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Brush up Your Dante

For four weeks in May, Paris Opera Ballet ran contrasting programs in its two homes: at the smaller Garnier, the POB premiere of Wayne McGregor’s “The Dante Project” and, at the Bastille, a program of three Maurice Béjart works from the 1970s. The McGregor is a coproduction with the Royal Ballet, where he is resident choreographer and where the ballet premiered in October 2021. The Béjart program revived works from the period of the choreographer’s closest association with Paris Opera, including the 1971 “Song of a Wayfarer,” set on Rudolf Nureyev. One program captures the past of POB’s contemporary ballet repertory, while the other suggests its future.

Performance

Paris Opera Ballet: Wayne McGregor’s “The Dante Project” & Maurice Béjart's “Firebird,” “Song of the Wayfarer,” “Bolero”

Place

Palais Garnier & Bastille, Paris, France, May 15 & 16, 2023

Words

Eva S. Chou

Paris Opera Ballet in Wayne McGregor's “The Dante Project.” Photograph by Ann Ray/OnP

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“The Dante Project’s” three acts are named after the three parts of The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. As in the poem, the poet Dante (the excellent Paul Marque, on May 15th) is guided through hell by the Roman poet Virgil (Arthus Raveau in a non-dance role) and in Paradiso by the beloved Beatrice (Léonore Baulac, also excellent), with the hand off achieved in Purgatorio. The acts, however, differ from the poem’s equal divisions, with Act I taking an hour, while Acts II and III amount to 30 minutes each. The content is also altered: Inferno is still the site of appropriate punishments for its varied categories of inhabitants, but Purgatorio now recalls the love Dante felt for Beatrice since childhood as recounted in allegory in La Vita Nuova, and Paradiso is pure dance. It is clear, then, that McGregor’s work is not attempting the Divine Comedy but rather a “project,” with its own goals and themes. 

Thomas Adès composed the orchestral score, already much-praised and performed both entire and in suites. At the Paris Opera, Adès conducted many of the performances; from the front rows, the music’s complexity unfolded visually in the intensity of the musicians and the pleasure and energy the composer brought to conducting. The equally celebrated artist Tacita Dean created the dramatic and dramatically different backdrops for each act, the first two entirely successful, the third puzzling.

Léonore Baulac and Paul Marque in Wayne McGregor's “The Dante Project.” Photograph by Svetlana Loboff/OnP

For Inferno, Dean created, with white chalk on black board, a range of huge mountains that was digitally adapted to take up the whole stage. Though it has been much reproduced in coverage of this ballet, seeing it on stage was a powerful experience. Against this backdrop, McGregor devotes most of the music’s 13 movements for Inferno to ensemble dances. Nearly all the dancers, including the leads, are clad in the same mottled, dark-grey unitards streaked with white chalk. Since, as is typical of McGregor, the leads are constantly reabsorbed into their accompanying ensemble, this, plus the dark lighting, often made it hard to figure out whether there was a main action to follow and which episode was being depicted. (The same choreography of reabsorption occurs in Purgatorio when Dante dances with five male “penitents,” but this is easy to follow because the light is brighter and Dante’s costume is distinct.)  

So, you just sat back and soaked up the dancers’ ensemble energy as they torqued through rapid, off-kilter steps that performed the torments of Hell. Among the dances, the whirling spins of the Thieves through dry ice especially caught the eye. The lead in the Forest of Suicides, Camille Bon, was outstanding (she is Dido, I learned from the program), as was the scene’s ensemble of Harpies on pointe. At the end, in the lowest circle of Hell, Dante and Satan (Roxane Stojanov, beautiful rather than monstrous) danced a duo so wonderfully taut that they looked like a single resistance training unit. 

Paul Marque in “The Dante Project” by Wayne McGregor. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff/OnP

Purgatorio is bathed in luminous white light, and the unitards are now a lustrous white, as they will be for Paradiso. Dean’s backdrop—a large jacaranda tree and faint streetscape in a nearly transparent projection—had a different kind of powerful presence, with the stage now quiet enough to take it in. In the dance for Dante and five male dancers, McGregor eschews big jumps and beats, working instead with rapid changes in direction and force. There is a narrative of Dante and Beatrice as children and as youths (Manuel Garrido and Clémence Gross) and another of them in the present in a long, harmonious duo, all threading sweetly through this act.

In the staging of Paradiso, the goal seemed to be to convey the sublime empyrean that is the endpoint of Dante’s journey, but success is elusive. Hazy light streams in from the sides, with the effect that the stage is neither distinctly lit nor dark. High above, on the backdrop, is Dean’s video of changing colors that form and dissolve continuously, complementing—or perhaps competing with—the dancers below. More performers fill the stage than in Purgatorio (18 in this “celestial ensemble,” to be precise) so, again, there is dancing all across the stage, now often in pairs. We see clearly how McGregor abjures traditional pairings, for Dante partners not Beatrice but the lead of the celestial ensemble (Roxane Stojanov again). Perhaps this is because Beatrice has become a higher being than the remembered Beatrice of Purgatorio, for in the final half minute she comes up to him and, in a final burst of light, leads him upstage towards the ineffable. “The Dante Project” returns to the spiritual tenor of its beginning.

The cast is costumed in unitards throughout. The result, like the choreography, is close to gender neutral despite the very effective use made of pointe work. The exceptions are Beatrice in white satin camisole and white diaphanous skirt and Dante and Virgil in knee-length Roman-style tunics that to these eyes work against the dancer’s lines. The typically spare POB program information exerts its own leveling.

Mathieu Ganio in Maurice Béjart's ”Firebird.” Photograph by Julien Benhamou/OnP

The Béjart program, at the Bastille, consisted of “Firebird” (Stravinsky, 1970), “Song of the Wayfarer” (Mahler, 1971), and “Bolero” (Ravel, 1961). On May 16, this large concert hall was nearly filled, with a younger audience than at the Garnier.

 At 22 minutes, Béjart’s “Firebird” features a completely different storyline than the original, Fokine ballet to Stravinsky’s 45-minute score and its many successors. These all derive from the Russian folktale and feature the folktale’s hero, heroine, and evil sorcerer in an appropriately Russian setting. This 1970 work, by contrast, takes place on a bare stage, where nine “partisans” dance their determination. One among their number sheds his uniform and is revealed as Firebird (in red unitard). To their admiration and delight, he dances. Three partisans then express their inspiration and courage in solos. Near the end of the ballet the Firebird dies, but a phoenix rises in his place, also in red unitard, accompanied by a corps of birds in red. When the partisans return, all join in a hopeful grand finale. 

Mathieu Ganio as the Firebird acquitted himself well: steps that look better when performed by the highly trained indeed engaged the attention. The partisan and bird corps were both strong, with the partisans able to overcome their uniforms’ bagginess. 

The story might seem dated, but I’d like to suggest an influence, also dated. The company tells us that this Béjart, the one work on the program that it commissioned, was inspired by the 1968 Paris student revolts. A source they don’t mention is the Chinese Cultural Revolution, that decade-long domestic upheaval in which millions died. A strand of Maoism ran through the French student movement. You can detect the influence here in the dark blue Mao tunics and trousers, worn by everyone in China without exception, and the huge red sun that the ensemble turns to in hope as the ballet closes. Chairman Mao was the great red sun of new China, as nearly every Chinese song of the era would tell you. Likewise, nearly every Chinese theatre finale would end with the appearance of the same kind of backdrop of a great red sun as does this “Firebird.” It was a strange feeling for a cultural historian of modern China to encounter this double vestige of the past. One wonders what the 2023 audience makes of it. 

Hugo Marchand and Germain Louvet in “Song of the Wayfarer” by Maurice Béjart. Photograph by Julien Benhamou/OnP

“Song of the Wayfarer” was undiluted pleasure. The four songs in Mahler’s song cycle, sung by Thomas Tatzi, only needed to be lived up to, which Béjart did. The Wayfarer (Germain Louvet), in light blue unitard, is the role Béjart created on Nureyev. Louvet’s pure lines and clean footwork were so effortless, they resembled the unconscious gestures of a young man lost in thought, by turns pensive, conflicted, and roused. Marc Moreau, in maroon, a second figure who might be the Wayfarer’s guide or other self, was not dancing at the same level that night. 

“Bolero” is a surefire conclusion to an evening. Ludmila Pagliero was the figure on the low round dais, with Florimond Lorieux and Florent Melac the first two men of 16 on three sides to approach, retreat, and finally remain at the dais’s rim. There are barely any steps. She does coupé, step, coupé, step for the entire duration, an exhausting task; the men assume poses two by two, this way and that, before moving towards her. All the while, the famous Ravel bolero repeats a low thrumming beat. The building of a charged atmosphere is efficiently done, the manipulation, perfect. When all have reached the dais, the ballet ends at once. The result is always an ovation.

Ludmila Pagliero in “Bolero” by Maurice Béjart. Photograph by Julien Benhamou/OnP

Eva S. Chou


Eva Shan Chou is a cultural historian of China, currently at work on "Ballet in China: A History." She has published articles on the establishment of the Beijing School of Dance, on China's firstSwan Lake, the founding figure Dai Ailian, and China’s cultural policies. ForBallet Review(New York)she wrote on performances by Stuttgart Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Opera Ballet of Rome, as well as companies from China performing in the US.Sheis professor in the Department of English, Baruch College, City University of New York.

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