Ballet National de Marseille- Paris Opera Ballet- Theatre de Grasse – Autumn 2006

Old Customs die hard and the long tradition in France, as in Italy, of strategically organised groups of ‘claques’ to lead the audience in enthusiastic applause could be observed in a recent performance at one of the Mediterranean’s leading opera houses. This assured a healthy burst of applause after each scene and an avalanche of clapping and bravos for the curtains calls, culminating in well-orchestrated bouts of rhythmic clapping and stamping, calling the dancers repeatedly forward to take curtain calls. Whether the mainly elderly and conservative members of a Sunday matinée performance could themselves have found such enthusiasm for a programme of three contrasting, if resolutely contemporary ballets, is doubtful. Some members of this audience were possibly querying what had become of their local company, once a major, national ballet company presenting a successful mixed repertoire and, which now, like several others in France, is one which has halved its numbers to become a vehicle to conform to the current trends. If experimentation and the ever more elaborate visual side of the performances gain, dance and dancers, and possibly audiences, are the losers.

The season got off to a slow start in the South of France with performances only getting underway in November, and then bursting into activity with the autumn season in Cannes, the Monaco Dance Forum and the lengthy season of the Ballets de Monte Carlo in December. However, the Ballet de 1’Opera de Nice gave a short season of performances in September of Nil Christie’s Pulcinella while the future of the Company remains in doubt. Still without a director, there are discussions regarding the possibility of amalgamating the ballets companies of Nice, Toulon and Avignon to form one regional company as has already been done with success with the Ballet du Rhin serving the cities of Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Colmar in the Alsace region. The Ballet National de Marseille also gave a brief season in September at the Opera House with a triple bill containing a true curiosity, a production of Jerome Robbins’s In G Major, to Ravel’s Piano Concerto, created for New York City Ballet in 1975. Against a painted backdrop of sun and waves and costumed in colourful striped tights and skirts, the choreography is quirky and fresh. The very long central slow movement, a pas de deux in pristine white, was danced with admirable control by Cynthia Labaronne and Gilles Porte, but it takes

true NYCB quality of movement to do justice to the choreography and the Ballet National de Marseille cannot compete. The English choreographer, David Dawson, currently resident choreographer for Het National Ballet in the Netherlands, contributed Morning Ground, “a romantic reverie”, to piano music by Chopin. Elegantly costumed in black, this proved to be an almost relentless flow of inventive movement, but danced, as it was, in extremely subdued lighting – almost in silhouette- the ballet failed to make a real impact. The final work in the programme was Stephen Petronio’s version of Sacre du Printemps. Petronio has a well earned reputation for controversy and I was interested to see what he would make of this most demanding work. Unfortunately, he used only part of Stravinsky’s sublime score and juxtaposed it with a vacuous pop contribution by Mitchell Lager. It was this perhaps, which dictated the disappointingly repetitive and uninspired choreography which the company managed to dance with admirable conviction. The Ballets National de Marseille will spend the rest of the current season performing director Frederic Flamand’s trilogy of ballets concerned with the relationship between dance and architecture – I have written already about La Cite Radieuse and Metapolis 11 in previous articles.

The TGV, the super-fast train service in France, brings Paris with easy reach and I could not resist a programme, Hommage to Lifar, being given by the Paris Opéra Ballet in October. Serge Lifar was director and principal choreographer at the Paris Opéra for twenty-five years; an extremely popular dancer, a prolific choreographer, a mentor for several generations of French dancers, he was undoubtedly a major figure in contemporary French ballet, creating a very special ‘Paris Opéra Ballet’ style. His works have proved less popular outside of France with the notable exception of Suite en Blanc, which has found a place in companies throughout the world. Today, those ballets which are revived from time to time by the Paris Opéra Ballet often prove not to withstand the passage of time and the main work on the current programme, Les Mirages, was certainly more of interest as a museum piece. Lifar has written that his collaboration with the composer, Henri Sauget, and the designer, Cassandre, was so close that he could not say who was the real author of the ballet. Created in 1944, but not performed until 1947 when the Opera House re-opened after the war, the confusion of the story-line, the extraordinary excesses of the elaborate Renaissance-style decor, the jumble of characters and costumes, as if from several different ballets, can perhaps be explained as a reaction to the austerity and hardships of that time. Lifar’s choreography is often just an apparent mélange of classroom enchainements, whereby one is occasionally surprised by a solo full of invention and originality such as those he created for the original leading dancer, Yvette Chauviré. No doubt, the ballet was essentially a vehicle for his principal dancers, Chauviré and Michel Renault. Agnes Létestu dances Chauviré’s role of ‘The Shadow’ with authority, but somehow misses the seductive mystery needed for the role. Hervé Morreau as ‘The Young Man’ performed the extremely long and demanding main role most impressively, in the style of the ‘new’ Paris Opéra Ballet.

In Suite en Blanc which opened the programme, the corps de ballet seemed curiously tentative and not quite at ease with what one would have thought would be a familiar work, and it was only in the finale that the dancers came to life with soaring jetés and the badly needed attack and vitality. In the ‘Cigarette’ solo Emilie Cozette danced well but seemed unaware of the nuances of timing and playfulness. These were well caught by Nicolas Le Riche in the ‘Mazurka’ when his intelligent and sensitive interpretation gave the choreography a whole different character. The centerpiece of the evening was a new work by choreographer, Thierry Malandain, director of Ballets Biarritz; The Flight of Icare is inspired by Lifar’s a ballet, a solo, titled Icare, created in 1935. In a strikingly designed set Malandain has created his own version of the Icarus legend to the Concerto for Piano and Strings by Alfred Schnittke as an ensemble work performed enthusiastically by the company.

Among the smaller theatres in Southern France, the Theatre de Grasse offers a lively programme including visits by smaller scale dance companies. The American dancer and choreographer, Susan Buirge, who has been based in France since the 1970’s presented an evening together with the British composer, Jonathan Harvey, in November and it was something of a coup to have three days of performances in December by the Centre Choregraphique Nationale de Creteil —just outside Paris — with their production La Bossa Fataka de Rameau. This company won international acclaim in 2005 with their production of Les Paladins, an opera-ballet by the 18th century French composer, Rameau, and which was given a highly successful season at London’s Barbican as part of a world-wide tour. This touring production is a re-working of much of the original material from Les Paladins for a small ensemble The dancers are deliberately chosen from differing backgrounds; a classically-trained dancer, a contemporary dancer, hip-hop and break-dance dancers and an African dancer. The ‘choreography’ is the result of improvisation and as with Les Paladins, the visual aspect of the performance dominates. This is made up of film projections of an extraordinary dexterity and beauty: images of the chateau and gardens of Versailles are interspersed with visions of the dancers flying above the stage, animals are transformed into humans and these are multiplied and manipulated in magical ways. It is all quite enchanting and entertaining and excellently presented, but, as with Les Paladins, after about thirty minutes repetition sets in and the creators appear to have reached the limits of their technical inventiveness. It is as if instead of being served a three-course meal, one is presented with an elaborate plate of deserts.

If the local companies were often absent during this part of their season – and both the Ballets de Monte-Carlo and Ballet Preljocaj from Aix-en-Provence had busy touring schedules – there was some compensation with a three-day visit by the Bolshoi performing La Bayadère in Monte-Carlo and a number of visiting companies in Cannes, including a group from the Ballet of the Paris Opéra, led by Agnes Létestu and José Martinez.

The region has also acquired two new major buildings for dance; The Pavilion Noir in Aix-en Provence is the new base for the resident company and choreographic centre, directed by Preljocaj, and includes a good sized theatre which will also receive visiting companies, and the Conservatoire de Musique in Nice, which has a long tradition in training future professional dancers, inaugurated a new building for their activities, again with a theatre. The year ended with the Ballets de Monte-Carlo’s regular Christmas season, reviving Jean-Christophe Maillot’s 2002 production of Belle, a modern Sleeping Beauty, which has proved to be one of the Company’s greatest successes and a double bill made up of Maillot’s Altro Canto and William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite.