Jean-Guillaume Bart isn’t one of those nostalgic choreographers, nor is he a French Ratmansky. He’s more of a ballet archeologist crossed with a dance philosopher, influenced by Paul Valéry. He doesn’t really revive steps from the past (most of the steps are his own invention), his concern is to bring a dying tradition alive. A tradition that is dear to his heart and a spirit that is nowhere to be seen on the world stage must be restored. According to him, now an empty art, ballet should make sense. Every move has to be infused with an inner meaning, aesthetically and philosophically.
His version of “La Source,” a 19th century ballet which fell from its heights soon after its premiere, singled him out as one of the few French classical choreographers who matter. Pierre Lacotte is another big name in that field. Depressingly, their approach to ballet is considered quite conservative by the Paris Opera doxa and Lacotte, like Bart, have ended up giving their best presents to foreign companies, far away in Russia. After embodying Prince Désiré by Nureyev’s standards with the Paris Opera Ballet, Bart created his own version of “Sleeping Beauty” for the Yacobson Ballet, a Petersburg-based company which shows newfound identity. He drew on nostalgic memories of the Nureyev era, old patterns from Petipa’s original masterpiece, sensations provided by Tchaikovsky’s majestic score yet he needed to tailor them all to contemporary expectations. To create such old-new language, Russia was a perfect match, a holy ground where ballet is still vividly in motion. There, in Saint Petersburg, he reawakened ballet as it should be through “Sleeping Beauty.” This production premiered in St Petersburg—an imperial city to say the least—last fall and it’s touring France and Switzerland in January 2017. Of note, though, Bart couldn’t bring his “Beauty” to Paris.
We all know the story. “Sleeping Beauty” is about a young princess (royal DNA, just like ballet) who falls asleep for a century, as an ill-intentioned witch (an aging woman unable to renew, just like ballet) casts a spell on her. The teenager’s senses are frozen, she is still beautiful to look at but the rosebud cannot blossom.
The whole argument could be a metaphor for the decline of ballet. Hopefully, “Sleeping Beauty” triumphed over time and Aurora was sentenced to deep sleep, not death. Is Jean-Guillaume Bart the long-awaited Prince Charming? At least, he’s willing to make people love old full-length ballets again. It’s no big deal in Russia where great classics still rule the programme. In the West, however, and in France in particular, classical tales lost favor with artistic directors. In Paris, “Sleeping Beauty” is a withered flower on the outworn banks of Opéra Bastille.
Dying too is the narrative in ballet. Most contemporary creations revert to a universally spoken idiom: an abstract one. For his “Beauty,” Bart designed a pre-prologue, in which the Wicked Fairy (Svetlana Golovkina) is expelled from her territory by the royal guards. Doing so, he gave new depth to the bad character who finally has her say. And new artistic outlines as well; his Carabosse is on pointe. Wearing a long black tutu, she’s as seductive as the Black Swan. The Lilac Fairy (spring-driven Daria Elmakova) is a dancer of regal polish and diaphanous grace. Her slender arms moved like willow branches in the wind. Both parts, good and evil, responded to each other with striking contrast.
Alla Bocharova one of the Auroras, swept the audience like a gentle spring breeze. Her catlike face and polite manners made her a sweet, wide-eyed princess, in spite of her athletic lines. Bart portrays Aurora as “a promise for happiness” and Bocharova conveys a beautiful dawn. Prince Désiré’s technique, however, was far from secure and Andrey Sorokin barely made the most of the enhanced part Bart designed for him.
Adapting to 19th century criteria was no piece of cake for the Yacobson dancers. Agrippina Vaganova’s lost vocabulary—imperial restraint and expressiveness—has morphed into an order for hyperextension. Raising the leg to its highest point (six o’clock) has become the new standard —to Bart’s disdain. Working with Russian dancers, the former Nureyev étoile could value their lyrical, poetical, port de bras, implementing nuances he never experienced with the French. But he also sought to restore musicality and modesty in their dancing. Overall, the company looked at home with that new phrasing.
The décor doesn’t attempt realism, trying to picture the splendors of Versailles, which the French appear to crave, in a sober style. There’s nothing flashy about the production.
The 3rd act remounts the river of our early years with its enchanting tales and wealth of solo roles. The Red Riding Hood and Cinderella that disappeared from Nureyev’s “Sleeping Beauty” (the most popular in France) and bring an old-fashioned charm to the ballet.
The audience was an unexpected blend of regular ballet-goers, neophytes and enthusiastic families. Jean-Guillaume Bart wanted to bring a spectacular tradition alive in ballet; he certainly gathered a happy crowd from all walks of life.