Paris Opera Ballet
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
July 5-8, 2012
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2012 by Alexandra Tomalonis
In an interview with Marc Haegeman in the Spring 2001 issue of DanceView, Patrice Bart, Ballet Master of the Paris Opera Ballet, in response to a question as to why POB is the only truly classical ballet company in France, noted that there had been much discussion about the reasons for this. He said that in his opinion it was necessary because: “Classical ballet doesn’t stand mediocrity. It needs the best possible treatment. … In my opinion it is preferable to have a few great companies which act as guardians of these ballets and show them in the best possible way.” That POB does do this, as well as maintain an adventurous contemporary repertory, is a tribute to the company and the nation that supports it. Its production of “Giselle,” on view for a few days this week here in D.C., is astoundingly alive, and in it, the company delivered some of the most extraordinarily sophisticated dancing seen here in decades.
This is a very seductive production for lovers of Romantic ballet. The sets and costumes are attributed to designs by Alexandre Benois from 1924 (realized by Silvano Mattei, sets, and Claudie Gastine, costumes) and the second act, especially, with its Grimm-esque, frightening forest, casts its own spell. The production was adapted from the Coralli-Perrot-Petipa mélange by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov in 1991 and they seem to have wanted to revive as much of the 1841 original, as amended through the years, as possible. The dancers’ gracious mime is as exceptional as its dancing, and the result is a totally convincing drama that looks as fresh as if it had been choreographed on these dancers last month.
There are many revelations in this "Giselle," as quite a few gestures that have been forgotten or turned into ports de bras in other productions are here given their due. Some of the scenes, such as the mother’s warning to her daughter as well as the other young people in the village about the Wilis’ curse, do take a minute or two, but many of the others literally last only one or two seconds, and they clarify the story. The Grand pas of the Wilis in this production is not a divertissement, but a ceremony, and a conversation among the Wilis and Myrtha. She gives commands; they nod and execute them. They are sentinels, watching and listening for possible victims. One gesture I’ve never seen before was that when Albrecht bows before Myrtha at the beginning of their first confrontation, Myrtha starts to cross her arms and lower them (miming, “You will die”) but she doesn’t get to finish, because Giselle runs up and interrupts. There are at least a dozen small moments like this. Add the beautifully schooled dancing that is as effortless as it is precise, and you have a true idea of why “Giselle” is a major classical ballet. (Kessen brought out all the riches in Adam’s much-maligned score as well, and a few surprises. Wilfrid scurries on every time he comes on stage, and it matches the music perfectly. A more important revelation to me was that at the moment Giselle understands that Albrecht really is engaged to Bathilde at the end of Act I, a passage of the Wili’s music emerges from the score; on opening night, it seemed as though they were seizing the opportunity to get their icy little fingers around her neck, which matched Aurélie Dupont’s coldly dramatic mad scene perfectly.)
Dupont, with Mathieu Ganio, danced Giselle and Albrecht on opening night (which was the 760th performance of the ballet by POB, our program tells us) with Gillot as Myrtha. In the mad scene, Dupont seemed truly possessed and no longer of this world. She kept that distance in the second act as well, and her dancing, especially the two big solos, showed her as an exemplar of the company’s gorgeous schooling. Ganio is quite elegant and a very clear exponent of the style as well. He’s also a fine mime and a glorious dancer. (Albrecht does the series of entrechats in the second act, and his were not only strongly danced and complete, but he managed to suggest that Albrecht was tiring, while remaining elegant). The third cast I saw (Saturday afternoon) was led by Clairemarie Osta and Nicolas Le Riche, who brought experience as well as beautiful dancing to the ballet. There was a softness and tenderness in Le Riche’s Albrecht that was quite appealing and Osta, tiny and very light, danced with a crystalline purity that was especially beautiful in Act II.
The company’s schooling defines it. There is such a clear uniformity of bodies as well as style that watching the Wilis is like watching a group of sisters. They’re perfect, but not at all robotic, and when they cluster in poses around the edges of the dancing space you can see that each is an individual with a slightly different way of tilting her head or holding her hands. There were bobbles, of course — each of the three peasant pas de deux couples I saw had a bit of trouble in this extremely difficult version, but it didn’t matter, because the elegance, the beautiful carriage, the attention paid to the arms and head as well as legs and feet, never faltered.
What really sets the Paris Opera Ballet apart is that the Company (and the ballet) is the true star at every performance. This was once taken for granted, but it’s something that we rarely see in today’s star-obsessed age. It might make a comeback. The houses were full even at the unusual Friday matinee, and the audience loved the production. I can’t remember an audience response like it in the 35 years I’ve been watching ballet here. The vast majority of the spectators stayed through all the curtain calls, and one overheard many expressions of surprise that POB had not danced in Washington for 19 years, and hopes that there will be a much shorter interval before the company’s next appearance.
Editing to add:
Here's a link to Marc Haegeman's interview in DanceView: