So you think you can dance? Then you haven’t seen the Paris Opera Ballet, making one of its rare appearances, apparently, outside Paris. We should be flattered. Truly. Especially as this is the company’s third tour to Australia in just half-a-dozen years.
Few would quibble, or argue, against the assertion this company is the finest in the world. If you do, then you haven’t seen the Paris Opera Ballet. But preceding reputations can be troublesome for all concerned. It makes for unbearable responsibility which rests, mostly, on the backs of the dancers. And ballet isn’t a competitive sport. Nonetheless, even allowing for the vagaries of memory (mine especially) I can say with a great deal of confidence that the Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle, as I witnessed it last Tuesday at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, was almost certainly the finest dance production of any kind I’ve ever seen.
Yes, a big call. After all, I’ve had my breath stolen, time and again, by the likes of the Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company, Bangarra and Meryl Tankard. I say this in all honesty, not out of mere parochialism. Yes, there have been astonishing moments provided by a number of touring companies, as well. And promising, innovative work seen further afield than inner Sydney, in places like Parramatta, Wollongong, Canberra and Darwin. But, all things weighed on my delicate set of scales, the Paris Opera Ballet eclipses all by a feather. A feather may not represent a great weight, but it’s still a definitive win. And a feather is a fitting symbol, as it suggests a notion of aesthetic perfection.
When we celebrate this tour of the Paris Opera Ballet, however, we’re really celebrating a whole lot more. This company is the oldest on Earth and, as such, is almost synonymous with ballet itself. For such an old ballet, one of the most striking things about it is the relative youth of its dancers, with an average age of 25. This lends fresh-faced vitality and is, at the same time, downright courageous, given the standard they must live up to. And, at 180 performances each year, they work damn hard, though not as hard as our home-grown company, which sits at the 200 mark. Nor does it show. There was no sign of fatigue or complacency. It was as if Giselle was a new ballet and this was its debut. This sense alone is one of the Paris Opera Ballet’s and this production’s great strengths.
But, as I said, we’re celebrating ballet itself here. It’s true that ballet, at least as performance dance, originated in Italy, in the renaissance courts of the fifteenth century. But it was in France and Russia that it really took shape and developed its own vocabulary, even if the signifier derives from the Greek, ballizo, meaning simply to dance and jump about. In the 17th century, Louis XIV was so captivated by it he hired his own teacher. (He might as well have been tagged Sir Prancealot.) But he did something that’s had a more enduring legacy. In 1661, he founded the Academie Royale de Danse and, just over a decade later, merged it with the Royal Academy of Music. This signalled the birth of the Paris Opera Ballet which, as part of the Theatre National de l’Opera, remained the pre-eminent European theatrical dance company for going on two centuries (at least until Marius Petipa defected to Russia).
It was at the tail end of this heyday that choreographers Jean Coralli et (the originally uncredited) Jules Perrot gave us Giselle (ou les Wilis). Yes, Coralli and Perrot gave us the willies. you might say; this wonderful white ballet, in two acts. While other ballet and dance generally, even when aspiring to narrative, can be complicated and almost utterly bewildering, Giselle embraces the indisputable elegance of simplicity, thanks to its economical libretto, by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Theophile Gautier, inspired by a Heinrich Heine poem, which puts the action in the Rhineland, during the grape harvest. Like many contemporary poets and novelists of the day, Heine, too, had the willies. (Well, the Wilis; being jilted young brides who’d died before their promised big day, their departure from the mortal plane rendering them not tragically helpless and disempowered, but vengeful beeatches.) He was preoccupied with the supernatural. Which explains why act two is as much, or more, like a dream sequence, or a dream dance sequence, than narrative exposition. I’m not sure what kind of substance abuse was in fashion at the time, but Heine had conceived an elaborate mythology.
The other indivisibly ravishing dimension of the work is Adolphe Charles Adam’s score. “In ballet, Adam is absolute master and knew no rivals. It is in ballet that he revealed his great poetic feeling and he brought to this type of music all the flexibility of writing and diversity of style he had shown us elsewhere,” so said writer and critic Pier Angelo Fiorentino (1810-1864) in Le Moniteur in memorial tribute. What strikes me, where Giselle‘s concerned, is the seeming simplicity of the score, which works in lockstep harmony with the libretto. There’s an emphasis on, if you will, folk dances, which ensures a democratic approachability; the reason being Gautier called for diversity among the Wilis. And so, to depict this, Adam included quadrilles, nocturnes, waltzes and tarantellas.
As a whole, the music is never overwrought or melodramatic and its orchestration is characterised by discipline, discernment, maturity and sophistication. I suspect the reason it adheres so well and exhibits such integrity with the ballet overall lies in the fact it was composed in collaboration with Perrot and Carlotta Grisi, the first ballerina who distinguished herself in the title role. Having said that, we need to remember composition was a much more prosaic task then, than now. It was done apace (Adam’s memoirs suggest three weeks of impassioned, high-spirited, sleeves-rolled-up application to the task) and yet Adam’s work is pregnant with rousing sonorities on the one hand and sweetly sublime, nuanced textures on the other. He was consistently mindful of narrative arc, effect, but also remaining essentially tuneful: there’s an agreeability and prettiness about the music, which can by no means be construed as trivial or superficial. Other distinguishing features include the pioneering inclusion of leitmotifs to signify different characters and a particularly inventive deployment of wind instruments, most notably the mournful oboe that’s so expressive of the grieving Albrecht’s soul-destroyed state, as he makes his downcast entrance in the second act.
Happily, the almost impossibly adaptable Sydney Lyric Orchestra — under the direction of concertmaster Adrian Keating and conducted by the ebullient Belgian-born Koen Kessels — bring all of these characteristics not only faithfully, but opulently, to the fore. On their side are the acoustics of the Capitol which are, well, capital. Strings, especially, sound (not surprisingly given the relative plushness of the furnishings and containment afforded by a more intimate space) appreciably warmer and fuller than in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. This was even evident with the otherwise rather redundant rendition of national anthems; first, our embarrassing excuse for one (the anthem you have, when you’re not having an anthem) and then a superb arrangement of La Marseillaise.
Under the determined artistic directorship of Brigitte Lefevre, the fidelity of the Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle to its heritage and origins extends to sets and costumes, designed by Alexandre Benois for it’s revival in 1924. Could there be any greater dedication to authenticity? Claudie Gastine appears to have realised these fastidiously and immaculately. Benois’ designs are almost architectural, insofar as the garments themselves dance, in slow-motion sweeps and swirls.
When the curtain rises, one is immediately cast under a childlike spell; the forest in which the villagers dwell appears as magical and enchanting as in a pop-up storybook which, for grown-ups, of course, is a guilty, nostalgic, indulgent pleasure. Costumes, too, are exquisitely tailored and in a subtle, pastel palette that’s reminiscent of the softness of flowers and olive-green hues of grapevines. And so we are drawn, seduced even, into this bygone, romantic Germanic idyll. In the ghostly, funereal second act, by contrast, a lonely graveyard is populated by fleeting apparitions; time and motion are distorted in this vision of the netherworld of wronged maidens. The “effects” put any amount of cinematic technology and investment utterly to shame: we are beguiled all the moreso by sleights of hand, suspension of disbelief and, not least either, fiendish lighting (about the only material concession to modernity, other than an uncommonly well-used fog machine).
It was Marius Petipa who famously “transmitted” Coralli and Perrot’s choreography, for the Imperial Russian Ballet, in 1884, or 1887, depending what source one relies upon. Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov adapted his definitive model in 1991 and it’s this we presently witness. It’s practically impossible to know, of course, what or how much has changed, even if it’s mere nibbling at the edges, but finesse is, presumably was, and doubtless will always be a hallmark. It’s worth knowing, by way of background and for the historical record, that Perrot was responsible for most of the action, but wasn’t on the payroll and, by dint of political machination, it was Giovanni Coralli Peracini (by birth) who was ascribed credit.
As rivals for Giselle‘s attention, both Hilarion (a humble gamekeeper) and the disingenuous cad (and disguised nobleman, passing himself off as Loys), Albrecht, are most intriguing if played as equals, other than in their station in life. The significance of this dramatic device hasn’t been lost on Lefevre and her team of ballet masters when it comes to casting. Audric Bezard, as Hilarion, is looks every bit as upright, proud, defiant, high-cheekboned handsome and strong as his counterpart. This strength is reflected in their comparable carriage and evenly-matched expertise in the roles.
Needless to say, as a leading dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet, Mathieu Ganio is one the world’s leading ballet dancers, full-stop. This reputation is borne out in almost every move and gesture; so much so, it’s almost completely arbitrary to cite highlights. But his entrechats, in act two, would have to be among them. His feet were a blur as they criss-crossed each other during graceful leaps. It’s as if he were thrust from the stage by unseen forces; no effort was apparent, his legs alternating like an egg-beater whisking an omelette to fluffy delectability.
The object of his and Hilarion’s affections, Giselle is danced by easy-on-the-eye Dorothee Gilbert, (in the role) the very quintessence of the wide-eyed innocent; an unaffected, guileless girl whose heart is open to love and its achy-breaky consequences. It is her sympathetic feeling for her character that distinguishes her performance as much as her dancing, which is flawless (apart form an audible clout as she hit a garden bench, which must have smarted and I suspect she sports a purple bruise as a souvenir).
One wouldn’t typically associate white meringue and dainty wings as power dressing, but it works for Marie-Agnes Gillot: as queen of the Wilis, she exudes power and authority, exhibiting a similar affinity for all-round theatricality to Gilbert; surely a rare and prized commodity among dancers. Amelie Lamoureux, a coryphee, steps up as Berthe, Giselle’s mother, who betrays the dualistic ballet-pantomime tradition with an acutely defined and urgent vocabulary of gesticulations prophesying dire straits, should Giselle persist with her infatuation.
One of the most edifying sidelights was the peasant pas de deux, danced by the extraordinary Melanie Hurel and Emmanuel Thibault, who’ve enjoyed the well-deserved status of premiere danseuse and premier danseur for a number of years already.
These and other individual distinctions aside, the core strength of the Paris Opera Ballet is in the corps de ballet: there is a uniformity of excellence which doesn’t pertain elsewhere. Thus, the joie lies not so much in the feats of technical brilliance by the principals, though they’re very much in evidence, but in precision of execution en masse; every move is a work of bodily art, every line and arc as if described by a draughtsman’s sharpened pencil. Until now, I thought it was only Ali that floated like a butterfly. But here, in act two, were 26 dancers that didn’t need the wings on their backs to show they could fly.
It was ballet master Jean Georges Noverre’s heart’s desire for ballet, as a stand-alone artform, to be able to tell a story; an aspiration finally realised, albeit around a century later, with Giselle. It’s strong themes and bold flavours, so clearly communicated and easily savoured, seem, somehow, no less contemporary and, certainly, no less sophisticated. Musically, choreographically and otherwise, Giselle, in the loving care of the Paris Opera Ballet, remains a work of almost unparalleled refinement and resolution. Back in the day, it was enthusiastically and unhesitatingly declared the greatest ballet of its time. That time may still be with us. It’s a work and production that reclaims from the realms of cliche the phrase, poetry in motion.
Besides, it’s so Frenchy, so chic.
The details: Giselle plays the Capitol Theatre until February 9. Tickets via Ticketmaster.