Paris Opera Ballet
Paris Opera Ballet in “The Seasons' Canon” by Crystal Pite. Photograph by Julien Benhamou

Unbearable Lightness

Paris Opera Ballet's contemporary mixed bill

Performance
Paris Opera Ballet: Thierrée / Shechter / Perez / Pite
Place
Palais Garnier, Paris, France, May 18-June 8, 2018
Words
Jade Larine

Thierrée, Shechter, Perez, Pite: they could have their names in light anywhere in Europe, but at Aurélie Dupont’s invitation, they shared the bill at the Palais Garnier. Alas, with two brand new tailor-made creations, one revival and one recent entry into the repertoire, the bill inspired mixed feelings. Amid underwhelming performances, the audience is left to draw its own conclusions, ranging from hazardous to poignant.

For the high-born Opéra de Paris adapting to the modern era is an ever-worrisome challenge. Sweeping the supposedly dusty, conservative classics under the rug was the first step. Once in a blue moon, you get to see “The Nutcracker” or “Giselle,” if you’re lucky enough. Of course contemporary dance brought masterpieces to the repertoire: Preljocaj’s “Le Parc” or Pina Bausch’s “The Rite of Spring,” to name a few, offer reflective surfaces, existential echo. Yet many mixed bills don’t. The latest fashionable marker has become name-dropping: you sound cultured when you can gather a few big (yet not too mainstream) names of our time. Thierrée. Shechter. Perez. Pite. Well-driven, such commissions could have been of great value to the company. Deprived of a clever artistic impulse, however, it resulted in a mishmash of disjointed pieces, Pite’s “The Seasons’ Canon” set apart. To hold it all together, Aurélie Dupont labelled the programme “an ode to the group” while choreographers went loud about a gender-focused approach.

James Thierrée’s talent is recognized worldwide. Yet, his much-awaited creation “Frôlons” doesn’t live up to expectation. For nearly one hour, dancers wander, crawl, ripple through the crowd in the Palais Garnier’s public areas, their gold, metallic costumes making them fantasy-world creatures, worthy of admiration and fear at the same time. There is no doubt that Thierrée knows how to set an intriguing, murky atmosphere, one that evokes a decadent cabaret of the late 19th century. In a visually stunning finale, the whole mass of insect-like creatures gets swallowed by huge floating drapes: the mysterious vortex on the Garnier’s stage stood for an allegory of the dancers crushed by a holistic institution. On second thought, indeed, one of the monsters lying on the ground resembled the Leviathan. As beautiful as it was, the purpose of “Frôlons” was a bit mysterious to me. Thierrée said he was inspired by the architecture of Garnier; a few carefully thought-out decorative references can attest that. What he intended for the classically-trained dancers of the company remains unclear, though. The appetizer was nice but it felt somewhat empty.

Coming out of the blue too was Shechter’s autobiographical “The Art of Not Looking Back.” Clearly, the Israel-born choreographer has his own interesting style. It might have been shaped by the brutal tensions he underwent in Jerusalem, as his aggressive, raw movements suggest. Here, he reveals that his mother abandoned him when he was only two in a blunt voiceover. To display his anger and angst towards women, he picked a strong tribe of nine female dancers whom he entrusted with the personification of the resentful speech he aims at his mother. The choreography is rudely schizophrenic with a touch of danse macabre one feels guilty to indulge in. Disturbingly, “The Art of Not Looking Back” is barely gender-equality friendly. It portrays women like fierce, hysteric loonies, who give credit to Charcot’s theories. The 30-minute long piece is too self-absorbed to be meaningful within the walls of the Palais Garnier. Shechter’s piece is a beautiful mess to watch, but a slightly irrelevant one.

After an all-female cast came an all-male cast with Ivan Pérez’s first creation for the POB. “The Male Dancer,” set to Arvo Pärt’s crowd-pleasing Stabat Mater, claims to tackle gender stereotypes, displaying 10 dancers in queer-like outfits. The outcome is superficially subversive, though, failing to question conservative perceptions of men. The unbearable lightness of the choreography, a vague juxtaposition of aquatic movements deprives the piece of a meaningful impact, providing little scope for the dancers’ talent. In a nutshell, “The Male Dancer” looks very much like a missed opportunity between Pérez and the company. The ambition was great but the reality ended up being too small.

Gender equality was achieved, for real, by Crystal Pite’s revival of “The Seasons’ Canon,” a masterpiece of choreographic large-scale architecture.

Gender equality was achieved, for real, by Crystal Pite’s revival of “The Seasons’ Canon,” a masterpiece of choreographic large-scale architecture. The evening theme made sense, all of a sudden. “The Seasons’ Canon” paid tribute to the ‘group’ Aurélie Dupont claimed to hold dear but it also put female and male dancers on equal footing. Doing so, Pite shifted the culture of dance. Men and women breathed as one in a transcendentalist ode to the larger-than-life forces of nature. And cherry on top, the aesthetics of the piece are hypnotic. The ever-changing virtual haze in the background emphasizes the feeling of human vulnerability, bathing the audience in a state of genesis. The choreography’s musicality is jaw-dropping as well, each gesture embodying the spirit of Max Richter’s Viviadi – The Four Seasons. “The Seasons’ Canon” beautifully hints at the strength it takes to survive in a hostile world. Some scenes, indeed, recall Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa. The recent crisis at the top management level of the Opéra de Paris made the international headlines. In that light, “The Seasons’ Canon” might have made the pain more palpable on stage. Hell isn’t always other people, though. The dancers stood united on stage as they received a thrilling standing ovation.

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