There are many perks to having a subscription to the Paris Opera Ballet. Besides seeing one of the best ballet companies in the world in one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world, having a subscription means making sure you get good seats on the most convenient dates. But one of the downsides is having to choose ballets way before the details are set. Often we need to pick next year's ballets simply by choreographer without knowing anything else about what we'll see.
For the most part, this has worked out well. Once or twice we've ended up seeing something we've already seen, but it's rarely a disappointment, so I've learned to kind of go with the flow. To the point where I don't always double-check the details, even when they are available. It'll just be a surprise!
Which is how on a very sunny afternoon in Paris we found ourselves in a darkened theater seeing ballets by Agnes de Mille and Birgit Cullberg without realizing it was going to be Ballet de l'Opéra: Special Victims Unit. Not that I'm exactly complaining. De Mille's ballet "Fall River Legend" (1948), based on the Lizzie Borden story, and Cullberg's retelling of Strindberg's "Miss Julie" (1950) were both moving and beautifully staged & choreographed.
While both are period pieces, the psychology behind the narratives remain as relevant as ever. I was particularly impressed with the De Mille's choreography and Morton Gould's music in "Fall River Legend", which still felt absolutely contemporary (this was no doubt helped by the sets and lighting by Oliver Smith and Pascal Mérat respectively). "Miss Julie" felt a bit more classic in its visual style, but the emotion behind it was just as powerful.
To those who don't know the basic stories, Lizzie Borden was a spinster from Fall River, Mass. who in 1892 was accused of killing her father and step-mother with an axe. In real-life she was acquitted, but in the ballet she is hanged for the crime. August Strindberg's play "Miss Julie" centers around a young aristocratic woman raised to consider herself equal to any man who has an affair with a servant and ends up killing herself. Fun!
I can understand why these two pieces were paired together as they both deal with independent women struggling to find their places in society. And they were wonderful showcases for the lead soloists, Nolwenn Daniel as The Accused, and Eve Grinsztajn as Miss Julie, who captured their characters' torment and desire. [On a side note, I just learned that my favorite dancer in the company, Alice Renavand, was finally named 'Etoile' in December. For those who read French, there's a nice profile of her in Vanity Fair.]
However, I wonder if the emotional power of the pieces wasn't actually undermined by the pairing, beating the audience over the head with the feminist subtext rather than letting each ballet speak for itself. It's a bit like relegating a book to the 'chick lit' section of the bookstore rather than letting it sit on the fiction shelf with all the other novels. Neither of these ballets needs to be singled out for their Women's Issues content, they are stunning, universal pieces that can hold their own in any company's repertory.
International Women's Day is in March, so maybe the Opéra was just doing their part, but I don't think it would've been a bad thing to pair either tragedy with something lighter. Dance seems to be one creative area where women have achieved just as much success as men and there are plenty of female-centered, female-choreographed pieces out there to choose from. Commemorating female oppression is important, but so is celebrating female achievement.