Paris Opera Ballet, Palais Garnier & Opera Bastille, Paris

The rite stuff from Pina Bausch
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The Independent Culture

After Angelin Preljocaj's production in London, the Rite of Spring trail continues in Paris, where Stravinsky's ballet was premiered 89 years ago this month with choreography by Nijinsky. May is the time for France's own Rite of Spring, filled with happy bank holidays and sprigs of Lily of the Valley – although this year, of course, deviated from the gentle norm, because the French electorate took to the streets against the Far Right. But not even demonstrations could equal the implacable force of Stravinsky's music, no more than most attempts to choreograph it.

Pina Bausch's 1975 version for her Tanztheater Wuppertal therefore ranks as an exception, the best ever created, matching the score's savage scale. And the Paris Opera Ballet, the only company beyond her own to perform a Bausch piece, must rate as the best possible interpreters. They may have a decorous classical training ingrained in their bones, but they have a visceral power that surpasses even Bausch's own superb dancers.

Danced on a deep layer of dark soil, this is a Rite of Spring rooted in primitive nature, the dancers impelled by animal instinct. You feel their sinews straining, their brusque, repeated gestures so violent they seem like self-mortification. You see their semi-naked bodies become damp with sweat and streaked with soil; and you hear their breath, panting with fear. Central to Bausch's vision is sex, the men and women herding into separate groups. They merge for sequences such as the spectacular giant circle, slowly revolving in ritualistic movement to the passage Stravinsky named "the Adoration of the Earth". If the men are nervously watchful, the women are more so. They know that one of them will have to wear the red dress that lies on the ground like fresh blood, and dance to death. This destiny is as irresistible as the biological drive that suddenly impels the cast into frenzied couplings about the stage.

The sacrificial dance follows to ensure fertility, the victim chosen among the huddled women who shiver in terror. One by one they bring the red dress to the men's chief Wilfrid Romoli, who rejects them until he grasps Geraldine Wiart. Her raw, pathetic panic appears vividly in the way she digs her heels into the soil, constantly resisting while Romoli pushes her. The others watch, like bullfight aficionados, transfixed with fascinated horror as she begins her dance. We too are transfixed, refusing to leave our seats even after the lights have gone up.

That is the final ballet in the POB's Stravinsky triple bill at the Palais Garnier, a feast for the ears under Vello Pähn's direction. Maxim Tholance was the solo violin for Balanchine's ballet masterpiece Violin Concerto, heroically overcoming a snapped string with instrument-swapping manoeuvres as dramatic as the dancing on stage. Aurèlie Dupont and Manuel Legris scorched in the second pas de deux, where passion and pain seethes under a plotless Neo-Classical surface. Douglas Dunn's Pulcinella, created for the POB in 1980, has no plot either, discarding the original by Leonid Massine. The pace is cool and calm, the stage airy, while three wonderful soloists sing Italian lyrics of love and courtship. But woven into the low-key, American post-modern iconoclasm is a wry wit and clever shreds of commedia dell'arte posturings.

Meanwhile, over at the Bastille, where the monument is still daubed in anti-Le Pen graffiti, the POB also performs Nureyev's Don Quichotte, more recent than the staging now in the Royal Ballet repertoire. Elena Rivkina and Alexander Beliaev have produced a redesign, using Goyaesque colours and authentic 19th-century scenic methods. Elisabeth Maurin's Kitri has irresistible warmth. Young Jérémie Bélingard has the dark, handsome, chiselled looks of a Greek god, not to mention of a Basilio, the ballet's penniless hero. A convincing actor with an elegant technique that slashes and burns, he is a product of the French school that just keeps pumping them out.

Paris Opera Ballet: Soirèe Stravinski at the Palais Garnier, to 21 May; 'Don Quichotte' at the Opera Bastille, to 20 May, 00 33 892 69 78 68

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