Ballet Nice Mediterranee
Le Ballet de l’Opera de Nice
Soir de Fête & Pas de Dieux
Nice, Opera House
28 December 2014
Ballet Nice Mediterranée is one of the few remaining opera-ballet companies remaining in France, where 50 years ago every reasonably-sized town and city would boast its own ballet company to take part in the operas and operettas as well as giving regular seasons of dance. Now only Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nice and, of course, Paris can be classified as ballet companies, while a few others, such as Lyon and Mulhouse, retain a mixed programme of neo-classical and contemporary works. Replacing the opera-ballet companies the French government has created a chain of Centres Chorégraphiques Nationales across the country with the purpose of creating and diffusing contemporary dance. Classical ballet is ‘out’.
There would have been a ballet company attached to the first opera house built in Nice in 1776, but the company only became officially recognised in 1947 with Françoise Adret as director, succeeded by Lycette Darsonval, former étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, and the company attracted many guest stars and choreographers from Paris. The present director, also a former POB étoile, Eric Vu-An, took over in 2009 after a difficult period when the company was left without a director. It has taken him time to rebuild the company and he steers a careful course of revivals of the simpler classical repertoire, notably Don Quixote and Coppelia, and risk-free contemporary works by choreographers as diverse a Jiri Kylian, Ben Stevenson and Alvin Ailey. The company of thirty dancers made up of mainly French, Italian and Spanish nationals, gives about thirty performances annually in Nice and this year have also appeared in China and at the Havana Ballet Festival.
Vu-An writes in the programme that he has chosen the two ballets Soir de Fete and Pas de Dieux to make up an entertaining and enjoyable programme for the festive season. However, he has chosen two very contrasting and rather curious works. Leo Staats was a dancer, teacher, ballet master and choreographer with the Paris Opera Ballet at an all-time low period in the company’s history. The ballet company was used almost exclusively for divertissements in the operas, while Parisians flocked to see the exciting ballets being presented by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and even more audacious programmes being given by the Ballets Suédois. Apparently Staats choreographed Soir de Fete as a reaction, and protest, against this ‘modernisme’ and the premiere was given in 1925 with Olga Spessivtseva in the leading role. Presumably the ballet has been kept ‘alive’ as a piece pf history and is revived mainly for performances by the Paris Opera Ballet School. It is a ‘bonbonnière’, a suite of solos, pas de deux and ensemble dances played in front of a park pavilion in pastel-coloured long Romantic tutus to music by Léo Delibes. Staats was revered as a teacher and his choreography shows this with enchainements packed with steps, precise and elegant in the Paris Opera Ballet tradition. However, it does also give the male dancers what would now be considered unsuitable choreography with neat little diagonals of pas de chats and brisés interspersed with tiny running steps. I saw a matinee programme at the end of the series of performances in Nice and so missed the first cast. The leading female dancer I did see showed signs of strain and was hampered by a much-too-small partner and of the three male solists who were given several simple, but challenging, series of entrechats six, pirouettes, tours en l’air, etc., only one was really able to bring these off.
Gene Kelly mounted Pas de Dieux for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1960 and received the Legion d’Honneur shortly afterwards. After the success of An American in Paris and the discovery of Leslie Caron, he was apparently keen to work again with a French dancer and invited the glamorous, blonde Claude Bessy, an étoile at the POB, to Hollywood where she appeared in his film Invitation to the Dance and other films before returning to Paris. Kelly offered to create a ballet for her at the Paris Opera, and presumably her popularity brought about this most unusual addition to the POB repertoire. It was, again, a low period in the company’s history: Serge Lifar, after more than thirty years as director and chief choreographer, had resigned, and there followed a series of short-term directors, George Skibine, Violette Verdy, Rosella Hightower among them.
The story of the ballet is tenuous and far-fetched, choreographed in a mixture of classical ballet and musical comedy-style jazz, to music by George Gershwin. Remounted for Ballet Nice Mediterranée by Claude Bessy, the ballet opens in heaven where the ‘Dieux’ or gods of the title, in this case Zeus, his wife Aphrodite together with Eros, are looking down to earth. Aphrodite is bored and persuades Eros to fly down to earth with her, where they land on a beach. There follows encounters and seduction, lots of dancing while the action moves to a bedroom where Zeus comes looking for his wife and then to a city-centre bar. Fortunately this is a good scene, mostly due to Eric Vu-An who appears as a seedy gangster and is able to show the company dancers half his age how to dance jazz with the necessary precision and energy and how to play a convincing character. I lost the plot after this as scene follows scene but the work ends with a full-scale finale in a musical comedy style. Gene Kelly’s mastery at choreographing for film in undisputed, but there is a difference between doing this in short sequences for the camera and sustaining a 45-minute ballet and it can’t be said that he succeeded. Unfortunately, again, I missed the first cast, who look very good in the photos and video clips, and the Sunday matinee leading dancers, apart from Vu-An, could not make up for the lack of interesting choreography or original ideas. The dancers did look much more at home in this more ‘relaxed’ style of choreography and Medhi Angot stood out as a lively Eros.
However, the company has looked much better in other performances during this season and it would be unkind to judge this holiday programme too harshly. The packed house for this Sunday matinee responded enthusiastically.