Opera ballet

Wheeldon/McGregor/Bausch, Paris Opera Ballet, Palais Garnier, Paris — review

Music has been at the heart of Benjamin Millepied’s vision since he took over the Paris Opera Ballet, and it is starting to bear fruit. This mixed Christmas project was conceived as a tribute to Pierre Boulez, who turned 90 this year, and the French composer is joined on the program by György Ligeti and Igor Stravinsky, whose works he often conducted. The trio didn’t always agree, but they make for an empowering combination.

The inclusion of Maurice Béjart, a choreographer long associated with Boulez and the Paris Opera, would have been warranted, but Millepied brought in two British choreographers instead. Polyphony marks the late debut of Christopher Wheeldon at the Paris Opera. The 2001 work was an important statement for post-Balanchine abstract ballet, both indebted to the master’s leotard ballets (agon above all) and original in its response to Ligeti’s complex piano pieces.

Polyphonia is also a fine training ground, and an opportunity for the Parisian cast to come out of their reserve and engage in a style that does not come easily to them. While some sections still felt like school exercises, others made deeper musical connections. Amandine Albisson gave the leggy principal pas de deux appropriate texture, and rising star Léonore Baulac captured the sense of loss and vulnerability in the “Hopp ide tisztán” section, the melancholy heart of the ballet.

Wayne McGregor, a regular at the Paris Opera, returns with Sands of Aleaput in Boulez Anthems 2. Designer Haroon Mirza has crafted a disorienting introduction: the lights around the Palais Garnier’s Chagall ceiling twinkle menacingly as an additional electronic score creaks and blares like a siren.

The first couple on stage, the androgynous Marie-Agnès Gillot and Audric Bezard, imitated this disjointed and disturbing atmosphere. The music and the choreography seemed to come together gradually when Anthems 2 began: McGregor’s outbursts of postmodern hyper-articulation have a distinct affinity with those of Boulez, and violinist Michael Barenboim led the dancers’ jerks, setting them in motion to stop screaming.

With an all-star cast of seven stars and soloists resembling Cubist fauns in unisex black polka dot leotards, McGregor also captured the elegant self-absorption and alien quality that is part of ballet’s DNA. In return, from the undulating solos of Jérémie Bélingard to Laura Hecquet, all angular attitude, the ballet dancers lend McGregor’s cool style precious individuality.

The evening ended with Pina Bausch Rite of Spring – a welcome contrast. There were dancers, many of them older, like human beings rather than extraordinary bodies, literally getting dirty on the dirt-covered stage; a choreography so primitive that Eleonora Abbagnato’s chosen one barely seemed to dance as she staggered to her death. If you only see one Rite in your life, make it this one.


Photographer: Julien Benhamou