Performance by the Paris Opera School
Paris, April 6th 2003
Last night, the Paris Opera School opened a week's run at the Opera Garnier. Limp, choregraphically, to an extent that little need be said here, were the three short ballets presented (Péchés de jeunesse, Jeux de Cartes, Mouvements, the latter being "danced" on roller skates...). But all that is neither here nor there, compared to what follows.
In Péchés de jeunesse, something happened. Something potentially more important, I believe, than the emergence of a "major new talent", that the fickle will have tired of a couple of years hence. A fellow aged about sixteen, by name I believe, Axel Ibot, went down onto the stage, and danced with épaulement in every step.
Year in, year out, the essential reason one persists, gloomily, in attending POB School demonstrations (joie de vivre being very much the forgotten guest at this particular party), is that one lives in hope that épaulement will reappear. At the present time, there is one, and only one, dancer in the POB with épaulement: the highly original, indeed, to some, Extra-Terrestrial, Emmanuel Thibault. But, in recent years, in the men's Section of the School, traces of épaulement have, though timidly, appeared, leading one to surmise that out there in deepest Nanterre, someone is teaching on the premise that the essence of movement, is épaulement.
And last night, there it was. M. Ibot came out, and danced with épaulement in every step. Is he exceptionally musical ? Too early to say - he had a severe case of stage fright. He most certainly is a good and cleanly dancer. Can he act ? Too early to say. Will be turn out to be an artist ? Too early to say. But, he has épaulement, and for the time being, that is more important. (Although someone might wish to step in and explain to the young gentleman that in partnering, that does NOT mean inclining one's head virtually flat onto the shoulder.)
For the rest, this being a School show, one prefers to say little of individuals, save, in Jeux de Cartes, to note M. Medhi Angot's God-given ballon, and to commend what is definitely not God-given in him, viz. a most unusual command of the stage. One hopes that the Eleventh (Fool's) Commandment, viz., Thou Shalt be Tall and Good-looking, will not bar him from entering the troupe this year.
Overall, between the level of the girls in the School, and that of the men, there is no gap. There is a yawning abyss. The men can dance. The ladies can pick up the leg.
There was more food for thought this weekend at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse (CNSM - roughly equivalent to the Guildhall School). The highlight of the CNSM's Open House were experiments conducted by Prof. Wilfride Piollet, a former POB étoile. Her fourth-year students, girls who look to be about 16 to 17, demonstrated enchâinements reconstructed from Henri de Justamant's notebooks by Prof. Piollet and her close associate, the historian Marie-Françoise Christout.
The Justamant enchaînements are rife with traps for the unwary, steps long fallen into disuse, sudden changes of direction in mid-flight, or a shift of weight through the torso in a manner no longer performed, and instants of bravura, such as coming out of fouetté directly into grand jeté. Despite the obstacle course, neck, arms and torso soft and relaxed throughout. What her study of Justamant confirms, said Prof. Piollet, is "off-balance" as being fundamental to classical dance, i.e. boldly facing risk, going for it "hardiment" as Joan of Arc would have said, allowing oneself to be "off-centre" and apparently "skewed". One illustration of this was an incredible row of renversés, performed with an aplomb rarely seen.
When one looks at films of Bournonville performances from three or four decades ago, one is struck by a certain mightiness, an elemental weight and power in the dance, suddenly giving way to a ballon and elevation, that simply no longer exists. In our own day, there is a skittering, a flightiness that is NOT flight, a feeling of the ungrounded. This was forcibly recalled, as Prof. Piollet gave the three girls exercises at the beginning of the demonstration, for the weight and gravity of the arms, the hanging arms, the enormous weight of the torso. When the girls began to dance, one had the impression of three great marble caryatids shuddering into motion, a strange combination of power, and fluidity.
At the beginning of her class, Prof. Piollet had the girls perform brief passages from Aurora's variations in Act I of The Sleeping Beauty. Based upon archive notes and recollection, she and Mlle. Christout have worked on restoring the port de bras to something liker to Petipa's original state. It is quite a shock to see meaning surge back into what one might otherwise imagine - based upon today's practice - were purely formal movements of the arm and head (Prof. Piollet shewed, inter alia, the "listening" passage). She has made her point: we have been doing for years this too far back and upright, tensely cambré, and so the style, has become manierism.
So innovative an approach does invite comparision with Prof. Serguei Soloviev's class an hour earlier, the ramrod-straight, supercilious carriage of the eight youths aged about thirteen to fourteen, though at least two, perhaps even three of the boys appear to have considerable potential. If one is to go by what we were shewn this day at the CNSM, Prof. Piollet's theories are not only thought-provoking (she has, incidentally, eliminated the barre from class as well), they stand up to the test of practice, and should, I believe, be a matter for wider discussion in the trade.