This June, the Paris Opera Ballet revisits Singapore with a triple bill of works by William Forsythe, Jerome Robbins and Crystal Pite.
Paris Opera Ballet celebrates its 350th anniversary. The company rarely tours to the region; to be able to see them live here is a rare treat, and certainly a testament to successful cultural diplomacy between republics. The slogan for the anniversary, “Modern since 1669”, underscores a continued dedication to cultural relevance and evolution while retaining connection to its distant and recent past. In his introduction to the season’s program, the Paris Opera’s director Stéphane Lissner states: “Today, the Paris Opera is the depository of this heritage, responsible for making it live, grow and develop and in no way conserving it as a museum piece.”
As the world’s oldest professional ballet company, the POB has survived changes in political climate, beginning from European monarchy to the birth of the Republic, from gilded palace life to modern digitisation. Held up in great regard, artists enter into training as children at the Paris Opera Ballet School, their lives and their families’ lives moulded to fit the high demands of elite training. Like sportsmen, there is great sacrifice in the pursuit of excellence. Like artists, the understanding of excellence might shift.
Though ballet can be traced to the Italian Renaissance and it’s spread across Europe came through the influence of Catherine de Medici, it is the French Academy and company that are first developed and codified ballet as a dance form. Classes across the world still typically use the French terminology. Today, the Paris Opera Ballet continues to refresh itself by stepping far afield from the ballet technique, through projects such as learning and presenting the repertoire of Trisha Brown — the postmodernist choreographer best known for seemingly throwaway, pedestrian movement, crafted meticulously to appear freeform.
However, even as the Paris Opera Ballet embarks on such adventures, the company and its individuals struggle to maintain an environment that honours its roots while innovating and updating its operations and artistic repertoire. In 2016, the previous director, Benjamin Millepied, had left quite abruptly after 2 years to run his own L.A. Dance Project, presumably because he found the dynamism of Los Angeles much more conducive for his artistic goals.
Perhaps the Paris Opera Ballet artists willingly accept the conditions they face because they occupy such a rarefied sphere, and they know it. Only a handful, like Sylvie Guillem, leave loudly and confidently — but even she cannot dismiss what the institution has gifted her.
Perhaps this triple bill will capture some of the politics surrounding the Paris Opera Ballet’s current situation. Blake Works I by William Forsythe relies on the nuances of the French ballet tradition, whilst responding to the light pop ballad of James Blake. The musical choice is intentionally welcoming rather than alienating; the work has been heralded a significant moment in ballet history — much like how Forsythe’s challenging work “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” (commissioned for the POB in 1987), was noted. The qualities of the ensemble of dancers, the majority of whom are specifically trained and put through a rigorous selection process at a young age in the academy, are put to use. Rather than focusing on the few, this work embraces the many. A celebration of the new generation of Paris Opera dancers.
As for Jerome Robbins’ “In The Night”, the work was created for New York City Ballet in 1970, and brought into the repertoire of POB in 1989. While Forsythe’s work has been called a love letter to ballet, Robbins’ work is about love. In three duets featuring contrasting sets of lovers, and each set to a different nocturne by Chopin, romantic love is shown in various states, a picture of three relationships. Jerome Robbins thought of Paris Opera Ballet as his second home; the company likewise has staged evenings dedicated to his work. His work is known to illuminate the stage with a sense of freedom and joy. As a choice in the programme to focus on individual relationships as symbols for love, the artists will be able to display their individual qualities and theatrical flair within familiar archetypes.
To close off the evening, the choreography commission of Crystal Pite, whose work for the Netherlands Dans Theatre was proudly lauded in Singapore last year, will be presented. “The Seasons’ Canon” features 54 dancers — a large mass of bodies, precisely selected, trained intensively together — in a large ensemble work. The men and women pulse and breathe in intricate tableaux, bodies moving organically and shaping spiralling visual forms. The music is a score the Canadian choreographer had fallen in love with, an avant-garde version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, re-composed by Max Richter. Our world today is globalised, entwined; the Paris Opera Ballet attempts to stay true to its roots, to the Sun King’s vision of beauty and order, while finding new expression in this 21st Century reality.
The ballet today belongs not only to the elite. As an artform, it may have embedded practices and mindsets which need to shift with the times, and it is a delicate balancing act to progress without destroying what was valuable about the past.
As Sarah Crompton put it in The Guardian: “It is the only art form that, until very recently, was passed down “arm to arm, leg to leg” as the Russians say, with a dancer of one generation teaching a role to the next. Reverence for tradition is ingrained into its actual form. But it is not preserved in aspic.”
Indeed — there is not only one way to understand the dance form, but many. This June, the Paris Opera Ballet performs works by three choreographers who will show three ways of handling the aesthetic possibilities carried in the dancers’ bodies. Perhaps the power of the artform will transport us into an imaginative headspace, beyond the vagaries of our present politics. Perhaps in the realm of our imagination is where we can begin to discover the great potential that exists in a large group of people, breathing, working and dancing together with music, in service of an ephemeral artistic experience.
Paris Opera Ballet at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay 21-23 June.
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.