Syd­ney is in for a treat with the first per­for­mances here of the Paris Opera Bal­let, the world’s old­est and most fa­mous dance com­pany, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

THE Palais Garnier looms in neo­baroque splen­dour as you come out of Opera sta­tion on the Paris Metro. Built be­tween 1862 and 1875, this or­nate land­mark sits grandly on its own traf­fic is­land, com­mand­ing the eye with its col­umns and friezes, busts and stat­ues, its winged fig­ures and horses rear­ing to the sky. Open­mouthed tourists wan­der through the gilt, vel­vet and mar­ble in­te­rior.

To­day, in the five- tiered au­di­to­rium, the Paris Opera is bump­ing in a new set. Way be­low lies the sub­ter­ranean lake that — like the rest of the Palais Garnier — pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion for The Phan­tom of the Opera . And way above, inside the build­ing’s golden dome, dancers from the Paris Opera Bal­let are re­hears­ing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake .

Swan Lake is one of two pro­grams that the Paris Opera Bal­let will present at Syd­ney’s Capi­tol Theatre, on its first visit to Aus­tralia. It is the ver­sion chore­ographed by Ru­dolf Nureyev in 1984, when the fiery Rus­sian was this il­lus­tri­ous com­pany’s di­rec­tor of dance. Along­side it will be Jew­els , the leg­endary three- act homage to bal­let cre­ated by Ge­orge Balan­chine in 1967.

Pre­ced­ing it all will be a one- off gala at the Syd­ney Opera House, a show­case that cher­ryp­icks eight works from the com­pany’s widerang­ing, cen­turies- old reper­toire in­clud­ing the grand pas from Mar­ius Petipa’s Paquita , a solo from Leonide Mas­sine’s Le Tri­corne , and an ex­tract from William Forsythe’s The Ver­tig­i­nous Thrill of Ex­ac­ti­tude .

Add the fact that the Paris Opera Bal­let is the old­est bal­let com­pany in the world — orig­i­nat­ing their ba­tons be­fore the Syd­ney Lyric Orches­tra.

‘‘ OK, you can re­lax,’’ com­mands the chic, gum- chew­ing bal­let mistress in the dome of the Palais Garnier, ad­dress­ing her charges with the for­mal vous . A pi­anist on a baby grand leaves off play­ing Tchaikovsky; 30 or so el­e­gant, slim- line fe­male dancers in cus­tomised leo­tards, floppy tulle tu­tus and Fame - style leg­warm­ers stand around in De­gas poses, drink­ing from bot­tles of wa­ter. Mo­ments later they clus­ter around a television in the cor­ner, watch­ing a video of the com­pany’s last pro­fes­sional per­for­mance of Swan Lake , in 2005. Moves mem­o­rised, they in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and in the Royal Academy of Dance he founded in 1661 — and re­put­edly the best in the world as well, it’s no won­der that Syd­ney is hold­ing its breath.

With in­ter­est at a pre­mium af­ter a pro­mo­tional visit in March by two of the A- list troupe’s prin­ci­pal dancers, Karl Pa­que­tte and Em­i­lie Cozette, the city will see a 100- strong con­tin­gent of grace­ful ath­letes, all trained since chil­dren by the com­pany’s own bal­let school.

Eight con­tain­ers’ worth of cos­tumes, in­clud­ing sparkly ones cre­ated by fash­ion de­signer Chris­tian Lacroix for Jew­els , were dis­patched by ship in April. Plane tick­ets have been booked for un­der­stud­ies, masseurs and the two con­duc­tors ( Vello Pahn and Paul Con­nelly) who will raise snap to with a clap of the mistress’s hands. Their pirou­ettes, re­flected in a wall of mir­rors, seem as light as air.

Le Bal­let de l’Opera Na­tional de Paris has be­come a leg­end in its own time. Gen­er­ously sup­ported by a proud French gov­ern­ment, com­mit­ted to stag­ing 150 per­for­mances in Paris each year ( at both Palais Garnier and its sis­ter venue, the nearby Opera Bastille), it tours France per­haps twice a year and abroad more rarely.

An air of ex­clu­siv­ity un­der­lines its myth­i­cal sta­tus ( Lon­don­ers had to wait from 1984 un­til 2005 for a re­turn visit), as does the im­pres­sion it gives of be­ing a sort of bal­let repub­lic: a one­na­tion state with a board­ing school that moulds its hand- picked elite of boys and girls aged be­tween eight and 18 ( nearly all of them French) into bal­let stars of the fu­ture. And not with­out blood, sweat and tears: only a se­lect few grad­u­ate to dance with the com­pany. Even fewer move through the ranks to be­come etoiles , or stars.

‘‘ It al­ways felt like I was play­ing a game,’’ of­fers Aure­lie Dupont, 34, one of 10 etoiles who will be danc­ing in the Syd­ney Opera House Gala ( oth­ers in­clude Manuel Le­gris and Ni­co­las Le Riche, both of whom were groomed by Nureyev). The fine- boned Dupont will also dance the role of Odette/ Odile in Swan Lake , a role she first danced in the 2005 sea­son. ‘‘ The school looks se­vere and au­thor­i­tar­ian from the out­side,’’ she ac­knowl­edges. ‘‘ But it suited my per­son­al­ity. If you are self- con­tained, like I am, it was fine. I watched my body chang­ing and de­vel­op­ing in the same way as you would watch a flower blos­som.’’

A star to ri­val, say, Sylvie Guillem — a for­mer etoile, now based in Lon­don, who was also nur­tured by Nureyev — Dupont seems grounded, serene, the per­fect prod­uct of a mod­ern state- run school that some have re­ferred to as a ‘‘ ma­chine that crushes the weak’’. The school has suf­fered scan­dals and ac­cu­sa­tions, of course; there have long been ru­mours of sys­tem­atic hu­mil­i­a­tion, of a lack of emo­tional sup­port, of dis­sent quashed by the ter­ror of be­ing re­jected. Wasn’t it tough, watch­ing fel­low stu­dents fall by the way­side? Wasn’t there bul­ly­ing, bick­er­ing, jeal­ous com­pe­ti­tion?

(‘‘ Aure­lie kept quiet un­til she was as­sured of her star sta­tus and her pen­sion when she’s 40,’’ an ap­pren­tice dancer told Bri­tain’s The Ob­server news­pa­per in 2002.)

Dupont sighs good- na­turedly. ‘‘ Sure, it was dif­fi­cult,’’ she says in her ac­cented English. ‘‘ But I never ex­pe­ri­enced any­thing par­tic­u­larly nasty. Once, I think, some­one cut up my stock­ings, but that was about it.’’

She gazes out the win­dow, un­der which are heaped two large piles of shell pink pointe shoes: one for new, one for dis­carded ( a three- hour re­hearsal of Swan Lake can wear a fresh pair down to stumps).

Post­cards of Nureyev adorn the edges of a huge light­bulbed mir­ror; a pile of CDs — jazz, rock, African mu­sic (‘‘ I lis­ten to enough classical

stuff in my work’’) — sits on the win­dowsill.

She never met Nureyev, she says. ‘‘ But I am danc­ing with Manuel [ Le­gris]’’ — they will dance to­gether in Balan­chine’s Sona­tine at the Syd­ney Gala — ‘‘ so we of­ten speak of him. Isn’t he hand­some?’’ she adds, fin­ger­ing a post­card.

That the Paris Opera Bal­let owes a debt to Nureyev is pal­pa­ble through­out its head­quar­ters. His aris­to­cratic vis­age adorns dress­ing rooms and ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fices. Long- time staff re­lay Nureyev sto­ries as if they hap­pened yes­ter­day.

‘‘ We were al­ways ner­vous pre­sent­ing new cos­tumes to Mr Nureyev,’’ says be­spec­ta­cled wardrobe mistress Yvette Grand­ford, stand­ing next to a rail hung with ging­ham peas­ant dresses ( out­fits for Fred­er­ick Ash­ton’s La Fille Mal Gardee , the bal­let that the rest of the com­pany’s 154 dancers will per­form when the ma­jor­ity are in Aus­tralia). ‘‘ He was just so very de­mand­ing.’’

The Paris Opera Bal­let had lost its way when Nureyev was ap­pointed di­rec­tor of dance in 1983. The Bri­tish dance press was call­ing it dull and com­pla­cent, which no doubt in­fu­ri­ated Nureyev: he had wanted to run Lon­don’s Royal Bal­let, but was con­sid­ered too con­tro­ver­sial.

Ever fear­less, Nureyev in 1984 chore­ographed a new Swan Lake from Petipa’s stan­dard 1893 ver­sion. In Nureyev’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion, Siegfried the hero is dream­ing about an ideal — he is not re­united with Odette the Swan Queen — and he dies when that dream is shat­tered. He added quick di­rec­tional changes, gave male dancers more to do, and co- de­signed the cos­tumes.

‘‘ He didn’t want tu­tus like the English ones, which sloped down. He wanted them large, flat and stick­ing out,’’ says Grand­ford. ( It was, per­haps, Nureyev’s way of stick­ing two fin­gers up across the Chan­nel.) De­spite the run- ins and tantrums ( Nureyev threw teapots, ther­mos flasks, what­ever was in his hands), by 1989 he left the Paris Opera Bal­let trans­formed.

‘‘ He was de­mand­ing of oth­ers, but also of him­self,’’ says the com­pact, sil­ver- haired Pa­trice Bart, a for­mer etoile who en­tered the Paris Opera Bal­let School in 1957. ‘‘ It was tough, but it made you strong.’’ Bart was Nureyev’s as­sis­tant for six years and is now the mas­ter of bal­let. He waves an el­e­gant arm at the full- length por­trait of Nureyev on his of­fice wall. ‘‘ He used to say, ‘ I show them where the top is and then they have to work for it.’ He also used to say, ‘ If this old c--can do it, then you guys can do it.’ I learned ev­ery­thing from him,’’ Bart shrugs.

Nureyev’s di­rec­tor­ship chal­lenged as­sump­tions that the Paris Opera Bal­let was ar­tis­ti­cally con­ser­va­tive. Not that it ever was, re­ally: this, af­ter all, was the cra­dle of classical bal­let; where the five po­si­tions of the feet were in­vented; where women first be­gan to dance en pointe . In­deed, for all French bal­let’s so­phis­ti­cated sex­u­al­ity, Rus­sian bal­let’s re­fine­ment and Amer­i­can bal­let’s at­tack, it is only the Paris Opera Bal­let that ideally com­bines all th­ese qual­i­ties.

How fit­ting, then, that it should present Syd­ney with Balan­chine’s Jew­els , a plot­less work that il­lu­mi­nates bal­let’s evo­lu­tion from clas­si­cism to moder­nity: Emer­alds , with its Ro­man­tic mu­sic by Gus­tave Faure, typ­i­fies the French school; the classical Di­a­monds , set to Tchaikovsky, re­turns Balan­chine ( the founder of the New York City Bal­let) to his roots in St Petersburg; the jazzy neo- classical Ru­bies , with mu­sic by Igor Stravin­sky, rep­re­sents the Amer­i­can school. And the Paris Opera Bal­let en­com­passes it all.

Its reper­tory has none­the­less changed rad­i­cally over the past three decades or so, with ma­jor in­fu­sions of 19th-, 20th- and now 21stcen­tury clas­sics. There are 26 Balan­chine bal­lets and 13 by Jerome Rob­bins.

The 2007- 08 sea­son is typ­i­fied by an el­e­gant book, sent to sub­scribers of both the Paris Opera and the Paris Opera Bal­let ( the two share the same stages, af­ter all), de­tail­ing forth­com­ing pro­grams be­tween full- colour plates of mod­ern art by the likes of Louise Bour­geois and Peter Doig ( on the sec­ond- last page, a made- up Aure­lie Dupont mod­els for French jew­ellery brand Chaumet).

It’s an aes­thetic summed up, too, by the con­trast in the Palais Garnier’s plush au­di­to­rium: its cherubs, gold leaf and red vel­vet off­set by a star­tling con­tem­po­rary ceil­ing Marc Cha­gall painted in 1964.

‘‘ It is im­por­tant to keep the tra­di­tions strong, but also to em­brace moder­nity,’’ says Bart. ‘‘ We all know that we have to keep mov­ing for­ward. Hav­ing a hi­er­ar­chy in a com­pany this large is vi­tal. It has al­ways en­abled us to do it. And now, af­ter many years of dis­cus­sion, we are fi­nally visit­ing Aus­tralia.’’

He flashes a smile. ‘‘ The com­pany are very ex­cited,’’ he says. ‘‘ For them it is very ex­otic.’’ The Paris Opera Bal­let presents Swan Lake, June 16- 24, and Jew­els, June 27- 30, at the Capi­tol Theatre, Syd­ney.

Pay­ing for per­fec­tion: The Paris Opera Bal­let’s dancers in Swan Lake , left, and in re­hearsal, above, are put through a gru­elling train­ing sched­ule from child­hood and few make the cut, much less be­come stars; be­low, Chris­tian Lacroix de­signs for the com­pany’s pro­duc­tion of Jew­els

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