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Paris Opera Ballet

Roland Petit Triple Bill: ‘Le Rendez-vous’, ‘Le Loup’, ‘Le Jeune homme et la mort’

September 2010
Paris, Palais Garnier

by Azulynn

© Anne Deniau

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Essentially French: perhaps the first words that come to mind when the curtain raises on a recreation of the black and white Paris so often seen on French postcards, the setting for Le Rendez-vous. But far from being just a nostalgic trip back in time, the Roland Petit triple bill with which the Paris Opera Ballet opened its 2010-11 season brings back the collaborative spirit of a seminal, arguably glorious era. Picasso, Prévert, Brassaï, Cocteau, Jean Anouilh all contributed something to the works on offer, a curtain here, a wonderfully Surrealist plotline there. The perfume and myths of old France emerge naturally from these ingredients; while the neo-classical choreography may not always speak of genius, Petit was undeniably a product of the artistic milieu these artists belonged to, and he channelled the delicate metaphors they devised for him in the 1940s and 1950s into rich, intelligent works.

Le Rendez-vous and Le jeune homme et la mort have much in common, and are both firmly rooted in French culture. Neither of their heroes has a name: they are jeunes hommes (young men), and a type often encountered in 19th and early 20th-century French literature – the moody young man who has come to Paris to make a fortune or to become an artist, and who gets lost on the way, sidetracked by melancholy or the absurdity of life. The smoking hero of Le jeune homme et la mort, who lives in a garret in Paris and has Picasso prints looming over his bed, evokes Baudelaire's anguished melancholy or Louis Aragon's Aurélien, caught in the strange inter-war atmosphere, doomed to love a woman whose face reminds him of a death mask. In Le rendez-vous, the hero plays a dangerous game with Fate while two innocent children dance to Jacques Prévert's nostalgic Les enfants qui s'aiment. In 25 minutes, Petit captures the world Marcel Carné and Prévert created together on film (at once lyrical and unsentimental, eerie and tragic) much better than José Martinez' recent re-creation of their masterpiece, Les Enfants du paradis. Both jeunes hommes encounter Death in the end, whose personification is striking in each case: a woman, of course, with two versions of the femme fatale, as ambiguous as any Surrealist figures. What we see are two modern enactments of Le spleen de Paris, in a sense, as Baudelaire had so aptly titled one of his volumes of poems – a life-or-death mental struggle against a background of Brassaï photos or Citroën lights.


Isabelle Ciaravola and Nicolas Le Riche in Le Rendez-vous
© Anne Deniau
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Roland Petit's choreographic response to all these elements is simple and expressive, constantly focused on the story, and both works were given excellent performances by dancers with a seemingly innate understanding of the context. Nicolas Le Riche, the oldest male Etoile in the company, could have spent time in cafés with Picasso, Prévert and Petit for all we know – his charisma and relaxed brilliance recall the sheer charm of 1950s actors, drawing us in before we know it. In Le Rendez-vous, he takes to the old-fashioned world Petit depicts and makes it fresh again, together with Hugo Vigliotti, a delightful little humpbacked boy who deserves more featured roles. The stunning Isabelle Ciaravola played the Most Beautiful Girl in the World, who kills the young man with the razor Fate (played by Michaël Denard) has left him. Armed with her movie star looks, she kicked her legs effectively, but a tad more sensuality in the transitions would have been welcome. Given the rather cliché secondary characters (the flower-seller, the children), the ballet itself can seem like a draft for the more compact and focused Jeune homme et la mort, but its nostalgic atmosphere (enhanced by the sets created out of Brassaï photos) and cynical ending are masterfully rendered – no small feat in such a short narrative work.

Le jeune homme et la mort, on the other hand, remains one of Roland Petit's most celebrated ballets – the Bolshoi itself acquired it this year as a showcase for Ivan Vasiliev. Set to Bach's Passacaille, it packs many felicitous moments in 20 minutes, from the sheer Existentialist void one feels in the jeune homme before Death arrives to the corrosive relationship of the two characters. Who is the woman? Death only, a past lover, the cause of or a hallucination leading to his hanging? Alice Renavand, a most intelligent dancer, danced the premiere opposite Jérémie Bélingard. A Sujet in the company, she usually excels in the contemporary repertoire, not least because of the sense of purpose she brings to every movement. Her utter lack of preciosity also serves her well in Le jeune homme et la mort, a piece created in the aftermath of the Second World War, when death was still all too real to be depicted by pretty ballerinas fainting*. Womanly and venomous, she teases the jeune homme with straightforward cruelty, with only a few blurred steps. Jérémie Bélingard is probably second only to Le Riche as the young man who follows her in death, his raw energy given free rein in this piece. The dark melancholy of the character seems like an Existentialist version of the old mal du siècle, experienced in the 19th century by another 'lost generation,' but Bélingard is rivetingly modern in a piece that seems to evolve with its dancers.


Jeremie Belingard in Le jeune homme et la mort
© Anne Deniau
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Sandwiched between these two works, Le Loup (The Wolf) seems to come from another planet. Jean Anouilh and Georges Neveux' original story, a Beauty and the Beast with a twist, features a young bride whose husband runs away with a Gypsy, leaving behind the wolf into which he has supposedly transformed. At first frightened, the girl learns to live with the animal, who becomes her companion. The unfaithful husband, however, comes back hoping to recover his place. She turns him down, and the villagers chase her and the wolf into the forest – the unlikely couple is killed, and 'order' is restored. Roland Petit created the role of the wolf with Violette Verdy as his bride in 1953, and this symbolic tale is probably the most difficult ballet on the program to carry off convincingly today. It requires just the right balance of charm, pathos and straightforward acting to avoid looking twee or plain outdated, and the carnival-like costumes really don't help, despite picturesque painted sets by the same designer, Carzou, and a lovely score by Henry Dutilleux.


Laetitia Pujol and Benjamin Pech in Le Loup
© Anne Deniau
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Laëtitia Pujol and Benjamin Pech did well in this context, but failed to suspend disbelief entirely. Pujol had gradually started to seem like a true French ballerina in the making after her unexpected promotion to Etoile in 2002; unfortunately, she has been on and off the stage for a few years now, with others taking centre stage in the meantime. As the young girl of the story, she is touchingly shy, smelling her former husband like a young animal when he pretends he was the wolf, but there is little magic between her and Pech, and no clear dramatic arc in their exploration of this odd relationship. Benjamin Pech inherited a very difficult part (the hand gestures depicting the wolf's long ears proved particularly off-putting), and his portrayal lacked tension, as well as the touch of wildness that is probably necessary to make it work nowadays. Amandine Albisson was assertive enough as the Gypsy, although one can't help but notice that the corps de ballet is woefully underused here, as is usual with Roland Petit. Seeing the wonderful Miteki Kudo caper about for no reason was one of the low points of an otherwise remarkable evening, in which the thoughtful, ultimately cynical tale Le Loup tells would more than hold its own with a few changes.

* Someone points out the resonance of the jeune homme's realistic hanging at the time in Olga de Soto's 2004 documentary histoire(s), a rather fascinating series of interviews with people who were in the audience for Le jeune homme et la mort's premiere in 1946.

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