The lights dimmed…the audience fell into a silence charged with anticipation...the red curtains rose… A bright spotlight at center stage illuminated a single ballerina, resplendent in a pristine white tutu…
This was what I experienced from my seat at Palais Garnier, also known as Opéra Garnier, when my husband and I took in a performance of Lander/Forsythe, the first production of the Paris Opera Ballet’s 2014 – 2015 Season.
As the audience broke into an enthusiastic applause of welcome, the ballerina responded by performing a deep reverence. But that bow was something more than a simple greeting – it was an invitation to witness something extraordinary: classical ballet technique in its most clear, vibrant, and meticulous form.
And so began Danish choreographer Harald Lander’s “signature work” Études.
Choreographed to the music of composer Carl Czerny, Études, the French word for ‘studies’, unfolds from start to finish as a ballet class on stage. This fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the structure of the ballet class showcases how the technique builds on itself and celebrates the progression from the barre to the bows, with all the ports de bras, turns, leaps and pas de deux in between.
It began, as most classes de danse classique begin – at the barre. Each musical note of Czerny’s rich piano score was punctuated by quick tendus, sweeping battements, and exact frappes performed simultaneously across the stage. The dancers in the opening barre section were lit from such an angle that only their legs and feet were clearly visible; their ports de bras and head movements were performed in shadow. The technique was literally in the spotlight and all you could see were long lines of turn out and a flurry of razor-sharp footwork.
The ronds de jambe section was especially mesmerizing and the Mirror Dance section sprinkled in touch of magic and whimsy as each dancer ‘mirrored’ her counterpart and added a small, poignant progression to the phrase. The grand allegro section of dancers leaping downstage from each corner – ladies from the left, men from the right – was so joyful and a breathless example of how grand jetés combine power and grace in a single movement.
The build from basic to advanced vocabulary highlighted the impeccable ensemble of the corps, as well as their incredible stamina. As any ballet dancer knows, the goal is to give your all in each exercise AND still have something left in the tank for the finish. The few (very few) moments of imprecise timing during the pirouettes hardly detracted from the flow. Instead, I saw them as small reminders of the humanity of the dancers in a piece that accentuates their other-worldly abilities. In short, they made it look easy and effortless. Études was a beautiful tribute to the foundations of ballet, to its strength, its grace and the discipline that makes it so captivating and it was an amazing way to start the evening.
Act Two switched gears for a completely different experience, both visually and musically, through two contemporary ballet pieces, Woundwork 1 and Pas./Parts, by American choreographer William Forsythe.
In Woundwork 1, only four dancers filled the stage. They were lit from the back and sides, which created an interesting effect where there were shadows somewhere on their bodies throughout the entire piece. It was an exploration of counterparts – sustain/release, push/pull, extend/withdraw – and of shared weight and balance.
The movement had a heavy and weighted quality. They danced in the floor, rather than on top of it. In some places, they seemed to be dancing against the music: when Thom Willems’ haunting score was slow and drawn-out, the dancers moved at a staccato pace, creating sharp, angular lines with elbows, knees and hands. This juxtaposition of music and movement was at times unexpected, but it was an intriguing way to emphasize the strength and solid ensemble of the dancers.
Forsythe uses the same vocabulary – the same jumps, turns, extensions and partner work – as Lander does, but the order and the progression is modified and reorganized, while still being very much grounded in the technique of ballet. The underlying technical precision and acute attention to details is still there, mixed in with a contemporary fluidity and undulation of the dancers’ arms and torsos. Where Études was a study of precision and unison, Pas./Parts layered the phrases on top of each other, at the same time and had the dancers spread across the planes of the stage in solos, in pairs – both same sex and mixed – and in small groups. The effect was a bright and bold piece, bursting with power and intensity, which brought the performance to a satisfying conclusion.
Except I didn’t want it to end!
If Lander/Forsythe is any indication, the rest of the Paris Opera Ballet’s 2014 – 2015 Season should be just as exciting and as well done. I feel so lucky I got to see such a spectacular performance and I can’t think of a better way to be introduced to this incredible company than watching it pay tribute to the classical tradition, and then take that technique and run with it to new and innovative places.