Paris Opera Ballet in George Balanchine's “Mozartiana.” Photograph by Sébastien Mathé

A Tribute to Violette Verdy

Paris Opera Ballet's Homage to Violette Verdy

Performance
Paris Opera Ballet: “George Balanchine: Homage to Violette Verdy”
Place
Palais Garnier, Paris, France, October 22-November 15, 2016
Words
Jade Larine

In case you missed it, during his short tenure as a ballet director, Benjamin Millepied tried to force-feed the Parisian audience with an all-you-can-eat Balanchine menu.

Dancers in the company had already tackled Balanchine’s tricky vocabulary in the past but they could only connect with the romantic works of Mr B. Other aspects of his repertoire were kept at a distance. It was a good thing, then, as people’s imagination tends to go astray nowadays, plotless ballets aren’t what suit the current society’s mood best. Many quadruple bills later, everything felt like business as usual at the Palais Garnier. People would gather for yet another evening dedicated to the grandeur of American Neo-classicism. But with Violette Verdy’s moving tribute showcased on a giant scrim, the evening suddenly offered greater depth. The French-American communion made sense, all of a sudden.

Verdy was a theatrical artist, combining the sophistication of a French lady with the
all-consuming energy of an American pioneer. A living source of inspiration to Balanchine, Violette Verdy reunited both continents, old and new, and one can only hope that she instilled in the company she once directed the trademark qualities that made her a star ballerina in NYC. But the evening of the performance, the awaited alchemy did not happen. Although Mr B did work within the walls of the Palais Garnier, his memory doesn’t live on there. And in spite of repetitive Balanchine bills, it is quite obvious that Millepied’s paradise lost—the one he tried to revive in Paris—won’t take shape.

Set to Ravel’s aquatic music, “Sonatine” is musically radiant, physically airy. Tailor-made for French dancers, including Violette Verdy, the piece is reminiscent of Robbins’ humanist pure-dance works (“Dances at a Gathering,” to name one). At first sight, it’s a flirtatious promenade. But it’s meant to be a multilayered piece with plenty of nuances. Leonore Baulac, a juvenile sweet-faced blond, and Germain Louvet, a straight-A student, are blooming dancers in their prime who carried the piece with a naive sentimentality. She was gently playful, he was nicely dreamy. But for all its refreshing innocence, their danced conversation had very little to say and their steps barely conveyed any meaning. Theirs was a polite rendez-vous, two cute teenagers going out on their first date. They vaguely responded to the beautiful flow of the music. It seems that the new direction considers Baulac as a natural heir to Myriam Ould-Braham, another frail-looking blond. Actually, their respective artistry looks poles apart. A few years older, MOB—as regular balletgoers call her in Paris—has an inner vulnerability which beautifully translates into exquisite dancing. She’s something of an old-fashioned ballerina, feminine and romantic to the core. Hers is a French refinement that few dancers of her generation own and her delicacy is unrivaled in the company.

MOB opened the evening with the Prayer scene of “Mozartiana” (a 35-minute plotless piece that feels like an overlong ballet). Luckily, one could marvel at MOB’s sophisticated style and lines. Every pose, a 3D lithograph, breathed great poignancy. There was something heart-breaking in the way she was praying, seemingly mourning a long lost era. Numb to the world outside, she seemed to be communing with heaven. MOB always succeeds in molding the ballet to her character.

The most familiar piece of the evening was the “Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet,” which premiered earlier this year at Opera Bastille. The Palais Garnier is obviously better suited to that fin de siècle-inspired piece. Karl Lagerfeld’s costumes and settings brought the ballet a sense of Parisian chic, recalling patterns that are dear to Daniel Buren, among other fashionable trends. A deserted palace in pastel colors stood in the background, evoking to me the declining influence of the Paris Opera Ballet. As long tutus were waltzing around the stage on Brahms’ melancholic music, weren’t the dancers portraying the fate of their company? Luckily, the three following tableaux were filled with brighter optimism. Hannah O’Neill, a Japanese-born soloist whose career has skyrocketed since the last two years, made her debut in the Intermezzo movement. She was fine as the central girl—in candy pink—with evocative cambrés but it was hard to tell what kind of Romanticism she embodied.

The program culminated on a high note with “Violin Concerto”—new to the repertoire—a wild piece marked by folk inflections. Stravinsky’s tortured score seemed at odds with the previous harmonious pieces and it kept the audience awake through an uneven evening. Above all, “Violin Concerto” featured two great charismatic dancers: Marie-Agnès Gillot, a standout in the company, and Hugo Marchand, a young premier danseur showing world-class potential. The new generation beat in unison with the previous one and such moment heralded a promising era.

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