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Paris Opéra Ballet and the Bolshoi Ballet at the Palais Garnier

Posted on December 16, 2009

With its grand staircase decorated with colourful bouquets, its ceiling bathed in scarlet light, and the horsetail-crested soldiers of the Garde Républicaine impeccably aligned on its steps, it was clear as soon as one entered the Palais Garnier that the evening of December 16 was meant to be extra special. Organised by the Association pour le rayonnement de l’Opéra de Paris to finance a tour of the Paris Opéra Ballet to Russia, this exclusive gala joined the talents of the Paris Opéra and Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre to perform for a host of VIPs, whilst also acting as a prelude to a year of multiple Franco-Russian cultural exchanges. And what better way was there to illustrate the historical artistic ties between the two countries than with a fraternal homage to the Ballets Russes, several works of which were created in this very city, some 100 years ago? The core of the gala consisted of the regular Ballets Russes programme scheduled by the Paris Opéra during December, which was then enhanced for the occasion with additional pas de deux and solos.

However, no matter how lavish the package, this gala barely differed from other Diaghilev revivals that took place in the course of last year. It gave us the same distorted snapshots of what the ballets might have been like, yet what exactly made them so special a century ago – their groundbreaking theatrical impact, and the reason why we are still talking about them today – remained unanswered. At its best, with a sensible staging and artists that boasted uncommon dramatic skill, part of that image can be recovered, even if Diaghilev’s concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” seems forever out of reach. A case in point was Nicolas Le Riche’s mesmerising incarnation of the Faun in Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune, pulsating the sensuous smells of Ancient Greece in response to Emilie Cozette’s leading Nymph. Performed in front of the impressive backcloth by Léon Bakst in a sound choreographic text by Ghislaine Thesmar, the artists made sense of every pose and move, and convinced one of a thoroughly fascinating moment of dance-drama.

Something which could not be said of Mikhail Fokine’s Le Spectre de la rose, where Mathias Heymann’s rose-tinted flacon remained unopened in spite of Nina Kaptsova’s lovely girlish presence as The Young Woman. Heymann is undoubtedly a brilliant young étoile, but he approached the role of The Spirit of the Rose as if it were a solo dance in a competition without ever suggesting “the spirit, the hope” that Fokine wanted to see. Moreover, this staging has the dancer jumping with a loud bang upon the window frame, enough to shatter anyone’s romantic reveries from the very start.

Marie-Agnès Gillot looked too healthy for a Dying Swan, but Aurélie Dupont, beautifully partnered by Ruslan Skvortsov, incarnated a dreamlike wili in the Act II pas de deux from Giselle. Svetlana Zakharova demonstrated with unashamed brio what the notion of a “star ballerina” can imply in a “big” Black Swan pas de trois from Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake – slightly too big, actually, for her two French partners, Karl Paquette as Siegfried and Stéphane Bullion as Von Rothbart.

In extracts from Léonide Massine’s Le Tricorne, Maria Alexandrova and José Martinez sparked each other off, reviving in superb style and with infectious passion the hot-blooded fragrances of what one might call “Russian” Granada. Within this reduced gala context, the picture could only be incomplete, yet the dancers projected so much conviction and joy at performing that all criticism was silenced. At the other end of the scale came a mismatched and at times unintentionally comical duet from Fokine’s Scheherazade with Agnès Letestu and Nikolai Tsiskaridze. Although Letestu’s Zobeide seemed as if she didn’t want to participate in the duet, Tsiskaridze, basking in an over the top one-man show and bedecked with more jewellery than all the shops on the Place Vendôme, had the unprepared audience in fits of giggles.

The gala concluded with a complete performance of Fokine’s Petrushka. Unfortunately, the production by Nicolas Beriozoff (with the 1948 designs by Alexandre Benois) looks dusty and faded. The title role is another of those inimitable Nijinsky creations over which many excellent dancers have stumbled and fallen. Benjamin Pech is an excellent dancer and essentially he remained too much so as Petrushka. It felt, moreover, a wasted opportunity to see Natalia Osipova only as the teasing Ballerina, a role she had to learn for the occasion. Yann Bridard made the most of the Moor, but it was left to veteran étoile Michaël Denard as the Charlatan to show us what great stage presence and superb acting skills can achieve.

The excellent exhibition running concurrently at the Bibliothèque of the Opéra is definitely the better option for anyone wanting to savour what the Ballets Russes may have been like. After all, the museum is where most of them belong.

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