Sixteen years is far too long to wait between visits by the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the world’s most illustrious classical companies—for one thing, it basically represents a generation of dancers; those who were new members of the corps de ballet in 1996, when the company last graced a New York stage, are now its seasoned veterans. Finally, thanks to the Lincoln Center Festival, the city will once again welcome this troupe, which is offering 12 performances of three contrasting programs presented over two weeks.
Artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre had only been in her position for a year when the Paris Ballet last appeared here. Now, she has put her own stamp on the repertory, maintaining the essential 19th-century classics and other landmark works but bringing in a host of contemporary choreographers, including some not associated with classical ballet. These ranged from Benjamin Millepied and Alexei Ratmansky to Trisha Brown, Jerome Bel and Sasha Waltz.
For the current U.S. tour (which included Chicago and Washington, D.C.), Lefèvre chose a highly varied selection of works that the company has never brought to New York before. The mixed bill of three ballets set to French music “pays tribute to three essential choreographers who have opened up the horizons of neoclassicism in the 20th century and marked the life and evolution of the Paris Opera Ballet,” she wrote in her introductory program statement for this tour.
Giselle, which will receive six performances showcasing both veteran and younger “étoiles,” as the company’s highest-ranking dancers are designated, is of course performed worldwide, but it was created for the Paris Opera and represents the epitome of the romantic style. It could not be more different from Pina Bausch’s production of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, a 1975 “dance opera” that the late choreographer created for her celebrated company and set on the POB in 2005.
The program of works by Serge Lifar, Roland Petit and Maurice Bejart is, according to ballet étoile Marie-Agnès Gillot, one they perform regularly and often and have taken on tour to Russia and Italy. Speaking from Washington last week, she described Lifar’s 1943 Suite en Blanc, in which she dances the “Cigarette” variation, as “very classical, but with contemporary humor coming in. For us, it’s like Balanchine is for American dancers. There’s nothing narrative, just technique and style.”
The Russian-born Lifar (1905–1986), who made his name as a stellar dancer in the later years of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (creating the title roles of two Balanchine masterworks, Apollo and Prodigal Son), had a lengthy and controversial tenure as Paris Ballet’s director in the 1930s and ’40s. A prolific choreographer, most of his works were overtly dramatic, so the restrained purity of Suite en Blanc is unusual.
Petit (1924-2011) achieved international stature with his own company, for which he created many ballets marked by dramatic detail and vivid characters. Paris Ballet is performing L’Arlésienne, which he created in 1974 for his own company and set on them in 1997. Based on a novel and set in southern France, the atmospheric ballet is set to a richly textured Bizet score. (It may sound familiar to some, since Christopher Wheeldon’s recent Les Carillons used the same music.)
Bejart (1927-2007) was another pivotal European figure whose own Brussels-based company was wildly popular in the 1970s for his sensual, over-the-top extravaganzas. His celebrated 1961 staging of Ravel’s Boléro as a stylized erotic rite has a central figure – originally a man, now performed by both genders – poised on a large central table, arousing the passions of a male ensemble.
Gillot calls the lead role “the hardest piece I ever danced in my life. You have to prepare to be dead on stage. You have to go for it, give 300 percent.” She was last woman Bejart chose for the role before he died. The tell, elegant, versatile ballerina observed that “this piece always changes with the maturity of the artist,” and recalled that Bejart “always shaped the details on the artist he had in front of him. It’s about the personality of the dancer.”
Gillot, who will also be seen as Myrtha in Giselle, performs Eurydice in Bausch’s evening-length work. The cast learned it from the original lead performers and worked closely with Bausch. Her staging of Guck’s glorious opera includes both singers and dancers portraying the major roles, and features a full chorus. Gillot describes a symbiosis between singers and dancers: “In the final act, the vibration passes through my body, I thought that it’s me singing, but it’s her. At one moment, you don’t know who is who.”
Different though Bausch’s 20th-century innovative aesthetic may be from the troupe’s centuries-old tradition of elegance and refinement, Gillot did not find the experience so foreign.
“With Pina, even though it doesn’t look classical, to arrive at the right position and the right feeling – it’s almost pure like the classical. It’s really strict like the classical, to dance her work. You have to be really precise.”
Paris Opera Ballet
Through July 22, David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center (Columbus Ave. at 63 St.), www.lincolncenterfestival.org; times vary, $25 & up.
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