I had the pleasure of seeing the Paris Opera Ballet perform twice – first, from the best seats in the house on Saturday evening, then, from the circle seats on Sunday afternoon.
I overflowed with serious tears over The Seasons’ Canon by Crystal Pite the second time around, after feeling slightly skeptical about it the first. These contrasting personal experiences within the span of 20 hours surely captures the intense subjectivity of live performance. Not everybody has the privilege of sitting through a performance twice. I definitely recommend doing it.
It almost feels embarrassing to confess how different my experience was in each show – and yet there is such incredible sensitivity and intelligence in the work of these luminous artists, that if there were no difference and dull perfection I might have nothing to discuss. We would relegate repetition to the work of our technological inventions. Instead, it is precisely the repetition of artists performing the lofty, soulful creations of three great choreographers, that gives us a chance to more deeply comprehend the wondrous nature of the human body and the human imagination.
When it comes to enjoying a triple bill by a ballet company, it is fairly natural to compare, for instance, which piece you like best, which dancer was great, whether the men or the women were more interesting. For the connoisseurs it also becomes like sports commentary, comparing the styles of one ballet company against another. Not for nothing did Albert Einstein proclaim dancers as “athletes of God”; certainly when it comes to the elite artistic education of the Paris Opera, the description is accurate, not hyperbolic. But it is not their prowess and virtuosity that makes watching these dancers revelatory. It is their attentiveness and care to each moment that transports and elevates an audience. The shows were not flawless, they were human.
Sitting with a work of art for a while gives us the chance to peel back its layers, to see what the choreographer saw. It is quite akin to a spiritual experience. And a well-paced one, at that – each twenty-minute intermission served as a palate cleanser for the audience, as much as it gave time for the performers to prepare.
Being seated amidst a very diverse crowd sharing this attention gave this writer great hope on a weekend where national pride and military might were being rehearsed. And against thundering warplanes flying overhead, which I hope to God will never be actually used for their purpose – there is a necessary, special type of peace when dancers emote romance, drama, playfulness on stage.
The ballet world has expanded its fan base remarkably, no longer serving kings but any individual who admires the body’s expressivity, musicality, and self-control. These artists are masters of restraint – in William Forsythe’s work, quoting urban forms and dance battles with his classic wit, the dancers are always precise about the placement of a loose wrist, the moments where their limbs are flung loosely, wrenched apart from its core, then coming back again to a reach, a leap, a flurry of beating feet. William Forsythe of the 80s and 90s seemed to pull apart the body and wreak havoc on the ballet stage, and at his age and in this time, he seems to seek a mellower pastel hue, an institutionalised order perfectly exemplified in the Paris Opera itself. I am grateful for the minimal show of violence against the body, even as I watch female dancers graciously work their (I imagine) battered toes.
For a small moment in Blake Works I, I missed the presence of live music in this ballet. But the busyness and continuous organic flow of dancers entering and exiting the stage meant that the recorded sentimentality in James Blake’s voice, the groove of his beats, the scrubbing and whooping sounds, lent the liveness of the bodies before us greater significance. It is indeed Forsythe’s “love letter to ballet”: in one moment, a crowd of dancers form, vocalising approval as two men face off, and then a woman steps in to do her thing before calmly acknowledging the two – these are images that counterpoint the tired representations of ballet as a bitchy, narrow-minded world. They are also images that respect a world outside the institution, one that seeks acceptance as minorities traditionally excluded from things like ballet.
The work is sly commentary on romance and suggests questions about love. A woman begins the dance, and the group weaves in and out of the space in calm canons and unisons. Later on, a man and a woman perform a pas de deux in slightly dimmer light; what was once blue appears almost purple. Later on, James Blake repeats “there are two men down” over and over and over again until there are two men left on stage for a brief moment to dance together. There is no conclusion in the work, even though it ends with a man and a woman partnering each other to lyrics that say “you always landed on your feet in the dust” and “how wonderful you are”.
Jerome Robbins’ “In The Night” also displayed the relationship between music and choreography through the theme of romance. Three pas de deux set to Frederic Chopin’s Four Nights for piano, made in 1970, this classic displayed the wit of the choreographer. Held delicately together by the performance of pianist Ryoko Hisayama, the listening between musician and dancer opened the space between couples and an outside world. In the first duet, Sae Eun Park seems to literally float in the arms of Paul Marque, overflowing with grace, both in a trance of some newly discovered intimacy. Dressed in something blue, they emanated pure love from the stage lit like a starry sky. In bronze costumes, Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet moved in controlled measures, a formal relationship on the brink between just keeping up appearances and staying attuned to their emotional bond. They specifically hook each other with great tension – once holding only forearms for the woman to balance, another pressing wrists awkwardly together to execute a rotation. Dorothée Gilbert and Audric Bezard breathe and gasp audibly, clutching, gasping, collapsing into each other. A melodramatic relationship: she leaves, then he leaves, then they split and meet again. Ah, torrid love. He lifts her like a trophy, tosses and catches her, two people strangely enthralled with each other.
When they finally meet in the last act, these pairs of lovers suddenly switch their attitudes. Remarkably quickly, they became formal and courteous. They mixed briefly, but as if caught in some fate-driven magnetism, returned to their partners again. My words describe the scene, but it is the choreographer’s sense of timing that draws out special meaning in their exchange. Who are they? Where are they? We are drawn into the intimacy between two dancers, even as they present upside down displays, wild leaps, athletic lifts.
Crystal Pite organised 54 dancers into swarms, synapses, warzones. Blue-throated bodies in grey cargo-like pants arranged into mobs, spines, forests. From closer up, on the ground level, the breath of the individual and the impact of Jay Gower Taylor’s set design revealed the seasons and immensity of nature. From the aerial view, when the dancers lay down serenely, then stood up again, and later lay down again, the imagery was stark and intense. To watch a mass of bodies breathe together in quite this way – this is what I earlier alluded to as a spiritual experience. A lot of the work was in the dancers arranged to run, stand, hold each other, doing simple movement in canon, together, like a defence force. But as each individual acquiesced to the group phenomenon, the power of their corporeal bodies, the fact of mortality, became of epic significance. Here I am, seated in a crowd, watching a crowd of people form a social body on stage. Sometimes, a woman emerges like the queen bee, sometimes, two men dance together with great speed and attack before disappearing back into a group unison. Most of the time, men and women were indistinguishable, overtaken by a greater power. Pite’s use of Max Richter’s version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons created the space for my imagination to run wild. It was illuminating to observe her ability to bring together such a large group of stellar artists, as each generously gave themselves over to her stage imagery. The dancers became the mise-en-scène: perfectly, terrifyingly anonymous.
When the dancers took their curtain call, it was difficult to pick out who danced which part and whether they deserved louder applause or not, as in the norm of classical ballet to applaud our favourites the most. I was glad we could not be absolutely sure who danced when -they danced as a team, a corps; even their étoiles, as outstanding as each was, were part of the swarm. Both shows I saw received sincere ovations. Greatness deserves it.