Poisoned with absinthe: Ravel dances with death at the Garnier

Ravel: La Valse; En Sol; Boléro

Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, Palais Garnier, 17th May 2017

The spectre of death loomed large over this Ravel triple bill at the Palais Garnier. Erich Kleiber once described La Valse as “poisoned with absinthe”, an evocation of Europe teetering on the brink as old empires shattered and imploded after the First World War. George Balanchine’s La Valse, where the bitter taste of death poisons the ballroom, opened the evening, while Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet transformed the hypnotic repetitions of Boléro into something sinister. Providing light relief in between, the seaside shenanigans of Jerome Robbins En Sol, setting the jazzy inflections of Ravel’s witty G major piano concerto. 

Mathieu Ganio and Dorothée Gilbert
© Laurent Philippe/OnP

We are dancing on the edge of a volcano,” wrote Maurice Ravel in his notes to his poème chorégraphique. Sergei Diaghilev commissioned La Valse, but ultimately rejected Ravel’s music, describing it as brilliant, but “untheatrical”. Balanchine’s version, created for New York City Ballet in 1951, precedes it with the Valses nobles et sentimentales, a series of eight waltzes to set up the drama ahead. With the ladies in dark red gowns and long black gloves to accentuate sinuous arms, the swish and swirl of tulle creates a heady atmosphere as couple after couple glide across the stage. Marion Barbeau’s graceful arms and the elegant partnering of Yannick Bittencourt particularly impressed here.

Dorothée Gilbert and Mathieu Ganio
© Laurent Philippe/OnP

The final couple to enter stands out; Dorothée Gilbert, dressed in white, is an innocent – a debutante perhaps – melting into her lover’s arms (Mathieu Ganio) in a series of gorgeous lifts. Into this maelstrom of a waltz, Death appears (Florian Magnenet) to claim her. Gilbert has an aristocratic presence, conveying her fatal curiosity as this dark guest whirls into her world and brings it to a crashing halt.

En Sol
© Laurent Philippe/OnP

Robbins’ En Sol is frothy fun under clear blue skies, the dancers in pastel-striped bathing costumes evoking the Roaring Twenties. The outer movements are light-hearted, almost Broadway style, matching Ravel’s witty score, but it’s the central movement – an Adagio of Mozartian serenity – that moved here. It takes the form of a sublime pas de deux for the lead couple, dressed in white, full of tender lifts. Myriam Ould-Braham was touching here, her limpid bourrés as the piano gently ripples and cascades timed to perfection. Pianist Emmanuel Strosser gave a wonderful performance and it was good to see conductor Maxime Pascal remain in the pit during the curtain calls, waiting to applaud him.

Mathias Heymann and Myriam Ould-Braham
© Laurent Philippe/OnP

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s Boléro is more problematic, although I ended up rather enjoying the sense of dark spectacle. It starts noisily with heavy percussive beats as the dancers, cloaked in black and with heavily painted faces, appear from the back of the stage. The whole point of Ravel’s Boléro is it’s a gigantic crescendo, fifteen minutes of repetition, the “melody” passed from instrument to instrument over an insistent snare drum motif. Could it have not started from silence, from the moment Alice Renavand opened her cupped hands to set the snare in motion?

Boléro
© Laurent Philippe/OnP

This is not a work to watch if you’re suffering from a headache. Seizure-inducing video projections of spiralling concentric circles and white fuzz send the viewer giddy, the dancers gyrating and tumbling, an effect doubled by the giant mirror angled behind them. The dancers shed their black cloaks to reveal translucent skin-coloured gowns – also shed – under which they are painted like skeletons. It’s a grotesque danse macabre, visceral in its power, the dancers caught up amid stage fog until Renavand, cloaked again as Death, brings it to a sudden halt.

Boléro
© Laurent Philippe/OnP

Ravel’s music didn’t always get the best performances, with several solo slips and sour intonation in Boléro. Maxime Pascal gave it his all though – in La Valse I swear I’d never seen a conductor flail his arms around quite so much – and there was plenty of demonic punch to the cataclysmic finale, Death giving us the final shove into the abyss.

 

 

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