Lincoln Center Festival review: Giselle, Boléro (Béjart), L’Arlésienne (Petit), Suite en Blanc (Lifar)

What style. Considering their centrality among Danish, Italian, and Russian ballet traditions, and their own ballet “personality”—long arms, clear movements, perfect line and form, super fast footwork, and  corps that move as one—it’s clear why French is the language of ballet. What a treat for New Yorkers who love the art.

The arrival of the Paris Opera Ballet brought New Yorkers from their beach blankets and distant cool nights to the Lincoln Center Festival. POB introduced themselves with three programs highlighting company history and French choreography. Koen Kessels conducted the New York City Opera Orchestra with fitting spirit on July 14th and 15th.

French speakers, Francophiles, and ballet-lovers shared the house on Saturday afternoon, Bastille Day, for the Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot Giselle, the one we know and love, to Adolphe Adam music. It is a POB production after Petipa, first performed by the company in 1841.

Their side-to-side see-sawing in Giselle Act I recalls Danish lyricism, while the Peasant Pas (Héloïse Bourdon and Axel Ibot) has a stronger, earthy flavor. In the dark Act II, the denouement builds and only at the end does Albrecht (Karl Paquette) spring into high, athletic beaten jumps, or entrechats. Myrtha leaps inside a circle of Wilis and it is like a stomp. It is feminist revolution. They may have wings but they are troops and Myrtha (today Marie-Agnès Gillot) is commander. They form barricades to punish the men who had wronged them, yet the Wilis are not resistant to charm. The jilted, sulking Hilarion (Audric Bezard), Giselle’s intended, is booted out while the opportunistic impersonator Albrecht soars victoriously, spared for a while. His line of stratospheric jumps toward the foot of the stage held us rapt. The moral of this scene, of course, is ‘Love rules.’

Isabelle Ciaravola as Giselle made a striking transformation from peasant girl with ear-to-ear smile and a talent for dancing, to pallid, world-weary and otherworldly dancing dead. She ages visibly over the two-plus hours. But Gillot’s Act II entrance boureeing across the upstage forest scene is pure magic.


Next day, I saw the program called French Masters of the 20th Century comprising a Serge Lifar, a Roland Petit, and a Maurice Béjart. These choreographers have not enjoyed as much esteem here. Béjart felt slighted in his own country but his company was a refuge for Suzanne Farrell and he made ballets for Nureyev and Pisetskaya, to name a few. Could POB break some long-held prejudices? Indeed, with Aurélie DuPont dancing Béjart’s Boléro. She dances barefoot on a platform. Béjart intended it as a celebration of eroticism and cabaret women dancing on tables. She wears a nude colored leotard under black footless tights. From row J we could see every muscle ripple while she’s in perpetual motion. Eighteen men are seated around the perimeter of the stage. They come closer and shadow her moves. Finally they surround the platform and bow to her. It is ritual and rousing. The audience stood and cheered after this gorgeous finale. This US tour is DuPont’s debut in Boléro! Feel blessed if you saw it; she is nearing retirement.

Boléro followed Petit’s L’Arlésienne, a patchwork of scenes derived from Nijinska and Fokine, with a modern set that includes a backdrop replica of a Van Gogh Arles wheat field. At the end, Benjamin Pech jumps through a window frame to his death. Watching him from behind, his final dive only underscores this ballet’s opacity. It is based on the Alphonse Daudet story of an unfaithful lover who we never see. Ciaravola’s attentions, and the beautiful corps formations only elicit a bit of sympathy from us. It was their 81st performance of it, as they interestingly note in the program. Whereas, Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc had 432 performances!

The Sunday program opened with Lifar’s pretty 1943 Suite, a showcase of “pure dance” ecole steps for the company in black and white. It begins with La Sieste, a trio of three women in romantic tulle, then in short classical tutus for seven more dances to the 19th century dance music of Edouard Lalo. The men who attend them are stunningly posed along the upstage wall, adoring a female lead, or performing their tours in solo. Suite is all decorum; even in its modernity it is meant to put us at ease. For example, the ladies promenade in épaulement with each holding her arms so that the fingertips meet at her outward facing hip. This elegant opener settles the audience, perfectly demonstrating the beauty of the ballet form.

POB ends its New York season next week with Orpheus & Eurydice by Pina Bausch, effectively bringing us up to date on the company timeline.