Ballet is alive and well and living in Paris

While much of the dance world seems to have entered the doldrums, the Ballet de l'Opera is currently offering some of the most exhilarating dancing and choreography seen in decades.
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Seen from London or New York, the future of ballet can look gloomy. Not much sign of good new choreographers to replace the outstanding generation who have died in recent years. But take the Eurostar to Paris, and the view looks brighter. The Ballet de l'Opera, with a new programme by William Forsythe that includes two world premieres, is offering the most exhilarating display of dancing I have seen in a long time.

At the same time, thanks to enjoying the use of two theatres, the company has re-mounted a work created for it five years ago by the French-Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, which I had not seen before. This, too, is gripping and original. With further premieres by Jiri Kylian and Roland Petit in the pipeline, things are looking good.

Forsythe and Preljocaj, in very different ways, are both pushing forward the manner in which ballet can work. Forsythe's purpose (like Balanchine's before him) is to strengthen and extend technique, and to develop the spirit in which dancers approach their work. Speed, daring, endurance and flexibility are pushed to new extremes, and when once in a while he makes the dancers slow down, this is certainly no rest cure.

The new Woundwork I is a case in point. The "wound" in the title comes from winding, not wounding; the work is a double duet piece and the dancers often tie themselves in knots around their partners. This is an adagio piece, and a highly involved one. You have to take in two different duets side by side. The first thing you notice, as they begin motionless with their backs to the audience, is that Stephen Galloway's costumes give the women tutu skirts that stick out stiffly on one side while the other flops down. This presages an off-kilter motif in the choreography that requires the dancers to bend, twist, drape themselves in pretzel shapes and walk almost in a waddle, yet always with a base in pure classic style.

Playing with classicism and its forms is a feature in the other creation, which Forsythe calls Pas./ parts, alluding to the single dance phrase (pas) that he started from and the 20 separate sections he elaborated from it, all explosively different from each other and scattering into successive or overlapping solos, duets, trios, quartets and even a septet.

The cast comprises eight women and seven men, and characteristically Forsythe has chosen them from all levels within the troupe, deploying them for their various qualities rather than by rank. So a junior couple, Eleonora Abbagnato and Jeremie Belingard, have a couple of duets which they dance radiantly, and Peggy Grelat from the humblest rank, the quadrilles, is given not only the opening solo but more featured entries than almost anyone else. Interestingly, this ballet would have been impossible at the Paris Opera a few years back, before the former directors Rosella Hightower and Rudolf Nureyev hacked away at the old, hierarchical rules forbidding junior dancers to pass in front of a star.

Even under the more democratic approach, however, there is no mistaking a real star when you see one, and whenever the brilliant young leading man Nicholas Le Riche is on stage, I defy anyone to take their eyes off him. Forsythe has found a new, witty quality in him, as he partners his wife Clairemarie Osta and she tries to wriggle out of his grasp even while lifted high; but you see also his more serious power much of the time, and he has a long solo that accelerates into an almost incredible tornado of movement around the stage.

Distinguished as many of the individual contributions are, however, the point of Pas./parts is the way they succeed each other in a breathtaking cumulative effect, contrast upon contrast, surprise upon surprise, every fragment building up over the course of 35 minutes until the mass finale that has the audience roaring its delight. Not many companies and not many choreographers could hope for such a hit.

Some people (not me) might have reservations about the score taped by Forsythe's frequent collaborator Thom Willems, but undeniably he provides a pulse that impels the drive of the dance all the time. And in another of the ballets given, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, the choreographer turns to a Schubert allegro (from Symphony No 9) for a smilingly daunting display of straight virtuosity which the dancers tackle at speed. All this and the more familiar In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, powerfully danced on the huge stage of the Palais Garnier, makes an amazing performance.

Amazing is the word, too, for Preljocaj's Le Parc at the Opera Bastille. This shows a completely new way of making a three-act dramatic ballet. There is none of that silly realistic acting or heavy mime (at least, only once, for comic effect); there is no literal story - can you imagine what a relief this is after all those long dreary ballets that ploddingly transpose a well-known play, novel or fragment of history? Instead, Preljocaj evokes a part of France's cultural heritage: the formality of dress, behaviour, literature and landscape that marked its 17th and 18th centuries. To the apt choice of some of Mozart's most memorable and best-loved music, groups of men and women engage in games and confrontations that enable them surreptitiously to hint at underlying emotions. These are sometimes seen only in a woman fainting, sometimes implied in a game of musical chairs, or snatched at during hide-and-seek among the trees.

Among this activity, two dancers become apparent as holding back a little from the others. A mutual desire obviously exists, but she wards off all his approaches until a group of modern-dress gardeners, anxious to propagate their charges, push her bit by bit towards compliance. The drama of the ballet consists in wondering how this tense, withheld relationship will develop. And the climax, when it comes, is terrific. The woman at last approaches and kisses the man. He begins turning, slowly then faster, and she is swung up and out as they circle the stage, unsupported except by her arms around his shoulders, their lips still together.

It is the perfect visual metaphor for their love-making, so simple but difficult, so pure but impassioned. Preljocaj can put eroticism on stage better than any other choreographer I know, and his first cast, the miraculous Isabelle Guerin and Laurent Hilaire, perform it to perfection.

The action moves quickly but deliberately; there are no intermissions; each scene advances the action at just the right pace. Everything is stylised, but never seeming artificial: Thierry Leproust's decor, for instance, suggests a formal garden in terms of architectural shapes. And although the clothes are those of a past era, the feelings are those of today.

With these works in exclusivity, with an impressive collection of old classics (many in Nureyev's big, intelligent productions) and the modern classics of Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, the Paris repertoire, like its dancing strength, is in a healthy state. If only we could say as much of other companies.

Details of future performances are available on www.opera-de-paris.fr. Information and booking on tel: 00 33 836 697868.

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