PARIS — A beautiful water fairy falls in love with a mortal, but this love leads her to death. Spirits watch humans mess around, sometimes intervening to benevolent effect. A magic flower makes people fall in love. Two women, one earthly and one spiritual, are potential companions for the mortal hero.
Although aspects of these stories are found in the ballets “Ondine”, “La Sylphide”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “La Bayadère”, they are all found in “La Source”, a ballet almost forgotten by Arthur Saint-Léon who made his debut at the Paris Opera in 1866.
There are few traces – apart from the libretto, by Saint-Léon and Charles Nuitter, and the score, by Ludwig Minkus and Léo Delibes – of “La Source”. But in 2011, Jean-Guillaume Bart created a version for the Paris Opera Ballet; it is currently playing at the Palais Garnier while Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker is playing at the Opéra Bastille.
It’s a testament to the strength (and size) of the company that it can present two complete ballets simultaneously. The double commitment also means new opportunities for a significant number of young dancers. At Sunday’s performance, no star—the company’s highest rank for dancers—was among the principals, and Naila’s central role was danced by Sae Eun Park, a subject, or soloist, who was born in South Korea and joined the company in 2012. (This is unusual; most Paris Opera dancers are French and progressed through school and company from an early age.)
Naïla is the spirit of the source (the “source” of the title) who falls in love with the hunter Djémil and helps him pursue the beautiful Nouredda, destined to be the bride of the Khan of Ghendjib. Like “La Bayadère”, set in a colorful and whimsical India, “La Source” testifies to the 19th century fascination with exoticism. Here, the setting is the Caucasus, this mountainous region between Europe and Asia, populated in the ballet by Cossacks, troubadours, women dressed as Russian dolls, elves, nymphs and spirits.
Unlike Alexei Ratmansky’s recent “Paquita”, a meticulous reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s 1881 ballet, this “Source” is newly choreographed and envisioned by Mr. Bart and his collaborators, although they have retained most of the story and characters.
Much of this production is beautiful. The music (well played, if at too slow a tempo, by the Orchester Colonne, conducted by Koen Kessels) is often lovely, especially Delibes’ score in most of Act II. The decor, signed Éric Ruf, is not intended to be realistic but offers fragments of draped curtains and suspended ropes, suggesting an imaginary theater for these improbable and fantastic events.
Christian Lacroix’s costumes are gorgeous: the nymphs are clad in pale mints and mauves of the silkiest, most diaphanous tulle, and the harem (naturally there is a harem) sports bright pinks and oranges splashed with gold. . Nouredda (Eve Grinsztajn) is first seen in a heavily embroidered turquoise skirt and crimson shirt. The Cossack ensemble is a thing of beauty in fur trim and multicolored tassels and trim.
Mr. Bart handles the convoluted story reasonably well, even if sometimes the dramatic events don’t make much sense. The pivotal moment when Nouredda sees the magic flower is blurred by the action of the crowd. His initial melancholy is mysterious, as is his later flattering behavior with the Khan (Jérémy-Loup Quer). And why does Djémil (Audric Bezard) suddenly perform a great introduction solo towards the end of Act I?
These types of anomalies could be explained simply as the conventions of 19th century ballet, where realism is hardly a priority. But since Mr. Bart reworked the story and background anyway, why not get it right? Ms. Grinsztajn and Mr. Bezard danced impeccably, but they couldn’t convince us that they cared about inhabiting their characters – and who could blame them? Djémil is a particularly boring hero who has little narrative action, except that he moons after Nouredda as she dances seductively for the Khan, and behaves impassively with poor Naïla, who sacrifices himself for him.
The choreography is also problematic. It’s not bad; it is even competent. But it’s deadly boring. Much of the dance resembles class variations, with musicality on note that often makes performers feel like they are waiting to strike a pose. The best sections of Mr. Bart are for the denizens of the afterlife, especially for Naïla, his elf Zaël (Axel Ibot) and his elf underlings (Marc Moreau and Fabien Révillion).
Zaël, a Puck-like character in a green bodysuit (his choreography quotes Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), is the best male role in the ballet, and Mr. Ibot gave him sparkling life, showing dazzling technique and a lively and playful stage presence. Mrs. Park was equally impressive, bringing a steely delicacy and airy lightness to Naila; she had courage, but also greatness of spirit to make her martyrdom plausible. (Naïla uses the flower to reunite Djémil and Nouredda, but that means she must die. So it is in the spirit world.)
“La Source” is a fascinating exercise, a tantalizing proposition for a world of ballet still searching for its holy grail: the successful full-length production, which audiences seem to crave. In Mr. Bart’s version, the ingredients are all there; the result is both pretty and unfortunately inconsequential.