Opera ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet at the David H. Koch Theater

The Paris Opera Ballet opened its New York season on Wednesday with an entirely French program. Each of his three ballets had music by a French composer, and each was created by a French choreographer. Serge Lifar (“Suite en Blanc”), although Ukrainian by birth, was for decades the ballet master and star dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet. Maurice Béjart (“Bolero”), although he spent much of his career in Belgium and Switzerland, was a Frenchman adored in France. And Roland Petit (“L’Arlésienne”), despite an international career, has always returned to France. The three choreographers, now deceased, were celebrated in their time; the three ballets are in the repertoire of several companies.

By staging Ravel’s “Bolero” and the music of the suites “Namouna” by Lalo and “L’Arlésienne” by Bizet, this triple program is a tribute to the magnificent sounds, melodies and rhythms of French music. However, the choreography is problematic.

The history of the arts in Paris is that of right bank orthodoxy against left bank experimentation, of the academy against the avant-garde. What is remarkable, however, is that many of the greatest works of French art were made with intense awareness on both sides, by radical traditionalists and experimental curators. Rarely have we come across art as thoroughly Right Bank as Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” (1943).

Lifar’s vision of classicism is formalism as a mere facade: elegant and empty at the same time. The dancers are all extremely elegant in their attitude and presentation. Never does a Frenchman go on stage as if by chance. Your eyes feast on the proudly erect columns of necks and spines, the debonair head turns, the firm arches of outstretched arms, the urban rustles of wrists, the cool charm of facial expressions, the clean lines of legs. These dancers wear arabesques, entrechats and cabrioles – the language of ballet – like the models wear haute couture.

So why isn’t this inventory of virtues worth more? Lifar’s choreography keeps making her dancers say “It’s me! The organization of the scenic world is intensely hierarchical; but when compared to the full-bodied classicism of other works on the same level, like George Balanchine’s ‘Symphony in C’ and the Shades scene in Marius Petipa’s ‘Bayadère’, Lifar’s universe seems hollow.

And its elegance is out of place. Lifar’s choreographic sense for music barely goes beyond the meter (and not always that far; a series of whipping tricks seemed unrelated to his music). And his application of dance dynamics to musical phrasing is often bizarre. The standard forms of ballet are assembled here without organic links. When an arm position is added that is not part of the standard exercises in class, it is added as an outside effect. No meaning springs from the dance. The choreography seems to strive to create a guarded and polished world where no one ever shows momentum, conviction or spontaneity.

Worse still, it’s a choreography that does not help to love its dancers. I want to commend them all for negotiating his delicate emphasis with such composure, but really I just want to see them in other material. The style of the Paris Opera, which I have observed intermittently for 30 years, is very particular. At worst, it may look visually elegant but textually light (dance you see but don’t feel). I presume these issues stem from Lifar’s long tenure in charge. Its best is something quite different, but less consistent. I know that many Parisian dancers can show great beauty in a variety of works, but I have never yet been able to tell how their virtues add up.

Moving from Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” to Petit’s “L’Arlésienne” and Béjart’s “Boléro” is, it seems, to find oneself on the Left Bank. Petit uses the language of ballet to create drama about an alienated hero who ends up, despite a devoted girlfriend, throwing himself out of a window. Béjart’s “Bolero” is a steady crescendo in which a solitary protagonist standing on a table gradually drags, like a dancing demagogue, an ensemble of all-male followers into a frenzy of excitement. (The protagonist can be a man or a woman.) Both are explosive, flamboyant, absurd.

‘L’Arlésienne’ uses the same music that Christopher Wheeldon recently used for ‘Les Carillons’ at City Ballet. (Mr. Wheeldon’s is more comprehensive.) In terms of overall structure, Petit’s has a greater theatrical impact; there are no unnecessary comings and goings. At the level of the individual dances, it is Mr. Wheeldon who demonstrates finesse, but Petit who always knows how to create the wow effect. Nothing is subtle, but the main male solo, in which the hero (the very handsome Jérémie Bélingard on Wednesday) increases in speed and energy until he makes quick jumps on the stage, is furious. Grossly enjoyable, instantly forgettable stuff.

Ravel’s “Bolero” is deliberately outrageous: the same beat, the same meter and the same melody repeated over and over like a fateful etude in a bewildering construction. Béjart’s dance script actually dates back to the 1928 premiere of Ravel’s music, in choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, when Ida Rubinstein was dancing on a table surrounded by young men (including the young Frederick Ashton). This in turn was adapted for the screen; in the “Bolero” of 1934, Carole Lombard dances it on a table with George Raft.

Part of what’s annoying about the Béjart treatment is its mix of shine and thinness. He pushes his way to excitement by doing very little, very energetically. And then there’s its saucy soft-porn vibe: a mix of group erotica (I get giggles when the supporting men get up and bump their pelvises) and deceptively fervent inspiration. Nicolas Le Riche, the most famous of today’s Parisian dancers, played the role of soloist much more than Béjart’s former muse, Jorge Donn. I can’t wait to see him dance in “Giselle”, the next offer of this Parisian season. I can’t wait to see all these dancers again in less eccentric choreographies.