This year marked the tercentenary of the Paris Opera School of Dance, and while celebrations of French style wrapped up last season, POB’s December programs both explore the company’s aristocratic past – although from very different angles.
The Christmas special at the Opéra Bastille is The Sleeping Beauty. After a decade spent in mothballs, Aurore and her suitors are back in Paris, in a production that could well be Rudolf Nureyev’s most grandiose. Created in 1989, it is on a scale that only the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi can match. That the production never strays too far from good taste is a feat: the Prologue alone presents its seven fairies with more than 20 assistants and a few more knights, all on a stage framed by a forest of columns, statues and paintings.
The staging goes back to the French heart of Petipa’s ballet. Its references to Louis XIV were once a metaphor for Russian imperial power, but Nureyev’s opulent court is both a literal nod to the company’s roots in court dancing and an homage to classical order. more radiant. As the curtain rises in Act 3, a body of courtiers is arranged in concentric circles around the monarchs, in a picture worthy of the Sun King; the ensuing Sarabande is among Nureyev’s most solemn creations for the corps de ballet.
And few productions suit the cavernous Opéra Bastille quite as well. It may even be best viewed by the gods, the cheapest seats in the house, as back-to-back performances last weekend showed. Nureyev’s eye for large-scale geometry, intricacy and brilliance of pattern registers perfectly from afar, as does the clarity of the classical style of the dancers. Up close, from the first rows of the orchestra, this Beauty seemed a different beast, impressive but sometimes lacking in heart.
The acting is understated, the struggle between good and evil a mere footnote: the lack of any real character dancers in the company is all too evident. Few dancers bask in movement, filling Tchaikovsky’s music with meaning, and their hearts don’t always seem to be one with the lucid classicism of Petipa’s variations. However, of all his repertoire, Beauty lends itself best to the French style and its natural restraint; it is hoped that more performances will allow the dancers to settle down and find their academic grounding.
Individual dancers captured the filigree charms of fairy-tale characters. At the first casting, Myriam Ould-Braham and Mathias Heymann stole the show with an enchanting Bluebird pas de deux. The following day, the hierarchy was restored with Ludmila Pagliero and Josua Hoffalt as Aurora and her prince. The unflappable Pagliero led an academic display to remember: the way she presents each step, carefully skimming the ground as she goes on pointe, is captivating in style and, while Hoffalt altered the choreography of the act 2 to avoid a difficult section, the pair delivered a royal pas de deux in act 3. At the same performance, two newly promoted soloists shone in smaller roles: the expansive Amandine Albisson in the sixth variation of the Prologue , and François Alu in Bluebird of high flight although slightly tense.
Meanwhile, the Palais Garnier offers a more intimate experience with The park, Angelin Preljocaj’s oldest and strongest work for the company. He dives into the Map of Tender, a playful guide to 17th-century love first published in a novel by Madeleine de Scudéry, and speaks to the contemporary trend of the company with its minimalist and often ironic realization of Mozart. In a garden watched over by four gardeners – sinister quasi-mechanical characters who manipulate the other characters – eight couples go from playing musical chairs to bantering behind the trees. Initially daring and playful in men’s knee-length breeches, the women return to giggle and swoon in crinolines before following their partners into the night.
The choreographic material isn’t particularly rich, but Preljocaj’s mix of baroque or classic steps with more pedestrian and modern movements suits the POB perfectly, and the dancers revel in the piece’s playful innuendos. Isabelle Ciaravola, image of old-fashioned glamour, and Karl Paquette as a handsome libertine led the performance. They don’t quite reach the erotic heights of the original cast yet – but, as Ciaravola kissed Paquette in the high-flying kiss now better known as the Air France commercial, the slender line of her legs and her feet deliciously arches in the air sent a palpable chill through the audience.