Roland Petit with the Paris Opera Ballet

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Stéphane Bullion and Emilie Cozette in Roland Petit's Le Loup

Stéphane Bullion and Emilie Cozette in Roland Petit’s Le Loup


Le Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris
Palais Garnier

Le Rendez-Vous
Joseph Kosma – Music
Roland Petit – Choreography
Jacques Prévert – Story
Pablo Picasso – Front curtain
Brassaï – Sets
Mayo – Costumes

La Plus Belle Fille Du Monde – Eleonora Abbagnato
Le Jeune Homme – Benjamin Pech
Le Destin (Fate) – Michael Denard
Le Bossu (the Hunchback) – Hugo Vigliott

Le Loup
Jean Anouilh and Georges Neveu – Story
Henri Dutilleux – Music
Roland Petit – Choreography
Carzou – Sets and costumes

La Jeune Fille – Emilie Cozette
Le Loup (the wolf) – Stéphane Bullion
La Bohémienne (the gypsy girl) – Sabrina Mallem

Le Jeune Homme et la Mort
Jean Cocteau – Story
Johann Sebastian Bach – Music, Passacaglia en C minor
Roland Petit – Choreography
Georges Wakhévitch – Sets and costumes, Costumes after Karinska

Le Jeune Homme – Jérémie Belingard
La Mort – Alice Renavand

The Étoiles, Principal Dancers and Corps de Ballet
Orchestre Colonne
Yannis Pouspourikas Conductor

In the decade after the second world war, Paris and London, in addition to the big national companies, supported a myriad of small and prolific ballet companies. One of these was Boris Kochno’s Ballets des Champs-Elysées. Kochno had been Serge Diaghelev’s secretary in the Ballets Russes days, so in a way it was he who inherited the Ballets Russes tradition in Europe while Colonel de Basil and Serge Denham’s two respective Ballets Russes spin-offs were still touring the US and Australia. Kochno, as artistic director, founded the company with writer Jean Cocteau, and dancer and choreographer Roland Petit, who had trained in the Paris Opera Ballet School and danced in the corps de ballet until the Liberation. In 1948 Petit started his own small company, the Ballets de Paris, which only lasted a few years, but managed to cause great excitement in Paris and travelled well to London. Indeed, he worked with Margot Fonteyn several times. We don’t often get to see his ballets nowadays (though there are also a great many other modern ballets from those years, even some of Michel Fokine’s, that don’t get much air either), but the Paris Opera Ballet is currently showing three of Petit’s short pieces, Le Rendez-vous (1945), Le Loup (1953) and Le Jeune Homme et La Mort (1946) which have been in the national company’s repertoire since 1992, 1975 and 1990 respectively. Kochno and Petit delighted in collaborating with other avant-garde artists in odd bands, loose alliances born out of conversations in cafés. It was clear in this production, even sixty years after their creation, each of the artists had great deal of freedom to express themselves in their own way, which is probably the only way to make the concept work. And it did work, even if only to reinforce the dramatic tension.

The most tense and dark of the three pieces was Le Rendez-vous. It opens with an accordionist and a singer, their melody is sentimental ’40s one, and they cross the stage in front of the Picasso curtain. They exit and the orchestra starts to play a new tune in a similar style, though different in flavor. The curtain rises on a street corner in a grungy but not necessarily unwholesome quarter of Paris. In the moonlight, diverse people cross in the street — a flowerseller, a leafleter, a hunchback wanders jerkily, diners dine in a bistro and couples embrace. The accordionist and singer return to serenade a young, oblivious couple, with the same melody as before, now singing the words from a Jaques Prévert poem, “Les enfants qui s’aiment.” The Young Man eventually comes out into the street wearing an old grey suit, dancing among the passersby with bonhomie. The couples from the bistro dance too and the leafleter offers his pamphlets. The dancing is a little bit edgy, expressive of the unpredictability of life in these streets. The Young Man dances sporadically, never for more than a few bars at a time, giving the impression of the improvisational style of an American jazz player who feels no need to fill every moment of the music. The music and décor combine in a tense, jarring way: the Brassaï photographs have a contrasty,film noir-style and Picasso’s curtain is angular and shadowy while the style of Kosma’s music is slightly nightclubbish.

The second scene features the Young Man and the Hunchback. While others in the street are amused but slightly repulsed by the Hunchback, the Young Man befriends him and dances with him. The Hunchback exits, and the Young Man becomes introspective and enters a dark mood. Fate enters suddenly from the shadows, sinister in his 16th century ruffs and puritan- or pilgrim-style felt hat. The Young Man, though afraid, appeals to him but gets nothing certain out of him. The Young Man then expresses in mime a desire for female companionship and Fate flourishes a razor threateningly, but ends up placing it carefully in the Young Man’s shirt pocket. However the Young Man manages to pull together some hope.

The Young Man and the Hunchback return together in the third scene having shared a drink, dancing unselfconsciously. They’re interrupted when a woman enters,”la Plus Belle Fille du Monde,” wearing an elegant evening dress and high heels, She and the Young Man dance together with ease, performing a long, sensual and elegant pas de deux with intricate steps, in complete contrast to the dances with the hunchback. But, beyond just their difference in dress, there is something incongruous about the two. As the dance comes to an end, she takes the razor from his pocket and suddenly slits his throat.

It is of course reasonable for Petit and company to have tried to purge some of the darkness of their times, depicting an atrocity, and to experiment in different flavors of expression, but this piece left me with a bad taste in the mouth. The brutal violence at the end had a Germanic darkness to it and seemed to drop on the wrong side of manipulative, giving the piece a contrived feel as if it were trying to shock. Indeed, Petit describes the piece in the program as “very Germanic and at the same time very Parisian.” This might work intellectually, but as a whole, the piece left me cold. Having said that, the individual dancers and musicians all performed very well. Benjamin Pech did not overdo the hail-fellow-well-met in his character’s public persona and expressed poignantly his personal disquiet. Hugo Vigliotti’s Hunchback was suitably monstrous and repulsive, but still pathetic. It is always a challenge for a professional dancer to have to dance awkwardly for a rôle. Michael Denard’s Fate was both bossy and insouciant, a big man with other jobs to do. Eleonora Abbagnato danced with grace and elegance, which made her character all the more disturbing. The casting of the Paris Opera Ballet School’s Coralie Grand and Hugo Collin as the Young Couple in Love worked particularly well; they conveyed a shyness and a slight hesitancy while seeming to be lost in their own world.

With only a slight pause, Le Loup begins, taking us out of Paris for the only time during the afternoon, to a small country estate. This ballet is a fairy tale and the most classical in style of the three pieces, and also has the strongest Ballets Russes style. It is also in a way the most political. Though Dutilleux’s original music is decidedly modern, modern music’s odd fairy quality works in an interesting way. The choreography itself is poised tensely between classical and mid-twentieth century modernist styles, neatly shadowing the theme of the piece: the clash between civilization with its supposedly educated and knightly humans, and the wild kingdom of the beasts. Human cretinism taken by surprise by animal intelligence.

The curtain opens on a traveling magician, his beautiful assistant and caravan facing a rapt audience from the local village. The assistant, an exotic gypsy girl, dances through the crowd and picks out a man, whom the magician turns into an ass and then back again into his original form. The villagers are revolted but fascinated by this seemingly harmless trick. A courtly wedding party enters in a stately style not too distant from that of Louis XIV’s court. The gypsy girl dances for the young groom and he is enthralled by her. He allows the magician to perform his trick whereby he turns the young man into a wolf, but returns him to human form. This is too much for the wedding party and they leave immediately in the same manner they entered, but with more haste. The young man, still obsessed by the girl, returns later and dances with her. She ends up rejecting him and makes the magician swap his soul with a real wolf’s. The bride then enters, searching for the young man, but is tricked and takes the wolf home with her instead. Though at first terrified when she realizes her mistake, she is overcome with pity for the wolf and ends up taming him. But when the rest of the community finds out what has happened, they are more scandalized than afraid and insist the magician put all to right. The young woman is relieved for her husband but rejects him as she has already fallen in love with the wolf. The woman goes off with the wolf, but soon a mob of villagers, wielding pitchforks, give chase to try to “save” the young woman. The lovers try to flee, but the mob catches them and stabs the wolf. The young woman tries to intervene but they lunge again and she is caught on their pitchforks. The wolf and woman fall to the ground in an embrace and die. Only with difficulty do the villagers separate them, carrying the woman’s body off in procession, while one villager is left behind to drag off ignominiously the wolf’s carcass.

In contrast to Le Rendez-vous, Le Loup had a kind of fairy tale logic to it, like many classical ballets, and perhaps made it easier to pull off. It was also a smaller group of artists who created the piece in 1953, which helped made it  more harmonious and unified and less disturbing. Nonetheless, the cast seemed to be more absorbed in this piece than in Le Rendez-vous, and seemed to understand it better.

This piece was a treat to look at. Carzou’s stylized medieval costumes had gay primary colors in geometric block patterns and finely striped skirts. This garb and the over-the-top wolf makeup created a fantastic world for the piece. The cast seemed to honestly care for the story and took it as seriously as they would a bigger and more famous Tchaikovsky fairy-tale ballet, and seemed to put all their energy into it. Sabrina Mallem danced the gypsy’s fast and intricate steps brilliantly, giving her character a sharpness and volatility without completely tarnishing her charm. I felt it was really her behind all the mischief in the story, as she exerted as much influence over the magician as the young man. Stéphane Bullion was very wolfy, showing a real understanding of the animal’s movements, which the choreography captures in such a fresh and sympathetic way. His wolf had both grace and that fascinating deliberateness and unpredictability which animals express so well. Émilie Cozette danced a difficult part, straddling classical and modernist styles, movingly and with versatility. She had suitable courtly rigidity leading the wedding party at the beginning, but danced beautifully and poetically with her wolf lover. At the same time, she seemed to assimilate some of the wolf’s animal movements, more modernist in style, the wolf rubbing off as much on her as she tames him.

The final ballet, Le Jeune Homme et La Mort, is for a duo and returns to the subject of a young man dying at the hands of a young woman. As such, Margot Fontaine has called it the shadow of Le Spectre de la Rose, Michel Fokine’s other great ballet for two. This piece is the most like a myth of the three. It is very dark, disturbing, but did not have the harsh flavor of Le Rendez-vous. The ballet is also a creation of a mélange of artists of seemingly clashing styles, but somehow the styles tolerate each other better, even Bach’s music’s. Cocteau and the original conductor André Girard, in “borrowing” Bach’s organ music, followed in the then young tradition of Léonide Massine, who attracted controversy some 20 years earlier in setting dance to symphonies of Brahms, Berlioz and Beethoven. Although now no longer generally controversial (though Massine’s symphonic ballets aren’t put on very often), a modernist ballet danced to a Bach piece might seem odd, but somehow it works, the music taking a rôle as the main driving force in the piece, as the ghostly third character. The choreography in turn is very fluid and flows naturally out of the music, even though Petit began defining the steps to jazz improvisation on piano and drum, before the music was chosen.

The story is very simple, perhaps the most basic story possible. A young man, an artist (who could even be Vaslav Nijinsky, whose dance career ended tragically) lies in an uncomfortable position in bed in his small, gloomy studio in Paris. The man rises and dances about the small apartment alone, stepping sometimes around and sometimes onto and over his drab furniture. The door suddenly opens and on the sunset’s last ray of yellow light breezes in a woman dressed in a canary yellow dress and black leather gloves, sporting a short, smart bob of straight black hair. She dances towards him and away from him, alternating aggressiveness and disdain. She begins to dance with him, erotically at times, teasing him, but leaves him sprawling on the floor. Eventually she riles herself up and throws the furniture around the apartment. She ties a noose to the rafters before flying out the door. The artist, now greatly distressed, climbs up to the noose and hangs himself. Then, in an amazing piece of stage craft, the apartment flies apart, revealing the roofscape of Paris, grey and crepuscular, with only a few windows and a neon sign glowing out of the night. The woman returns, now serene, dressed in a long white robe with a red hood and cloak forming a train behind her. She lets the artist down and he rises slowly. Pointing her finger, she directs him away from the wall-less apartment and he slowly glides, with her floating behind him across the rooftops of the city. When he hesitates she points him on, and she follows him off the side of the stage.

After these three pieces, Roland Petit would seem obsessed with the death of young men before their time, and one can sympathize with the urge to express and purge the darkness of the tragic waste of the war, even if it takes several tries. Sixty years of history have not faded this soul of the art, but the ballets work just as well on the private level too. Le Jeune Homme et La Mort felt the most successful of the three in this way, at least the most poignant and mysterious. The music lent the piece an inevitability which did not seem arbitrary, which is perhaps easier to express in music than in acting or even dancing. The orchestra was like the left hand part of a piano piece directing and timing the dancers’ right hand part. It is a great challenge for a conductor to play Bach, with its precise rhythm and counterpoint, for a ballet and make the rubato sound natural, but Yannis Pouspourikas and the Orchestre Collone manage, perhaps partly by lending the piece an almost French romantic flavor, which is perhaps indicated also by the orchestration. The piece is very rapid and dense, and at times I even wished I could it slow down to savor the detail. It might be interesting to perform this piece with the organ or piano, or even the harpsichord, for a change, so that there are only three performers, and the music is more understated. The rubato may be easier this way an allow more room for improvisation and give the piece a more organic character.

Jérémie Bélingard has a very strong and powerful physique and the choreography requires both very fast dancing and acrobatics, but he danced without pretension. He managed to blend the acrobatics with the subtler steps seamlessly and he does not rely on the acrobatic fireworks to impress. Alice Renard gives her Death mystery; her to-ing and fro-ing with the young man is serious rather than frivolous and never feels cruel or baseless or random. She also manages to bring out a human frailty in her angry scenes. At the end she becomes serene and stately, with a touch of the gentle definiteness of Dante’s Beatrice as she saves the young man. The two dancers were very moving and preformed in near perfect sympathy.

After this set, it was reassuring to come out of the Palais Garnier into a pale grey autumnal day in a mostly-intact Paris. The ballets stuck in my mind for several days after, in a good way, mostly, and I think that is one definition of good art.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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