• Léonore Baulac in Nureyev's Swan Lake. Paris Opera Ballet. Photo by Julien Benhamou.

Swan Lake, Paris Opera Ballet

Opéra Bastille

March 2019


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Following the holiday run of Rudolf Nureyev’s Cinderella in December, the Paris Opera Ballet season offered another classic by its former artistic director in February and March at the Opéra Bastille theatre. First set on the company in 1984, Nureyev’s Swan Lake is reprised frequently at the POB and often used as a tool to evaluate future étoiles. Indeed, two nominations occurred during the last run of Swan Lake in 2016, when Léonaure Baulac and Germain Louvet were promoted only three days apart. Both dancers were recast in their roles as Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried this year, providing the opportunity to reflect on their evolution as performers. Baulac, in particular, has deepened her relationship to the dual role of Odette/Odile by developing her acting and port de bras with moving results. Other casts allowed the public to observe dancers who have not yet achieved the company’s highest rank, including Paul Marque as Prince Siegfried and Sae-Eun Park as Odette/Odile. Alas, audiences were disappointed not to witness an étoile nomination during this run of Swan Lake, as merit is not the only prerequisite for obtaining the company’s highest designation: there must also be an opening in the company.

Paul Marque has been regularly featured throughout the season and has stood out repeatedly in both contemporary and classical roles. His intelligent musicality and elegant lines made his Prince Siegfried a memorable one. This is a rare feat in a ballet characterized by its iconic female role, but Nureyev ‘s staging of Swan Lake integrates beautiful new variations for men and added depth to the prince’s narrative. His version brings the social pressures of coming of age, class, and family expectations to the fore. Under the obligation to choose a bride, Siegfried retreats into a dream world, where he encounters the perfect unattainable partner.

Odette, as the story goes, is under a spell cast by the sorcerer Rothbart and can only embody her human form at night.  Siegfried’s male tutor in act one (danced by the impressive and consistent Axel Magliano) a figure of authority and male dominance, becomes the malicious Rothbart in the prince’s dreamscape. Restoring Swan Lake to its original tragic outcome, Siegfried’s dream turns to nightmare when he realizes that he cannot break the curse by marrying Odette, having mistaken Odile for the object of his affection. Ezio Frigerio’s successful set designs-composed of gothic columns and painted backdrop-furnish all the qualities needed for the romantic tragedians, while simultaneously providing an observation point onto the drama that unfolds within Siegfried’s inner life via a largescale frame situated downstage; in other words, a physical mise en abyme where reality and fantasy intermingle.

Aside from these embellishments to the story and the welcome addition of new male variations, the narrative and choreographic motifs are largely built upon the Maryinsky’s traditional production. Defined by the geometric harmony of its lines and tableaux vivants performed by the corps de ballet of swans in the second and fourth acts, Swan Lake is a test of stamina and skill for the entire company. In this respect, performances by the corps have were uneven, with small but noticeable idiosyncrasies, such as placement of the hands and epaulement that became particularly problematic during the “white” acts when the corps de ballet frames the central action of the ballet. Even images in the program attest to the issue: when the swans are seated in forward port de bras, one of the photos illustrates this lack of uniformity, with hands crossed at different points on the feet and ankles. Similarly, the angle of the head varied noticeably from one dancer to another, which was an unwelcome distraction. Outside these challenging moments of sustained poses, the corps de ballet’s spacing and tempo were impressive.

 The third act also featured mixed results in that it provided a vehicle for a few outstanding members of the corps, such as Hohyun Kang, a young quadrille, as one of the six fiancées, while national group dances like the Neopolitan were lacklustre. Other moments were well executed technically but employed an attack far too strong for the mood of the ballet. During the pas de trois in act one, for example, Marine Ganio danced with such force, she might have been performing Forsythe, breaking the otherwise lyrical and festive mood of the prince’s birthday party. Overall, Nureyev’s Swan Lake continues to serve the company well, providing rich psychological content and generously choreographed variations, but it also reveals certain weaknesses in the corps de ballet’s capacity for uniformity during the ballet’s most challenging scenes.

Marisa C. Hayes is a Franco-American scholar and artist. She writes about the visual and performing arts for a variety of print and electronic publications. In 2017, Auteur published her first monograph, an analysis of the movement in Takeshi Shimizu’s film Ju-on. She is editor in chief of the French dance research journal Repères, cahier de danse and co-directs the International Video Dance Festival of Burgundy.