Paris Opera Ballet in Justin Peck's “Entre Chien et Loup.” Photograph by Francette Levieux

American Style & Crepuscular Ambivalences

Paris Opera Ballet's American double bill

Performance
Paris Opera Ballet: “Peck / Balanchine”
Place
Opera Bastille, Paris, France, July 15, 2016
Words
Alessandra Tribotti

A very American Paris Opera season—the first programmed by the now-former director Benjamin Millepied—ended at Bastille the way it had started, i.e. with yet another American double bill, reuniting an eagerly-awaited creation by the so-called NYCB enfant prodige Justin Peck with a great classic by his major source of inspiration: George Balanchine. Two choreographers, one similar theme, some mixed results and an inevitable sense of fatigue, generated by a season overflowing with a limited choreographic set of possibilities that is typical of NYCB but not of Paris Opera Ballet.

Justin Peck’s first creation on POB dancers, “Entre Chien et Loup,” is named after a french idiomatic expression describing the peculiarities of the crepuscular hour, when the setting sun still reverberates of a thousand warm sunbeams behind the earth and the night is about to creep in. Such atmosphere, rich in coloured nuances, piquant joy, serenity, melancholy but also sudden hints of creeping doom, is palpable in the vibrant and multifaceted concerto for two pianos and orchestra in D minor by Francis Poulenc—on which Peck calibrated his choreography with the explicit intent to channel the crepuscular charm—as well as in Mary Katrantzou’s costumes. Long, priestess-like black tunics, elegantly defining the silhouettes of the ballerinas, open in large, multicoloured, striped creases on the front through Robbins-like arabesques, poses and fluid jumps, like dusky fans matching the less attractive, Adidas-style costumes for the male ensemble.

Coloured pebble-like masks—aptly renamed ‘Smarties’ by some viewers—cover the faces of the dancers in the first tableau, thus echoing John Baldessari’s matching curtain scene, a picture showing a group of people whose faces are hidden by coloured dots. A major theme in the work of the american conceptual artist—i.e. the attempt to highlight the way images tend to communicate standardised messages and the idea that this becomes clearer to the viewer the moment a portion of the image is masked—seemingly leads the choreographer to make it a case for vaguely exploring the theme of identities in the masses and their emancipations, alone or through dual interactions and mutual recognition, as the dancers periodically take their masks off while dancing solos or beautifully intimate duets, only to put them on again when in groups.

The result is a poser’s pastiche that, interestingly, shows many of the same limits often present in Millepied’s choreographic work (and it’s hardly an accident). In fact, Peck tries to say too much but, alas, succeeds in communicating very little, except in superficial brushstrokes. The piece is somehow marked by a rather annoying fake intellectualism and a lack of profundity—a series of juxtaposed titles of book chapters the author did not take time to fully write about and delve into. It is almost as if abstractism had been taken—as it frequently, however not always, is—as an opportunity to not have clear ideas about what to achieve. Indeed, a great sense of confusion is what animates “Entre Chien et Loup” at its core, and confusion is, consequentially, what it communicates the most. The choreography, although marked by a pleasant dynamic, a certain poetic fluidity and a quintessentially american, Broadway-inspired sinuosity in ports de bras, is extremely derivative, to the point that it is difficult to pinpoint any of Peck’s idiosyncrasies—otherwise present in other interesting works of his—in a sea of diluted and deprived-of-depth echoes of Balanchine and, most predominantly, Robbins.

While the pas de deux and solos please the eye, group sections are almost embarrassing in their childish, unimaginative structures—another limit that is frequently present in Millepied’s creations. Moreover, it is a shame that Justin Peck did not make the most out of the rich variations—from american, jazzy vibes to quintessential french flavour and echoes of Ravel’s innovations—present in Poulenc’s music. Its colourful oscillations between crepuscular melancholy and mysterious franticness contrast with the rather monochromatic choreography, despite the latter having at least the merit of being pleasantly dynamic when needed.

Given the overall uninteresting structure of the piece, it is mainly thanks to the music, the costumes and the stunning dancers that “Entre Chien et Loup” manages to please, particularly through the inspired, ethereal, passion-brushstroked Marion Barbeau and the softly elegant Sae Eun Park. However, it struggles to come across as a piece that needs to be seen more than once. Here is hoping that, in memory of the stunning Parisian performances of his work “In Creases,” Justin Peck will come back and conceive a much better piece for the french troupe.

Fast-forward a few minutes and it is George Balanchine taking centre stage with one of his most famous ‘symphonic ballets’ … and essentially saving the evening. Created in 1966 and set to Schönberg’s orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor op.25, his “Brahms-Schönberg Quartet” might not be among the most exciting Balanchine works—indeed, choreography-wise, it occasionally verges on the tedious—but it is, undoubtedly, one of the most elegant and carefully structured displays of neoclassicism, combined with a quintessentially classical homage to imperial Russia, Petipa and Fokine.

Most importantly, it is rich in interesting architectural details and the embodiment of an abstractism that, unlike Peck’s, has a lot to say, and does so in the most carefully articulated way. It is the shape of Balanchine to come, as the quadripartite structure and the regal third movement act as precursors to the 1967 creation “Jewels” and its “Diamonds,” respectively, while the fourth movement displays all the elements of the future ‘Balanchine method’ and the unique ability of the choreographer to incorporate elements of Georgian folk dances into his neoclassical vocabulary. As ever with Balanchine, nostalgia meets innovation and modernity in a unique formula.

“Brahms-Schönberg Quartet’s” crepuscular atmosphere is a somewhat haunted, decadent, nostalgic and metaphorical one: it is the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire. However, in the most typically multilayered, Rothko-esque Balanchinian abstract texture, it symbolises a lot more, as well.

As the curtain comes up on the “Allegro,” a sumptuous viennese ballroom of the glorious Belle Epoque is caught almost in medias res, with dancers lunging and plunging from one side to the other, almost constantly off the central axis and dressed in magnificently apt Secessionist costumes—austere, smoky long tutus and Charles Rennie Mackintosh-inspired bustiers accompanying larger-than-life airy movements and magnified jumps in the most appropriate way. In the background, a decadent, fading palace emanates a sense of nostalgia and impending doom that simultaneously contrasts with the proudly austere and solemn gaiety of the bal noir and gives the truest, most complete depiction of an innovative, culturally vibrant society on the verge of collapse.

This first movement, therefore, already has all the main elements of Balanchine’s main narrative for this ballet—and more. The troubled state of being and the anxieties of a world facing implosion are choreographically enshrined in the constant offbalance swoons, the dance is as (neoclassically, of course) expressionist as the vast majority of the artistic fin de siècle movements—even the hands speak and take centre stage—and as usual with Balanchine, it is not without the depictions of very specific female images that all of this is achieved. The tall female soloist is the embodiment of insouciant, independent charm (a mission only partly accomplished by the acerbic Ida Viikinkoski), while the main female role fluctuates and marches on like a black cloud of impending, elegant, austere doom.

In the second movement, “Intermezzo,” we are transported into a Viennese interior replete with soft purple and pink tones, geometric rhythm and flowery motifs. Three tall girls act, presumably, as sinister fates to an impassioned couple, the woman—Amandine Albisson—impetuously plunging into impressive swooning arcs in Stéphane Bullion’s embrace and bringing a great, potent pas de deux to life.

Such Intermezzo stays true to its name and leads to the “Andante,” a piece of pure classicism intended as a homage to Petipa as well as Fokine. Indeed, one could say that it is through the lens of the latter that Balanchine hereby glorifies the former. An imposing corps shelters a gentler couple, whose complicity is founded on the romantic female ideal—delicate, charming and unattainable—and it is through the solemnity of the music and of such an ensemble of revisited, Belle Epoque Sylphides, that Balanchine seems to find a way to combine the nostalgia for the fall of the Hapsburgs with his personal nostalgia for the grandiosity and the architectural beauty of classical dance in Imperial Russia. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

Last but not least, the fourth movement, “Rondo alla Zingarese,” ends the ballet—and presumably the Austro-Hungarian era—in an exhilarating, dizzying conflagration through a ravishingly impetuous folk piece. It both reminds of the passion for character dances among the bourgeois fin de siècle and introduces the most innovative elements in the ‘Balanchine method’ later developed. It is this movement that gave the audience he true stars of the evening. Alice Renavand and Josua Hoffalt both navigated through the perilous and impetuous waters of caucasian dance vibes with ease, in perfect harmony, with brilliant virtuosity and with the right degree of amusement and fierce self-mockery that allows the dancers to take the piece with the second degree that is perhaps necessary, in order to avoid turning it into a parody or a paroxysm. A splendid ending.

The Paris Opera production of “Brahms-Schönberg Quartet” managed to channel the many narrative layers of this Balanchine work impeccably. The costumes and the set designs by Karl Lagerfeld are the most apt, contextualised and intelligent that have ever been conceived for it. Through them, the panoply of faces and nuanced moods of an era, of womanhood and complex on-off man-woman relationships, though conjured up by the perfect synergy between the dance and the music—both evoking potent moods—is beautifully magnified and fully delivers this flavour of an inebriated, sombre-yet-rose-tinted society at the dusk of its glory.

A successful opportunity to test the limits of the Parisian company and marvel at the fact that its unrivalled elegance and leg work suits it better than any other company—NYCB included, perhaps—“Brahms-Schönberg Quartet” speaks to the dancers, visibly happy to dance it and plunge into its dense and meaningful abstractism. They will be given another chance to grow into it later this autumn. However, the enjoyment of this intelligent piece of ballet was slightly mitigated by the ‘cumulative NYCB effect’ induced by the 2015-2016 season, which is a shame.

What Millepied seems to not have understood whilst programming the 2015-2016 season is that it is not by imposing one unique set of choreographic styles to a company with a strong and eclectic identity, or far too many creations without full attention to their actual content, that such a company will be allowed to truly grow and be satisfied. While there is space for Balanchine and Robbins, there is also room for countless other, radically different choreographic voices of the past, present and future. The essence of Paris Opera Ballet has always been centred upon nurturing such vital diversity in artistic approaches. Doing the opposite risks wasting talents, delivering unsatisfactory creations and fatiguing the audience.

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