VIVE LA DANSE
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 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