Opera de Nice

For the opening performances of the new season, Eric Vu An, director of Ballet Nice Mediterranée, has chosen a programme of three ballets from different eras of dance history created in distinctly contrasting styles. The ‘Grand Pas Classique’ from Raymonda is the usual 3rd Act divertissement, originally the wedding celebrations of the leading protagonists, following a complicated story involving crusaders, Saracens and a beautiful noblewoman. Considered Petipa’s last masterpiece and created in 1889, it has been performed most recently in Nureyev’s productions and in Nice the choreography is credited to Eric Vu An, ‘after Petipa’. Vu An danced the principal role in Nureyev’s production at the Paris Opéra. The choreography looked very traditional and has been remounted meticulously paying attention to the Hungarian dance influences with neat, tidy footwork and stylised head and shoulders, the girls with arching backs and using lots of épaulement. Set in glowing ruby-red stage curtains and dressed in red and black costumes it is a good opener and showed the much improved technical standard of the company. My only quibble was that the leading couple, Gaëla Pujol and Thëodore Nelson, who were so impressive as the principals in Dinna Bjørn’s production of La Sylphide last year, seemed here to be almost frozen with fear and although executing the choreography very precisely, and sometimes brilliantly, completely lacked charm or any sense of enjoyment for what were their wedding celebrations. No doubt, what they need are more performances, and unfortunately the company still works in the old opera house tradition of giving a ‘stagione’ series of performances, in this case just six performances before this programme is discarded as they move on to preparing the next more than two months away.

Nothing could be more different than Nacho Duato’s Gwana which has been in the repertoire some years and with which the dancers obviously feel completely at ease. One of Europe’s most successful contemporary choreographers Duato commenced his career with the Cullberg Ballet before spending many years with NDT, both as a dancer and as resident choreographer. He directed the National Ballet of Spain and is currently director of the Berlin State Ballet. Gwana come from North Africa and especially from Morocco, they are a tribal people who perform traditional music of spiritual religious songs and rhythms re-enacting their cultural rituals sometimes involving sacrifice and divine spirits. The music is played on many different stringed instruments and the score for the ballet included drums and voices throbbing and chanting. The whole ballet can be seen as a ritual, the men half naked in light coloured trousers, the women in black dresses. So far, so interesting, however the choreography seemed to me to be a relentless swirl of movement, with group scenes alternating with some ungainly, acrobatic pas de deux, well performed, all the same, by Veronica Colombo and Mikhail Soloviev. The latter, a new company member, who comes from the Bolshoi School and the Stuttgart Ballet is a valuable addition to the company and stands out in all he does. Despite my reservations about the work, with its pulsing rhythms and the dancers’ unflagging energy, Gwana is obviously a crowd-pleaser and was received with much enthusiasm from a packed matinee house.

The most interesting item of the programme was definitely the revival of Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne, created in 1974 when he was director of the National Ballet of Marseille. In contrast to his earlier works, in particular Carmen and Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, this ballet has been neglected and allowed to disappear. This revival showed that it is well worth seeing again, a piece of powerful ballet-theatre, and in contrast to Gwana , a work carefully and solidly choreographed, constructed with ensemble scenes, solos and pas de deux, setting the scene and telling a story. The Arlesienne of the title is a beautiful young woman the hero has seen in the provençal city of Arles and cannot forget. Against a painted backdrop of a Van Gogh-like southern landscape the ballet opens with his marriage ceremony taking place, the company dressed in stylised local costumes. However the young man’s obsession for the image of the unknown young woman, and we don’t know if it is a dream or real person, prevents him from feeling any love for his bride and finally drives to madness and suicide. The ballet is based on a novel, and subsequently a play by Alphonse Daudet written in 1859 and based on a true event. Bizet’s score was originally written three years later as ‘pièce d’occasion’ for the play and is full of provençal folk tunes well matched with Petit’s stylised folk dances, the opening ensemble scenes showing many references to Nijinska’s Les Noces. The duets and solos which follow show the hero’s struggle which becomes more and more unbearable for him, leading to a long final solo and tremendously effective leap out of a window at the rear of the stage.

The ballet was mounted for the company by Luigi Bonino, a leading dancer with Roland Petit for many years and his assistant both in Marseille and in remounting Petit’s ballets internationally. In the leading roles Alessio Passaquindici and Zaloa Fabbrini were both excellent, she demonstrating loving warmth and tenderness, only to be rejected repeatedly. Passaquindici’s role demands a huge amount of stamina with long, demanding solos and if he seemed physically somewhat too lightweight for the drama of Bizet’s score, he was a sensitive and sympathetic hero. Created in the 1970’s, it is now almost a ‘period piece’ and often recalled the work still earlier choreographers, especially Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille. Eric Vu An is to be congratulated for reviving what is an important work and for the continuing development of the company and enrichment of the repertoire. This is reflected in the international invitations they are now receiving, as far afield as China and Russia and nearer to home in Italy and in other towns in southern France.