Opera ballet

Tutus and tears as the Paris Opera Ballet ends a turbulent season with major departures

Tears are expected for a farewell, but at the Paris Opera Ballet they flowed long before the curtain fell. Shortly after returning in ghostly form in the second act of GiseleAlice Renavand — a beloved staror principal, which a legion of entertainers and balletomanes had come to celebrate—stopped in midair and was forced to hobble offstage, in visible pain.

Ballet companies are well-oiled machines and within minutes a stunt double has been removed from her place in the corps de ballet to make her debut in the most revered role in the French repertoire. When he first laid eyes on Bleuenn Battistoni for the first time, Mathieu Ganio, the image of deeply felt remorse as Albrecht (and himself injured in a world premiere earlier this season), briefly looked dazed. Yet both operated it with remarkable composure.

Renavand returned to the stage with help during encores, and Paris Opera general manager Alexander Neef announced she would get another start next season. It’s a relief because the atypical career of Renavand deserves a tribute worthy of the name. Her breakthrough came in the works of Pina Bausch and other contemporary repertoires, but she never shunned the classics, making late debuts in ballets such as Don Quixote and The poorly guarded girl.

Exceptionally, as a result, his first Gisele the race was also to be his last. His dramatic intelligence served him well in the first act, as did his rarely tapped gift for comedy. Her heroine was no wallflower, raising an eyebrow at her friends as if to point out how Albrecht seemed like a trap. When tragedy struck, she easily abandoned conventional manners to tap into grief and even a little anger. Its second act promised much; it’s hard to imagine how she must have felt when she was taken from him.

The farewells which did not close an eventful season for the French national ballet company. On the one hand, many dancers have returned from the hiatus imposed by the 2020-21 pandemic with renewed ardor: the velvety varnish of the body in Gisele is the proof. Yet the overall artistic direction has been adrift for several years, culminating last month in another announced farewell: that of company director Aurélie Dupont.

Dupont, former star, was hastily appointed in 2016 to stabilize the ship after the sudden exit of Benjamin Millepied. Her lack of managerial experience showed up early on and, crucially, she never articulated a clear vision for the ballet repertoire, especially POB’s aging classical productions. Instead, the new works often turned out to be too similar to what was already on offer on the many contemporary stages in Paris.

Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been revived by the Paris Opera Ballet © Yonathan Kellerman

Whoever will then direct the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris will have the urgent task of clarifying the identity of the company. At Balanchine Dream of a summer nightinherited from the Millepied and dull era and resurrected at the Opéra Bastille, too many actors seemed not to know why they were dancing this work.

It’s a shame, because the world-class talent is there. Ludmila Pagliero, a ballerina with penetrating musical intelligence, and Marc Moreau were a vision of harmony in Balanchine’s second act entertainment. Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand, arguably the company’s biggest dramatic partnership in years, filled Gisele in an earlier performance with intimacy and detail—Gilbert hauntingly naïve, Marchand enveloping him in longing and conceit, and being punished for it.

Dancers’ careers are short and risky, as Renavand’s misfortune demonstrated. Presenting them in a sensible way is the least the next director can do.

‘Gisele’ ★★★★★

“A Midsummer Night’s dream” ★★★☆☆

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