“Suite en Blanc,” “L’Arlésienne,” “Boléro”
Paris Opera Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
July 11, 2011
By Carol Pardo
Copyright ©2012 by Carol Pardo
The Paris Opera Ballet opened its first New York season in sixteen years with a triple bill of works to French scores by Serge Lifar, Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart under the rubric “Masters of the 20th Century”. Lifar was the chief dancer, choreographer and director of the company for a quarter century between 1930 and 1958. Petit was a product of the POB school, a dancer with the company, and for about six months, its director. But he is best known in France as the one who got away, who bucked the establishment, formed his own companies, and thrived. Béjart’s career took place well away from the POB, but he is revered in France. This program announced more clearly than anything else could, “This is where we come from. This is who we are. This is what we believe in.” It also made for a well-balanced evening, opening with the plotless classical “Suite en Blanc” followed by “L’Arlésienne,” which blended plot and mood, and finishing with the spectacle of “Boléro”.
Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” choreographed for the company in 1943, is a ballet blanc, acknowledging the company’s history from “La Sylphide” and “Giselle” to Ivan Clustine’s “Suite de danses” of 1913 and looking forward to Harald Lander’s “Etudes” revived for the company in 1952. The ballet opens with its entire cast, arrayed in small groups around the stage, guests at a fête champêtre in a well-tended French garden, all Art Deco black and white. On a hillock at the rear of the stage (actually a platform) were three women in romantic tutus. The remaining women, in various languorous attitudes, wore tutus, the leading men white poet’s shirts and tights. Their costumes refer both to the POB school uniform and to the company’s défilé. The corps men wore black tights, the better to set off all that whiteness. The tableau broke up to devolve into a series of solos, a duet, trio and pas de cinq, very useful for showing off, and getting to know, the company’s principal dancers. The men looked taxed by Lifar’s demands; the women fared better. As the three debs in long dresses, Aurélia Bellet, Marie-Solène Boulet and Laura Hecquet caught the blend of unison and fluidity that reflected the jeunesse dorée at its ease. Nolwenn Daniel was both musical and authoritative in the ”Serenade” while Alice Renavand (the company’s newest première danseuse—one level from the top) conveyed the wit and surprise of an unexpected opening out into second position on pointe. In “La Flûte,” the final solo, right before the finale, Dorothée Gilbert combined delicacy clarity and speed, ending with a drop to one knee that left the house gasping.
A young man about to be married is possessed by a female for whom he sacrifices wedded bliss, his place in the community and, eventually his life. It’s the basic premise of “La Sylphide”. Transpose it from Scotland to Provence, set before a backdrop of Mont Saint-Victoire as if painted by Van Gogh, rather than Cézanne. Render the temptress visible only through the man’s reactions to her. Boil the stage picture down to the engaged pair and a corps of sixteen dressed in black and white with the men allowed red cummerbunds. The result? Roland Petit’s “L’Arlésienne” made in 1974 for the Ballet national de Marseille. “L’Arlésienne” stands or falls on its two leads; the corps are little more than witnesses or voyeurs who stomp or march on the beat. Jérémie Bélingard and Isabelle Ciaravola as the doomed pair couldn’t bring it off. Ciaravola is a woman, not a girl. Bélingard is very easy on the eyes, but he’s not a convincing actor. Even exhausted and demented, his back was pulled up, unbowed by grief.
Maurice Béjart borrows the premise of his “Boléro” from Nijinka’s original. A dancer on a table dances to seduce everyone—here 18 men—around it. The ballet begins as golden light caresses the soloist’s body, followed by the soloist caressing himself, then explores his upper body in motion. The corps of forty, seated in darkness around the table materializes, drawn in duos and quartets to the table and the dancer on it Béjart’s take is a study in narcissism and fake eroticism with a literal response to an unyielding beat. If watching Nicolas Le Riche—generating a minimum of heat—sweat for twenty minutes is your idea of a hot time in the old town tonight, “Boléro” is your ballet. We are not seeing the full company on this tour. Many of the youngest dancers, including the most recent étoile, Myriam Ould-Braham, stayed home to dance Ashton’s “La Fille Mal Gardée.” Many of the leading dancers on this tour will disappear within the next five years as they reach the mandatory retirement age of forty-two. Brigitte Lefèvre, whose tenure as director is second only to Lifar’s, is slated to retire in two years’ time. The company on view here will soon be a very different one. But Lifar, Petit and Béjart will remain central to the French definition of ballet in the 20th century.