A new ballet by William Forsythe was an almost routine event. Not anymore. From the beginning of the 2000s, the American choreographer turned to a more contemporary dance vocabulary with his own troupe, and the flow of ballets dried up. But the Forsythe Company closed last year and Forsythe accepted Benjamin Millepied’s invitation to become associate choreographer of the Paris Opera Ballet, where he first worked in the 1980s. program at the Palais Garnier is in many ways a return to basics, crowned by a spectacular world premiere, Blake works I.
The first two proposed works, Of any if and and approximate sonata, were created in the mid-1990s. They share a seriousness of purpose, a forensic intensity in their attempt to engage with classic technique while deconstructing its usual framework. Both have scores by Thom Willems, but the choreography works on its own wavelength, much like Merce Cunningham’s work with John Cage.
There’s a cold side to their incredibly complex sentences: they’re easier to admire intellectually than to love. However, they challenge dancers to new heights and present them as adults. Eléonore Guérineau and Vincent Chaillet brought a sinuous sense of gravity to Of any if and20 minute duet. Guérineau, long confined to the corps de ballet, is having a breakthrough season after a brilliant start in Gisele; she has a unique talent that needs to be cultivated.
Blake works I offers a striking contrast to the cold rigor of earlier works. Forsythe’s first “ballet ballet” (as he calls his neoclassical works) in more than 15 years returns to form with galvanizing levity. Twenty of the 21 dancers wear blue tunics and dancewear reminiscent of POB school uniforms, and Forsythe, clearly reveling in their specific talents, has crafted a modern class ballet suited to the French school.
Its modernity does not lie in the extreme parades, but in the complexity, the speed and the changes of direction of the choreography. Forsythe’s vast classical vocabulary puts many ballet choreographers working today to shame: playful references to ballet history abound, alongside rare combinations that speak specifically to articulation and footwork speak volumes of French dancers. The pop score, songs from James Blake’s recent album The Color in Anything, isn’t exactly substantial, but it does add to the warm feeling.
The dancers excel, from Ludmila Pagliero, whose beat jumps rival those of the men, to Léonore Baulac and François Alu, who memorably explore their contrasting stage personalities in a ballad. It’s the best – and happiest – French society has seen under Millepied, who leaves in August. Forsythe also leaves, and it is a great loss for Paris; one can only hope that he will review this program and reconsider.
Until July 16, operadeparis.fr