sylviane Gold has written about ballet for Dance Magazine, The New York Times, and other publications. She fell in love with ballet at the Paris Opera in 1970.





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