To usher in the new year, and not just any year–2019 marks the 350th anniversary of the institution’s inception under Louis XIV–the Paris Opera Ballet proposed a mixed bill of three short ballets that ran throughout the month of February at the historic Palais Garnier. The program opened with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun, a piece that was created in 2009, but only recently acquired in the POB’s repertoire. The remainder of the evening was dedicated to two new commissions for the company, including Marco Goecke’s first production for the POB, Dogs Sleep, followed by Pontus Lidberg’s Les Noces.
Why these three choreographers? And why now? From a curatorial perspective, the only information provided to contextualize this choice of programming is a brief mention on the POB’s website that the evening brings together “three unique visions of dance and theatre.” The most visible connections are that two of the three pieces on the program are tied to defining moments in dance history: Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun (and its various incarnations since) in the case of Cherkaoui and Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces for Lidberg, both of which were premiered by Les Ballet Russes in early 20th century Paris. And while the historic links may appear less obvious in the case of Goecke’s work, it is interesting to recall the choreographer’s recreation of Le Spectre de la Rose (originally choreographed by Fokine in 1911 for Les Ballets Russes, and a piece that sealed Nijinsky’s iconic status as a performer) in Monte Carlo during the same year that Cherkaoui created his Faun. In 2016, Goecke also created Nijinsky for Gauthier Dance in Stuttgart. Both productions suggest that he too holds a certain fascination for the mythology of Les Ballet Russes and the monstres sacrés of 20th century music and dance.
Acknowledging these points of interest would have opened the evening to a wider conversation on navigating the weight of dance history, whether that entails a departure or various approaches to its integration in new choreographic forms. Perhaps the topic is not the most original, but its relevance is ongoing, and all the more so given the framework of the 350th anniversary celebrations at the POB. Lidberg hints at this tension between history and new work in a brief video created for the POB’s social media during which he emphasizes that Les Noces is an iconic piece of music written for dance “that is part of our history,” but that his work for the company should not be read as a re-visitation or re-imagining of Nijinska’s Les Noces, affirming that it is a “new creation.” Putting aside for a moment the impossibility of such a task (it’s fair enough to ask audiences to assess the choreography with fresh eyes, but if one is seeking a tabula rasa, it’s probably best to avoid using the very same themes and music upon which a renowned ballet of the same title is based), this is precisely the sort of context that would have provided an interesting point of departure for audiences, in what was otherwise presented as a miscellaneous program.
Cherkaoui’s Faun, a piece originally created for the program “In the Spirit of Diaghilev” at Sadler’s Wells, opens with Debussy’s familiar score, while a woodland setting continues to provide the backdrop for an erotically-charged encounter between a male faun and female nymph. Small touches like Juliette Hilaire’s corn-row braids are a nod to the Greco-Roman nymphs of Nijinsky’s production, while the minimal sky-blue costumes for both dancers also recall the practice clothes worn by the ballerina in Jerome Robbin’s Afternoon of a Faun.
Yet, Cherkaoui’s take on the ballet belongs entirely to the 21st century: less constrained than the original choreography, the dance transmits the sensual pleasures of knowing one’s own body. Without any prudishness, the faun (Marc Moreau) unleashes a chain of undulating waves of the torso; carefully exploring each articulation. When the nymph enters, the two performers slowly attune their movements to synchronized phrasing, eventually coming together to form a composite entity. Both Debussy’s score and additional music by Nitin Sawhney build a sensual rhythm as the dancers explore and contort their joined limbs. The art of pas de deux is founded on the concept that two bodies can facilitate movements impossible for the solo performer. In this sense, Cherkaoui revisitis the celebrated encounter of Afternoon of a Faun by propelling the duo into intricate forms of origami-like folding of one body over another, unlocking surprising shapes and sequences along the way. Unlike the original production and its later versions, Cherkaoui’s nymph does not flee. This is confident and consensual courting with a refreshing lack of self-consciousness in its execution.
The dreaminess of Faun continued with Goecke’s intriguing new production, Dogs Sleep, but with a color scheme far more somber. Dim lighting and endless waves of fog covered the stage, while Debussy’s Nocturnes, Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Sarah Vaughan completed the performance’s varied sound design. Goecke’s movement vocabulary is as varied as his musical taste, engaging with techniques from neo-classical ballet to Ausdruckstanz. The artful sampling and pairing of these vocabularies provide an inventive and engaging structure for a surrealist voyage, the likes of which David Lynch would approve. Razor sharp precision, forceful execution, and the speed of hummingbirds–who move so swiftly that their fluttering is almost imperceptible to the naked eye-were delivered with a sincere investment on the part of the seven performers. Mathieu Ganio and Marion Barbeau were particularly successful at harnessing the expressionist qualities needed for Goecke’s focus on movements for the face and upper body. Re-defining the art of the port de bras, the choreographer’s arm sequences seem to draw on both mechanical movements and organic forms that externalize an unsettling but fascinating dream logic.
The program closed with Pontus Lidberg’s Les Noces, accompanied by the talented Aedes Choir, four pianists, and four solo singers, including soprano Marianne Croux. While visually and choreographically, Les Noces was the least inventive offering of the evening, it did allow numerous members of the company from different ranks to display their prowess. The eighteen performers appeared self-assured in Lidberg’s choreography for varied partner configurations and faced Stravinsky’s complex score- performed beautifully for the occasion with conducting by Vello Pähn-with clarity.
-Marisa C. Hayes