Opera ballet

The Paris Opera Ballet finds freedom in its Tribute to Jerome Robbins

Even ballet companies are looking for unlikely costumes this Halloween. Take the Paris Opera Ballet, where the dancers generally love their moody, sophisticated characters, but this week found themselves playing carefree American sailors.

The occasion was Jerome Robbins’ company first Fantasy Free, as part of a tribute to the versatile American choreographer on the occasion of his centenary. It’s a left-field choice by director Aurélie Dupont: Fantasy Free was made in 1944, when street harassment was still a punchline, and its all-American story is alternately entertaining and dated. In this precursor to On the citythree off-duty sailors strut their stuff to win a New York ladies duet, a silly competition carried by Leonard Bernstein’s glowing score.

There was no contest on opening night. If a French dancer was made for this ballet, it was the soloist François Alu, who had the technicality and the mischievous charm to pull off the spectacular solo “Galop”. When he challenged his rivals, the stars Karl Paquette and Stéphane Bullion, to do better, we felt for them. Paquette, who is retiring in December, remains a class act, and Bullion mostly rocked his dark persona in the old role of Robbins, but that was Alu’s show, and he belongs higher up in the pecking order of the company.

The rest of the evening brought more natural vehicles for the French company. Robbins, who staged a dozen works at the Paris Opera between 1974 and his death in 1998, had a reputation as a fearsome leader, but ballet dancers rarely look freer than in his ballets.

Hugo Marchand and Amandine Albisson in “The Afternoon of a Faun” © Sébastien Mathé

A series of dances, created for Baryshnikov, found a promising heir in Mathias Heymann, whose performances – always virtuosic – acquired a new sense of light and shadow. The Paris Opera Ballet currently boasts a roster of world-class male talent: Hugo Marchand also shone in Robbins Afternoon of a Faun, in which two dancers become fascinated with each other – and with themselves – while looking at themselves in the mirror of a dance studio. Absorbed by the moment but oblivious, Marchand lent a youthful erotic charge to his encounter with Amandine Albisson.

Pieces of glass, a foray into 1983 minimalism, closed the evening. His intricate body scenes got a slightly sharper performance from Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet in Paris over the summer, but Bullion returned to partner Ludmila Pagliero in a stunning pas de deux. This is a tribute to Robbins that the Paris Opera could fully appropriate.

★★★★☆

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