Paris Opera Ballet
Polyphonia, Alea Sands, Le Sacre du printemps
Paris, Palais Garnier
22 December 2015
Benjamin Millepied, the new director of the Paris Opera Ballet, made a daring choice of programme for the Christmas season at the opulent Palais Garnier opera house: a triple bill of contemporary works, including a new one by Wayne McGregor. True, the company was also performing La Bayadère for traditional ballet lovers at the Opéra Bastille – but it’s hard to imagine any lyric theatre in London risking a new ballet to electronic music in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve (5-30 December 2015).
The far-from-festive triple bill was a hommage to Pierre Boulez, whose 90th birthday was back in March 2015. McGregor was commissioned to create a work to one of his electronic compositions and opted for Anthèmes 2 (1957), calling the ballet after a term Boulez used for his chance procedures: Aléa (from the Latin term for rolling dice) – an echo of Random, the name of McGregor’s own company.
The element of chance in the music comes in the interaction of a solo violinist with the electronic manipulation of the sounds the strings make. The violinist has no control over the random result, relayed through loudspeakers in different directions. The dancers on stage are enveloped by the music, responding with some degree of improvisation. There’s the inevitable taxing programme note from McGregor about Aléa Sands functioning as a dialogue, a combination of elements overlapping, fusing, separating but always interdependent, the dancers transposing the music physically through their bodies.
Given a company of 154 dancers to choose from, McGregor opted to put just seven on the large stage. The night I went, there were no étoiles: the three women were not yet soloists and only one of the four men was a principal – Vincent Chaillot, a premier danseur. I have no idea which dancer did what in solos, duets, trios, quartets, since they were indistinguishable in the ‘atmospheric’ lighting (by Lucy Carter), the lines of their sleek bodies disrupted by dark blotches – a bit like Nijinsky’s Faune costume.
While waiting for the dance to start, our attention was diverted upwards by fizzing sounds and the flashing lights of bulbs popping off and on around the dome of the auditorium, which houses Marc Chagall’s ceiling painting and a fantastical chandelier. The electric effects were supplied by Haroon Mirza, a sculptural installation artist, whose random LED lighting effects also animated the backdrop during the performance. The idea was to add yet more elements to the audience’s experience of Aléa Sands by making us aware of our grandiose surroundings, while Mirza contributed his own dance of electricity to the proceedings.
I assumed that we were going to be subjected to a version of Merce Cunningham’s collaborations with John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg (or whichever artist) in which dance, music and scenic effects bear no relation to each other. But the dancers were responding to Mirza’s electric rhythms and Boulez’s electronic pulsings, once the violinist, Michael Barenboim, started playing, spotlit in the empty orchestra pit.
In this, his third work for the Paris Opera Ballet, McGregor makes use of petit and grand allegro, sending dancers speeding lightly and bounding freely in a vocabulary quite different from his contorted ‘abstract’ choreography for the Royal Ballet. The French dancers looked less like aliens and more like sinuous acrobats, albeit electrified ones, limbs sparking in different directions as though currents ran through them. The advantage of Carter’s dusky lighting was that exits, always a problem for McGregor, were obscured as new dancers took centre stage in constantly varying combinations.
At intervals, Mirza’s device of a bright white light scribbled shapes on the industrial grey backdrop, leaving brief traces behind. (It reminded me frivolously of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan.) Apparently a computer programme translates the violin strings into patterns of light, never the same twice. A scurrying male soloist scribbled similar shapes as he wove his way across the stage. Maybe he was also the one isolated towards the end of 30 long minutes, after a muted ensemble for all seven performers. Maybe there was some kind of a conclusion, with one body lying prone and two figures clasped together for some reason. The violinist stopped and the curtain descended to muted applause.
Links to Boulez in the other two works in the triple bill were tenuous. The programme opened with Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia (2001) to piano music by Gyorgy Ligeti. Wheeldon’s first work for New York City Ballet, Polyphonia was new to the Paris Opera company. (The Royal Ballet has performed since 2003.) Ligeti had dedicated one of his first piano studies to Boulez for his 60th birthday. Entitled Désordre (Disorder), it sounds suitably scrambled, although Wheeldon’s choreography for the opening ensemble of eight dancers is rigorously structured. Their shadows against the plain backdrop make the busy sequence look more complicated than it is. The two pianists, Michel Dietlin and Ryoko Hisayama, were spotlit in the pit.
Polyphonia is a charmer of a piece, showing off long-legged, flexible women (the only ones on pointe in the programme) and attentive men. Two of them, Axel Ibot and Florimond Lorieux, compete in a counterpoint duet: otherwise, they are kept busy partnering the women in contrasting pas de deux. Léonore Baulac, a newly promoted premiere danseuse was luscious in the principal role, with étoile Karl Paquette as her escort; Alice Catonnet, still a quadrille (corps de ballet) was elegantly airy in the crane-fly solo before her joyous duet with Florent Mélac. All the women are schooled in perfect placement, more academic than NYCB’s Balanchine-trained dancers (and with prettier pointe shoes than the Royal Ballet’s).
The triple bill concluded with Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps (Rite of Spring, 1975). The Boulez connection is that he conducted Stravinsky’s score in 1963 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of its creation, and greatly admired it as a pioneering form of modern music. The Paris Opera Ballet, which has performed Bausch’s Rite since 1997, is the only company other than her Tanztheater Wuppertal to dance it.
During the long interval following Aléa Sands spectators could watch a corps of stagehands raking peat over the vast expanse of the sacrificial arena. The orchestra pit finally filled up with instruments and musicians, ready to be conducted by Vello Pahn in a rousing, scary, breathtaking account of Stravinsky’s score.
From the start, a blood-red cloth is visible in the centre of the stage. Girls in skimpy shifts enter one by one, knowing what the cloth signifies. They pick it up, drop it, pass it fearfully to each other, each dreading that she might end up with it. The carefully raked soil is churned up by their feet, leaving dirt stains on their sweaty bodies. The men enter as a pack, pounding aggressively, while the women are individuals. Bausch transferred a tribal patriarchal society’s ritual to a non-specific present: the community’s fate depends on an annual sacrifice, which has to be that of a young woman.
At this performance, the Chosen One was Letizia Galloni, a coryphée (the other two cast were étoiles). Karl Paquette, as the senior man, his bare torso curiously vulnerable, arbitrarily selected her to put on the red shift. There was a terrible tension between them as he pushed her forward, her heels digging into the peat. The others flung themselves into an orgy of relief, then panted like terrified animals as the victim danced herself into a heart attack. Galloni never seemed totally possessed, too mindful of executing the choreography. None the less, the audience was gripped by her plight and the whole-hearted commitment of the (32) dancers and musicians.
Le Sacre du printemps may have been odd choice for the winter solstice – or as a Christmas entertainment for families with children – but it made a magnificent end to the triple bill. And we are assured that spring will return in 2016, no matter what weather precedes it.