writers on dancing


Double Exposure

"La petite danseuse de Degas" (choreography by Patrice Bart) and
" Swan Lake " (choreography by Rudolf Nureyev after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov).
Paris Opera Ballet
Palais Garnier and Théâtre de la Bastille
December 2005-January 2006

By Marc Haegeman
copyright ©2006 by Marc Haegeman

The Paris Opera Ballet ended the year with two different programmes playing simultaneously in two theatres in town. Patrice Bart’s La petite danseuse de Degas (Degas’ Little Dancer) entered its second run at the Palais Garnier, while Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake—now well over its 200th performance since its creation in 1984was shown again at the Bastille. 

"La petite danseuse de Degas" was commissioned as an evening-length ballet in 2003 for the Paris Opera, with choreography by ballet master Patrice Bart and a new score by Denis Levaillant. The idea originated with dance director Brigitte Lefèvre, after recent research had shed new light on the identity of the girl behind the famous bronze statue of a young dancer, sculpted by the impressionist artist Edgar Degas and now preserved in the Parisian Musée d’Orsay. The actual fourteen-year-old model was the Belgian Marie Van Goethem, who had settled with her family in a poor district in Paris. The three daughters Van Goethem were enrolled in the Paris Opera Ballet School in the 1870’s and at the same time posed for artists hoping to provide for the family’s precarious financial situation. After awhile, though, pushed by their mother, at least two of the girls had drifted into petty crime and prostitution. Only the youngest, Charlotte, was able to stay with the Paris Opera and eventually became a teacher after her retirement from the stage. (Incidentally, Yvette Chauviré was one of her pupils).

By blending something of the lives of the three sisters into one, Patrice Bart created a character that may be called representative for many of the 19th-century Paris Opera dancers. Mainly set ‘en coulisse’ of the Opera, "La petite danseuse" hardly ever reminds of the pastel-coloured canvases of Degas’ ballerinas, but touches some of the more squalid social practices of the day, when the boundaries between the trade of the arts and of the flesh were easily confused. It cleverly refrains from drifting too much into melodrama territory, though, by hinting at the dancer’s immortality as a work of art.

Bart’s choreographic language is firmly rooted in the classical idiom, adding a contemporary touch here and there. Always technically challenging, hardly ever originalhe appears, not surprisingly, strongly influenced by Rudolf Nureyevand at times not going anywhere, his strongest moments are kept for some of the duets of the little dancer and the final scene with the ensemble of the washer-womenas a surrogate for the “ballet blanc”.

With the narrative unfolding almost entirely through dance, the ballet needs personalities to avoid it from turning into a mere technical exercise, and I do wish it was stronger cast than when I saw itbut then again, what more can one ask from a company performing in two productions at the same time? True, Bart seems to have focused essentially on his principal character, treating most others, perhaps deliberately so, rather superficially or caricature-like. But I am sure that stronger personalities than a far too young Nolwenn Daniel as the motherElisabeth Maurin must be superb in it – or the cute Karl Paquette as the wealthy patron, would have given these roles their required dramatic impact. And how authoritative is a ballet master, as incarnated by Stéphane Phavorin, who is having a hard time with his steps and partnering? Also, the obscure character of the man in black either Degas or the little dancer’s destinyneeds a more powerful presence than Stéphane Bullion. Nathalie Riqué as the older, helpful étoile was fine, yet it was Clairemarie Osta with her lively and shaded portrayal of the little dancer who gave the ballet a beating heart.

The production seems somewhat hesitant as to which direction to take, as if the creators were afraid to give the ballet a too distinct period look and feel. The handsome costumes by Sylvie Skinazi and the grand sets by Ezio Toffolutti recreate something of the 19th-century atmosphere, but the stark light effects by Marion Hewlett and even more the score provide a contemporary slant. Interesting it may be on its own, Levaillant’s massive, eclectic composition for large orchestra sounds for all that often at odds with the stage action. Borrowing from various sources, including the American minimalists, Hollywood and Broadway, one wished he also had borrowed from some of the 19th-century masters. A dancing class with a violinist on stage set to blaring brass and rolling timpani is really not a good idea. The music was however admirably played by the Orchestre Colonne under Paul Connelly. 

Without being a great work, "La petite danseuse de Degas" is nonetheless a commendable attempt to stage a ballet in the classical idiom. Within the context of a company nowadays venturing into other regions for much of the time, "La petite danseuse de Degas" does deserve a wider attention than it received so far.

The 23-performances run of Nureyev’s "Swan Lake" as always a tremendous success at the box office introduced some remarkable newcomers in the leading roles. I found Aurélie Dupont particularly inspired. Obviously well-prepared, Dupont’s Odette-Odile struck a near ideal balance of classical restraint and lyrical abandon. Above all, she succeeded in reminding us how beautiful this double-role is when stripped to its classical essence, devoid of all the physical excesses and cheap tricks that often come with it. Richly detailed from eyelashes to fingertips, sensibly understated or, when necessary, authoritatively delivered, and always underpinned by her flawless technique, there was no way one could have guessed Dupont only started dancing the ballet a couple of weeks earlier. 

Dupont had performed "Swan Lake" a few times in late December with long-time partner Manuel Legris before she was cast with the company’s youngest étoile Mathieu Ganio, also in a debut. As will be remembered, Ganio was launched from sujet to étoile two seasons ago at the tender age of 19. Physically gifted, all exquisite long lines, he is a prince in the making. Moving with obvious musicality and soaring high leaps, Nureyev’s taxing choreography for Prince Siegfried nonetheless sometimes took its toll. Emotionally, Ganio remained as yet too innocent and far too much the victim of the events to find much passion in the role. He needs to settle down into the role, but still, for a debut of this magnitude it was most promising.

Stéphane Bullionnow making his debut as Rothbart danced well but, he too, still has to begin with exploring the character. How so, was demonstrated earlier this season, when Laurent Hilaire proved tremendous in the dual role of the tutor and malevolent spirit.

Generally, as noted on previous occasions, the Paris Opera "Swan Lake" has its peculiar, less agreeable moments (like the rigid pas de trois, the mechanical little swans, the dutiful national dances). Illness and injury were moreover causing havoc in the company at the beginning of the year and in spite of extras brought in from the Paris Opera Ballet School the lakeside acts had to be performed with reduced numbers. Not that it brought the company level down, but performing two ballets simultaneously in midwinter can prove even for the Paris Opera a bit too much.

Photos: both by Jacques Moatti, Paris Opera.

Volume 4, No. 2
January 16, 2006

copyright ©2006 Marc Haegeman



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last updated on January 9, 2006