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An American Choreographer in Paris

Paris Opera Ballet presented an all-Robbins program at the Garnier from October 24 to November 10: “En Sol,” “In the Night,” and “The Concert,” all works Jerome Robbins made for New York City Ballet. The run of three weeks quickly sold out, for, as the program noted, the company and Robbins have had a long, close relationship, with seventeen of his works in its repertory.

Performance

Paris Opera Ballet: “En Sol,” “In the Night,” and “The Concert” by Jerome Robbins

Place

Palais Garnier, Paris, France, October 24 - November 10, 2023

Words

Eva S. Chou

Germain Louvet with Inès Mcintosh, Aubane Philbert, Clara Mousseigne, Célia Drouy, Hortense Pajtler, Bianca Scudamore in “En Sol” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff/OnP

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“En Sol” is almost another, French Robbins, so strongly do its French title and Erté’s stylish costumes and scenery affect its feel. These were introduced by Paris Opera Ballet in December 1975, a half year after the NYCB premiere, and have since been adopted by City Ballet as well. The ensemble’s chic 1920s-style beach costumes of broad horizontal stripes with slight wave peaks, the backdrop of a few bold lines that indicate seaside waves, sun, and clouds, and the new title give a frolicsome feel to the first and third sections of Ravel’s piano concerto (pianist this outing: Frank Braley). 

Yet, though the crisp sparkle of the ensemble’s dancing is exhilarating and matches their jaunty costumes well, they are also given gentler passages that recall the chivalrous attention that stage courtiers have long given their partners. When the female principal (Myriam Ould-Braham on November 8) enters, the men take turns partnering her in pairs to present her calm beauty from many directions. When the male principal (Germain Louvet) enters and forms a chain with the women, three on each side, their fast steps also recall the work’s opening moments, though this time with a faint allusion in the dancers’ flexed wrists and feet to the Balanchine black-and-white ballets. A seaside romp doesn’t give much room for these other choreographic thoughts.

Myriam Ould-Braham in “En Sol” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff/OnP

Germain Louvet in “En Sol” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Julien Benhamou/OnP

But the ballet isn’t just a romp. In the long adagio for the two principals, both in simple white, the mood is quiet, almost grave. Along the stage’s diagonal, one advances and the other retreats, twice, before Ould-Braham and Louvet, who have performed “En Sol” together before, commence a continuous partnering, engrossingly but not distractingly intricate, that elaborates on the slight narrative of mutual exploration suggested by the earlier approach-and-retreat. At the movement’s end, there is a touching moment that is both preparation and mutual agreement as they look at each other and she helps him lift her over his head, her hands on his shoulders, one leg in arabesque. They exit in this manner, come back for a well-deserved bow—and then we’re back to the Erté mood.

The 1970 Chopin ballet “In the Night” (POB premiere, 1989; pianist, Ryoko Hisayama) presents three dances for three couples, each to a nocturne, plus a fourth for a coda that briefly brings the three couples together. The couples dance under lighting designer Jennifer Tipton’s starry sky, whose blackness suggests a vast space above. The Royal Ballet eminence Anthony Dowell has clad the women in long, Romantic tutus designed as rich but restrained dresses: a gentler lilac for the youthful relationship of the first dance and darker, more layered tones for the second and third. The men are in simplified courtier jackets and tights. An elegant world—indeed, the very tiered opulence that the Garnier represents—is evoked.

The arts often reveal the unvoiced feelings that lie beneath this late-Romantic world of cultured manners, an affecting contrast that may be one reason for this ballet’s inclusion in the repertory of many companies worldwide. At this performance, the three well-matched couples each brought out the implied narrative in their individual sections. 

Bianca Scudamore and Guillaume Diop in “In the Night” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff/OnP

The first two depict harmonious pairs, who move as one in steps and lifts, travelling swiftly, cleanly, across the stage, their confidence in the other’s location and timing a reflection of their relationship.  In the first dance, the evident youth of Bianca Scudamore and Guillaume Diop (named étoile this March) adds greatly to our sense of an emerging relationship. In the duet’s final moment, the only moment that makes a show of technique, Diop lifts her, she slowly curves around him, and so they exit. By contrast, the sense of harmony that Héloïse Bourdon and Audric Bezard establish for much of the second dance develops into faster movements and turns until, suddenly, she is held straight upside down by him. Gradually he releases her. One wonders about the possible meanings. Their exit, also on a lift, keeps one wondering, she held overhead and he walking backwards. The third dance is tempestuous from the beginning, Bleuenn Battistoni and Thomas Docquir excelling in the many steps in which they strain against each other. Smoldering anger, rejecting yet together, together yet rejecting. The end is a reconciliation that seems as much about spent emotions as about possibility. An enigmatic coda brings on the three pairs of dancers; the women briefly connect, the men briefly connect, then each pair leaves.

The program closes on a lighter note: the 1956 “The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody)”). Also to Chopin and acquired by POB in 1992, this comic piece about a piano concert and audience members who come on stage one or two at a time, open up their chairs, and sit down to listen—or not—still feels fresh. It was especially nice to hear the laughter at the start as some in the Garnier audience realize that this is going to be funny. In fact, the witty intent is set even before the beginning, with Paul Steinberg’s stage curtain, a sketch of a theater proscenium from far enough back that it shows the backs of audience heads facing the stage, rows that we flesh-and-blood audience members continue. 

 

Héloïse Bourdon and Audric Bezard in “In the Night” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff/OnP

The pianist for “The Concert,” Vessela Pelovska, Paris Opera’s chef de chant, begins by upstaging herself, making many finnicky adjustments at her onstage grand piano and glaring toward our laughter in the dark before she brings her hands down on the first notes. It is a brave musician who is willing to have her Chopin upstaged for the next half hour (with the orchestra doing its own mischief at times). 

The first and longest vignette brings each audience member on stage in turn, all types still recognizable today: a devoted fan, intolerant of lesser beings; two young friends he disdains as frivolous; a timid soul who ends up without a seat (Antoine Kirscher); a passionate ballerina who embraces (literally) the piano (Léonore Baulac); a husband dragged along for culture by his wife (Arthus Raveau, Héloïse Bourdon; is Groucho Marx and his cigar still a meme?); and so forth. Their pecking order and their interest in each other sorted out, this vignette comes to an end. The rest of the ballet matches its subtitle, “The Perils of Everybody”: the timid soul finds himself scrambling to catch the ballerina each time she hurls herself into a pose; the husband makes a beeline for the ballerina, thwarted a different way each time; a group of clumsy sylphs have trouble with their pattern and direction; the ballerina tries on hats; and more.

Leonore Baulac, Faben Revillion, and Antoine Kirscher in “The Concert” by Jerome Robbins. Photograph by Svetlana Loboff/OnP

On this occasion, I was especially struck by the passage with umbrellas: first one person, then another, then more, walk in various directions, put out their hand and, sensing that it might be drizzling, put up the umbrella crooked on their arm. One by one they do this, then several at once, and soon the stage fills with the inverted domes of black umbrellas. Back and forth the people under them walk, to notes from Chopin’s Prelude, op. 28, no. 4. The start is amusing; its prolongation produces a serene and dream-like scene. Just so was my week in Paris, a grey week in which several times a day I couldn’t quite tell whether it was raining. Neither could others, and we raised and lowered our umbrellas in unconscious rhythm with each other. 

Coinciding with this three-week program, Paris was showcasing yet another facet of the protean American choreographer: the Bernstein-Robbins' “West Side Story,” at the Théatre du Châtelet until the new year. The musical translates the smoldering feelings and costly dresses of “In the Night” to young people in New York’s gritty streets caught in Capulet-Montague-sized feuds. This show also sold out. 

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 first “Swan Lake,” the founding figure Dai Ailian, and China’s cultural policies. For Ballet 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. She is professor in the Department of English, Baruch College, City University of New York.

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