May in France is known as the "swiss cheese" month, since there are so many holes in the calendar. This year, three national holidays fall on thursdays, which basically means 3 long weekends (not all the Fridays are officially bank holidays, but most people take them anyway). And that's not counting the monday off in June, which means another "pont"/bridge weekend. The result is that it is already feeling like the year is winding down and summer is around the corner.
This also means that all my cultural subscriptions are coming to a close. Last week, we saw our last performances at the Ballet de l'Opéra and the Carré Belle Feuille theaters. Both were dance shows and somewhat related, since the one at the Carré Belle Feuille was an evening with Nicolas Le Riche, danseur étoile of the Ballet de l'Opéra, who has just retired at the mandatory age of 42.
If you don't live in France, that name might not mean a whole lot (unless you follow the world of ballet), but he has been a megastar here for at least the past 20 years. I have seen him dance several times and he always amazes with his stage presence, technical skills and the height of his jumps. Like many other retiring dancers, he has begun to choreograph his own pieces and is touring with a show entitled, "Itinérances."
"Itinérances" features Le Riche, fellow Opéra étoiles Clairemarie Osta and Eleanora Abbagnato, and dancer/choreograper Russel Maliphant in a program of short pieces. The idea behind the project is to bring some of France's greatest dancers and dances to the people in regions who wouldn't otherwise get to see them. (I'm not sure Boulogne-Billancourt actually qualifies as one of these regions, but who am I to complain?)
The program included two dances choreographed by Maliphant, one choreographed by Le Riche, plus "Annonciation" by Angelin Preljocaj and Roland Petit's "The Young Man and Death," one of the pieces that Le Riche is best known for. (There are clips on-line, if you are interesting in checking it out. I also recommend searching for videos of Le Riche in Béjart's "Bolero".)
All the pieces chosen for the show happened to be the style of ballets that I prefer, modern but still using the vocabulary of classical dance. They were each striking in their own way, but my favorites were "Shift," where Maliphant magically dances with his own shadow, and "Annonciation", which explores the terrifying and beautiful moment when an Angel announces to Mary that she is immaculately pregnant.
I am always thrilled to see dancers trained at the Ballet de L'Opéra, who are among the best in the world, but there was something extra-special about seeing a performance in which they were clearly so personally invested, and in such a small space. I realized just how many facial expressions get lost in the bigger dance venues, particularly the Opéra Bastille.
I've made no secret of how little I like seeing dance at Bastille, which I find a very cold space (despite the excellent sight lines). But I might have to revise my opinion after the show we saw there last weekend. It was double program of Balanchine's reworked "The Crystal Palace" (aka "Symphony in C") and Benjamin Millepied's "Daphnis and Chloé".
"The Crystal Palace" is one of those works guaranteed to make a generation of young girls dream of being ballerinas. Based around Georges Bizet's Symphony in C, it is a Big Ballet, featuring lots of dancers on stage, lavish costumes designed by Lacroix and spotlighting four different couples in color-coded pas-de-deux. It premiered in Paris in 1947 and while I would not exactly say the ballet is dated, I would say it is extremely classical. For me, the most interesting thing about it was not the ballet itself (although it did give a lot of younger dancers the chance to shine), but the contrast it presented with the second half of the program, Benjamin Millepied's brand-new production, "Daphnis and Chloé".
As you may or may not know, Millepied (better known in the States as Mr. Natalie Portman) has been tapped to take over the Opéra Ballet next year. I have no idea if this was a controversial choice, but I believe it was at least a surprising one. Millepied is a respected choreographer here, but I think most people expected the next director to be someone already involved in the company (such as Nicolas Le Riche, who apparently campaigned for the job).
I hope whatever doubts anyone had about the direction the company might take next year are calmed after seeing this production. The ballet is based on the Greek story of Daphnis and Chloé, young bucolic lovers kept apart by jealous rivals, marauding pirates and various other obstacles until Daphnis' father, the god Pan, finally intervenes and allows them to be reunited.
While the story is fairly simple, the performance, which mixed dance, music, art and song, created an emotionally rich experience that blew everyone away. As the main couple, Aurélie Dupont brought her usual mix of elegance and adorableness, and Hervé Moreau was a charismatic partner, even if he couldn't quite keep François Alu from stealing the show as the pirate Bryaxis.
Millepied's choreography was especially impressive in his use of group arrangements and he expertly handled the changes in tone from romantic to seductive to dramatic and back again while conveying an overall sense of exuberance. The orchestra, augmented by a full choir, was also in exceptional form, making Ravel's music almost an on-stage presence.
Even the geometrical decor by Daniel Buren (he of the striped columns at the Palais Royal) won me over as they were cleverly used -- with the help of Madjid Hakimi's lighting -- to mimic different times of the day and night. The climactic moment of Pan's intervention, which bathed the stage in red, was a powerful moment, as was the joyful final reunion of the lovers.
I think everyone in the theater could feel they had watched something special and if management hadn't finally turned on the house lights to kick people out, we'd probably still be there applauding. Between Le Riche and Millepied and all the other talent coming out of the Opéra National de Paris, I'm actually doing the unthinkable: looking forward to the autumn rentrée.