The Paris Opera Ballet opened its 12-day visit to Lincoln Center on Wednesday evening with the glorious French Masters of the 20th Century, a program consisting of works by Serge Lifar, Roland Petit, and Maurice Bejart. On the basis of this program alone, Haglund hopes that the company's return visit is already in the planning stages. It seems that a mid-July season is no obstacle to ticket sales so long as there is quality programing. Many in New York never go on vacation.
The evening began with the company's 431st performance of Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc, an academically oriented piece that displays the French style with its cool and collected temperament and precise, restrained classicism. Lifar used music from Lalo's Namouna for the choreography.
Everyone knows how the French can curl their legs around their ears – they practically invented that – but here they showed us how modesty and restraint are two of the most beautiful aspects of the art form. A ballerina's simple stance on pointe in fifth position, with not a wobble from head to toe and both heels showing as perfectly matched opposites, became a beautiful still image. Another ballerina balanced low arabesques while lines of men behind her performed grand jumps. Sometimes the classic formation of the arms overhead in fifth position framed not just the dancer's face but also the face of her partner. The choreography included some fussy wrists and hands – all performed with elegance and naturalness. The final solo, La Flûte, danced by Dorothée Gilbert was breathtaking in its beauty. The adage by Aurélie Dupont and Benjamin Pech was lovely in its simplicity. Ms. Dupont could have easily performed an extreme penche so that her tutu inverted into an umbrella form, but instead, offered a restrained arabesque leg that served the overall image respectfully and with classical beauty.
Maybe it was the location of Haglund's $29 seat, but it appeared that the tops of the ankles of some of the men in white tights and shoes could have been more stretched.
The middle piece on the program was Haglund's favorite: Roland Petit's L'Arlésienne danced by Isabelle Ciaravola and Jérémie Bélingard. In the ballet to Bizet's score, we never see the title character, the girl from Arles, who Bélingard's character, Frederi, intended to marry until he learned that she had been someone else's mistress. He mentally unraveled while the community sought to match him up with his former sweetheart, Ciaravola's Vivette, and eventually he took a suicidal dive through an opened window.
The corps de ballet had as important a character role to play in L'Arlésienne as the Wilis have in Giselle. They formed the community which observed and sometimes pressured the principal characters into their actions. The choreography for the community was brilliant as it displayed all that a community could be: nurturing, protective, consoling, conniving, and above all persistent.
Ms. Ciaravola had the audience's admiration at the first point of her delicately curved feet. She used those pointes to skillfully etch out Vivette's innocence and love for Frederi – eschappes that nearly bent the pointes in half, little walks on pointe in which she flexed her feet, lovely backward soutenu turns, little prancing steps. Meanwhile, poor Frederi's firm fixation on the girl from Arles was loosening his grasp on reality. His final solo of madness and hallucination was a mad manege of turns and jumps that showed the character suffering and deteriorating before our eyes. And then, out he went.
Back in the early 1980s, Haglund sat in the center of the front row as a shirtless Jorge Donn leaped and writhed all over the red tabletop in a performance of Maurice Bejart's Bolero by the Ballet of the 20th Century. It was pretty damned thrilling to be close enough to catch Donn's sweat and make eye contact. Sitting in a $29 seat last night didn't allow for quite the same thrill. However, Nicolas Le Riche's 18 minute long solo managed to unsettle all the right nerves with its crescendo and climax. The members of the New York City Opera Orchestra, in the pit all night, were beyond wonderful in Bolero and seemed quite happy to be back where they belong.
This visit by the Paris Opera Ballet could turn out to be the ballet highlight of 2012. It is truly a wonderful sight to see a company of such uniform style and classical tradition from the corps through the principals. Stylistically, one doesn't see the expansive, flexible backs that might be common in other companies and the port de bras isn't one that breathes to the extent of the Mariinsky's – at least not in last night's programing selections. But the overall end product is one of captivating beauty that deserves our respect and admiration. Love, love, love the Paris Opera Ballet.
The Pump Bump Award, with unraveling red ruffle, is bestowed upon Nicolas Le Riche for his melting-hot performance in Bolero.