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The Paris Opera Completes Its Balanchine Tribute

Programme Balanchine/Robbins
Programme Kelemenis/Brown/Preljocaj/Balanchine
Paris Opera Ballet
Palais Garnier
Paris, France
18-20 December 2003

By Marc Haegeman
Copyright © 2003 Marc Haegeman

The Paris Opera Ballet is, as we've come to expect, hard at it for the end of the year. No Nutcrackers or other seasonal favourites, in fact no trace of any easy moneymaking. Working at times simultaneously in two theatres, the company is currently offering three different programmes. At the Opéra Bastille Yuri Grigorovich’s epic Ivan the Terrible has been revived with a fourteen-performances run, while at the Palais Garnier two alternating bills complete the company’s elaborate tribute to Balanchine.

Unlike the well-judged programme which opened the season last October, neither of the two new Balanchine bills is all-Balanchine. Neither did they go down as well as the previous one, and with hindsight, one better prepared programme could have done it instead of the two that were offered now. For some mysterious reason Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun was added to Concerto Barocco, Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux and Serenade. The rapport between the two choreographers is an obvious one of course, but if a Balanchine-Robbins encounter was the actual purpose of this evening, why wasn’t a more substantial piece than Afternoon of a Faun or indeed a second Robbins creation included? Now it merely looked like a misprint in the programme. On the other hand the Paris Opera has twenty-seven Balanchine works in its repertory, some of which haven’t been shown for some time. A revival of another Balanchine work would have been welcome. And preferably in a different setup—Concerto Barocco and Serenade on one programme is far too much of the same good, and Serenade is not the best work with which to close an evening.

However, if this Balanchine-Robbins bill was a somewhat unsatisfactory meal, the second programme, all but awkwardly drowning the company’s awaited premiere of Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer with works by Michel Kelemenis, Trisha Brown and Angelin Preljocaj, proved quite indigestible. We all approve of the Paris Opera’s open-doors policy, allowing the widest possible range of choreographic styles and approaches, but a programme like this nonetheless poses the questions of aptness, as much as of sense and necessity.


The opening Concerto Barocco, which entered the repertory of the Paris Opera exactly forty years ago, was by far the most successful of the Balanchine offerings on the evening I attended. Aurélie Dupont, who is having a strong season, is definitely one of the company’s most convincing Balanchine ballerinas, and with an always reliable and devoted partner like Manuel Legris in his most unobtrusive manner at her side, one feels as if nothing can go wrong. There was an interesting debut of coryphée Dorothée Gilbert as the second soloist and the corps de ballet seemed to have a lot of fun dancing it—smiles galore.

The Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux as danced by Agnès Letestu and José Martinez proved a different matter and performances like this seem to suggest that—the Balanchine Trust notwithstanding—this piece is becoming Variations on the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux by Balanchine. Both soloists took their liberties with the choreography and in spite of all their professionalism and obvious rapport they couldn’t help from looking under-rehearsed. Martinez was at his brilliant best on his own, but there were moments of ill-timing in the partnering, Letestu muffled some steps and the messy coda almost fell completely apart.

Opening the second half of the evening, Afternoon of A Faun, with Nicolas Le Riche and Eleonora Abbagnato, was, by contrast, a thrill. Imposing by his simplicity and manly good looks, Le Riche was the ideal counterpart to the disturbing beauty of Abbagnato, and their meeting created a soft but irresistible sensual tension which superbly mirrored the music. Maybe not what Robbins intended, but for a piece which often gets branded as dull and inconsequentia,l this was mesmerizing from start to finish.

Serenade which was one of the first Balanchine ballets to enter the Paris Opera repertory (in 1947) worked only partly for me, mostly because the hard-edged young soloists Marie-Agnès Gillot and in a lesser degree also Stéphanie Romberg fit awkwardly within the ensemble—physically as well as stylistically. Gillot’s relentlessly fierce manner and brash movements reminded me of some of the Kirov dancers in this ballet. It kills the sense of purpose of the piece. Only Delphine Moussin, delicate, feminine and sophisticated as the Russian girl, hit the right note. (If only she could have been cast in Gillot’s role.) Yann Saïz was an elegant and reliable partner, but Yann Bridard less so.

Paul Connelly and the Orchestre Colonne in differing formation during the evening provided able support.


As said, the choice to open the second programme with three contemporary creations, two of which entered the Paris Opera’s repertory, was debatable. If anything, the alleged encounter of neoclassical and contemporary dance almost nullified the sense of discovery of Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Walzer, which would have fitted better in the first programme, making it an all-Balanchine evening with a company’s premiere.

Michel Kelemenis' Pavane, a trivial seven-minutes trio for a girl and two boys (Nolwenn Daniel, Kader Belarbi, Wilfried Romoli,) had been extracted from his Réversibilité, a creation for the Opera dating from 1999. If only they could have left it there. Set to Ravel’s lovely Pavane pour une infante défunte in the version for piano solo, it avoids making use of the music and makes even less sense. For the occasion the girl’s part was danced on red pointe shoes, if only to emphasize that it didn’t work this way.

Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy and Angelin Preljocaj’s Un Trait d’Union are pieces mounted on the choreographers’ respective companies and performing venues. While they certainly have their place there, I wonder why the Paris Opera needed to acquire them. Characteristically, the dancers gave it their admirable all— especially Laurent Hilaire and Wilfried Romoli in that irritating confrontation over a used leather couch in Un Trait d’Union—but after some twenty-two minutes of extreme boredom one could only scream: “What a waste!”

Liebeslieder Walzer was rehearsed by Karin von Aroldingen and Sara Leland and although it’s unfair to judge a company just beginning to explore the riches of this ballet, not all dancers of the premiere cast—almost all étoiles—looked correct in style. The men (Laurent Hilaire, Manuel Legris, Jean-Guillaume Bart and Benjamin Pech) were excellent all, but of the ballerinas—which, according to Robert Garis is true to Balanchine’s initial idea, cast in accordance with their rank within the company’s hierarchy—I found Aurélie Dupont and Delphine Moussin more in tune with the piece than Agnès Letestu and Laëtitia Pujol. As often with Letestu there were moments of sheer beauty, but Pujol simply looked miscast. Moussin in the Verdy role, well partnered by Legris, gently dominated the stage, while Dupont again proved what a fine Balanchine interpreter she is.

The company will definitely grow into the ballet, and hopefully so will the singers who at times (the soprano in particular) made Brahms a rather frightening experience.

Public response after the second performance of this ballet was mild, even lukewarm. But then again Liebeslieder is perhaps not the best ballet to bring to an audience that greeted the nonsensical brutality of Preljocaj’s Trait d’Union with loud cheers.

Illustration:  The programme book, photo: Jacques Moatti.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 14
December 29, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Marc Haegeman



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last updated on December 29, 2003