Arriving at the Palais Garnier is an almost ecclesiastical experience on any given day, but especially on the evening of the opening gala of the Opéra National de Paris’ dance season. On Friday, guests ascended the grand marble staircase, a piece of theater in itself, which, with its 30-meter high vault, was dressed in a cascade of satin ribbons identical to those used to tie ballet slippers – scenography designed by the Opera Patron of the Chanel ballet.
The return to the live dance performance after 18 months of hiatus due to the pandemic added to the air of anticipation in the auditorium as the audience took their seats under the ceiling painted by Marc Chagall. Just two nights earlier, the newly appointed musical director,
Gustavo Dudamel inaugurated his first season at the Palais Garnier by taking the public, including French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, on a journey through more than a century of opera, from Georges Bizet Carmen to John Adams Atomic Doctor.
As dance director Aurélie Dupont told me later that evening, the mood backstage was a mix of excitement and nervousness. “Cinema has been a great way for audiences to see our performances,” she says. “But dancers are born to be on stage with a live audience. If you don’t have the reaction, if you don’t have the orchestra, if you don’t have the lights, it’s not the same thing. And when it ends, you’ll never see the exact same performance again.
Dressed in Chanel jewelry and a black cotton waistcoat and matching pants from the Spring 2021 collection, Dupont greeted gala guests from the stage alongside chief executive Alexander Neef and introduced the evening’s program. True to tradition, the first act was the ballet parade, procession bringing together all the dancers of the company, from school pupils to stars. The first ballerinas wore tutus, corsets and tiaras made in collaboration between Chanel, the Opéra workshops and the Lesage embroiderers; continuing the fashion house’s long affiliation with dance, which began in 1920 when Gabrielle Chanel helped Serge Diaghilev revive The Rite of Spring (1913).
Two contemporary works commissioned by Dupont will follow. The first was Breakwater (Breakwater) by Damien Jalet, who recently premiered his latest work Planet [wanderer] at the National Theater of Chaillot. During the second confinement in France, the Belgian-French choreographer created this complex sequence of fluid and intertwined movements for nine dancers inspired by the crests and hollows of the ocean. Breakwater, as Jalet wrote in the program is “a metaphor for frontline resilience, strength and vulnerability”.