Opera ballet

How the Paris Opera Ballet paid tribute to Balanchine EJINSIGHT

The Balanchine program presented by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Opera Garnier last month was a real treat. It is a well-deserved tribute to George Balanchine, the greatest ballet choreographer of the 20th century who died in 1983. The excellent three-part program was designed by Benjamin Millepied, the company’s former artistic director, who left the season last.

Balanchine is ranked with Stravinsky and Picasso as the three greatest artists of the 20th century. This program showed Balanchine in his most versatile styles – pure classical, romantic and modernist.

The evening opened with the company’s premiere of Balanchine’s latest masterpiece, Mozartiana, created in 1981 for his late muse Suzanne Farrell. Balanchine has often been compared to Mozart. The opening prayer section is deeply holy and religious. The ballerina dressed in black as in mourning seems to communicate with God in her prayers. A sublime duet for the ballerina and her rider follows in the theme and variations section.

Dorothée Gilbert was expressive in her cutting-edge work. Mathieu Ganio was noble like his rider, dancing musically and with fluid phrasing. François Alu was fascinating as a male soloist.

Mozartiana was followed by a 5-minute tribute film to Violette Verdy, the illustrious French ballerina who was a lasting inspiration to Balanchine during her career with New York City Ballet for nearly two decades. Verdy, also a former artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, died earlier this year.

One of the many ballets she created for Balanchine was the ballet Ravel, Sonatine (1975). This duo is full of grace and charm. Mathias Heymann impresses with his easy virtuosity, associated with Myriam Ould-Braham.

The Violin Concerto on Stravinsky is an explosion of energy and is simply electrifying. It is a typical “black and white” ballet created by Balanchine for the New York City Ballet’s famous Stravinsky Festival in 1972. At the heart of the ballet are two contrasting duets. The first duet is harsh and slightly antagonistic, and ends with the two dancers separated. The second duet is sadder and seems to be meant as a farewell. The finish is tangy and electrifying. The whole cast was splendid in this Stravinsky masterpiece.

This program was completed by Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet (1966) which the Paris Opera Ballet premiered last summer. For this ballet, Karl Lagerfeld created sets and costumes inspired by Viennese palaces and villas, symbols of the faded grandeur of old Europe. The ballet seems to be immersed in a twilight world. Although it is not one of Balanchine’s celebrated masterpieces, it is a superb large-scale company work covering a variety of moods in its four movements.

The first movement is a romantic ball scene. The second movement is intimate, while the third movement has formal beauty for the female corps de ballet. The last movement is a lively bohemian country dance.

It is certainly an ideal showcase to show the strength of the company. In particular, Dorothée Gilbert was seductive in the first movement, impressive with her brilliant virtuosity. And Mathias Heymann was spectacular in his third movement solo.

There is nothing in dance like a Balanchine experience. It frees the mind and purifies the senses. We feel more alive than usual.

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Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet performed by the Paris Opera Ballet.  Photo: Sébastien Mathé / OnP