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Paris Opera Ballet?


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#1 BW

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Posted 07 January 2002 - 08:30 AM

Would someone mind giving me an overview of the Paris Opera Ballet - as relating to a bit of history but more in re their style of dancing?

Thanks! smile.gif

#2 katharine kanter

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Posted 07 January 2002 - 09:56 AM

What follows is strictly my own opinion. Many would not share it. Moreover, I have only been watching the POB, on a regular basis, for the last five to six years, a mere fraction of their almost three hundred years.

Indeed, the POB is, I believe, the oldest theatrical dancing troupe in Europe. If I am not mistaken, it was founded under Louis XIV, as an academy for theatrical dancing.

An Internet search will readily provide you with the basic facts. There is also an official site for the Paris Opera, which you will find under Opéra de Paris, or Théâtre national de l'Opéra de Paris, with a great deal of information.

There exists a ballet, called Le Conservatoire (Konservatoriet) by Auguste Bournonville, Act I of which is an entire class as it was given by Auguste Vestris at the Paris Opera around 1820. This ballet has been filmed on several occasions by Danish television, but is unfortunately not commercially available. You may be able to see it at the New York Public Library, but I cannot say. That class is poetry.

It is vital to see 'Konservatoriet', or Bournonville Schools (classes), to understand what was the technique known as the French school, and how that has changed over the past century.

The fundamental feature of Vestris' school at Paris in the first quarter of the 19th Century, was épaulement. This corresponds to what is called "contrapposto" in Renascence painting and drawing. I cannot explain it here for reasons of space. And an extraordinary musicality, developed through enchaînements of up to 116 (yes!) bars.

Epaulement has been eliminated entirely in most Western classical dancing over the past century, save for Russia, where the Vaganova school uses it in an exaggerated, almost grotesque form. Paris is no exception. Epaulement, the most interesting thing about classical ballet, has been eliminated, in order to get those legs up higher.

Over the last twenty years, at the Paris Opera School, under the direction of Claude Bessy, this race towards "higher, longer, leaner, louder, faster...." has, in my view, got quite out of hand. Mlle Bessy, who in her own day as étoile, was known as one of the most glamorous, dazzling women in Paris, seems to believe that classical dance is, like couture, something for the EYE alone.

It is she who launched the unfortunate Sylvie Guillem, and who has thrust forward Guillem clones, like the current étoile Agnès Letestu. Claude Bessy has only very recently, re-emphasised that she considers Guillem the epitome of classical dance. Need I say more ?

Of course, not all the faculty at the Opera School do agree ...although one cannot imagine them ever saying that out loud !

The current style of dancing among the women at the Paris Opera, 90% of whom are products of the Opera School, thus reflects Claude Bessy's "aesthetic" - tiny heads perched on spider-like limbs - as well as a discipline at the School so draconian, that the girls have had all the stuffing knocked out of them by the time they emerge into the company. Super-high extensions, no épaulement, rigor mortis in the neck and torso, dry-as-a-bone musicality.

On the other hand, the petite batterie is terrific, most turn beautifully, the jump is high and clean (though hard), and everyone is very tidy, very neat, very precise.

Can the POB act ? Among the leading women, with the exception of Elisabeth Maurin, No.

Can they mime ? No. The POB does not keep on older dancers for the mime roles, so you get seventeen-year olds dancing Coppelius and Giselle's mother, that sort of thing. Possibly that is considered to be more "aesthetic" too - can't have any fat or wrinkles about us, not even in character roles. Might sully the pristine stage !

One should add that for so long as I have been here, the POB casting policy is excessively elitist - as everything else in France. Only the étoiles, and occasionally, a premier danseur, get to dance the good stuff. So one rarely gets to see corps de ballet people having a go at something difficult or exciting. When the étoiles are, in the main, a bit of a bore, which is the case at present, this can be wearing.

On to the men. The Opera School's faculty for the men, is outstanding. The men have far more épaulement, far more ballon, and far more personality, than the women. When one sees the Russian dancers beside them, one cannot help but think, "My God, what a MESS".

The batterie, both terre à terre, and grand, is the best you will ever see outside Denmark, the turns perfectly on axis, the jumps silent. Even the tallest of the men have brio, they have attack, and some even have that un-French quality, legato. (See the thread on this site for the Paris Opera Concours this year, for more comments from other posters, and my own comment on Emmanuel Thibault).

Can they act ? No.

Can they mime ? With few exceptions (Kader Belarbi) - No.

Is anyone at the POB worried about complete theatrical incoherencies and inconsistencies ? No.

Is a performance by the POB moving ? No.

Will you break out crying at the poetry of it all ? No - unless Elisabeth Maurin is dancing, and she is having a good night.

Will you come away with the highest respect for the competency, rigour and hard work put in by the professors and dancers, in technical matters ? Yes.

Is it worth making a particular effort to see the POB, in a classical work ? Yes, because there will be steps that you will probably never in your life, ever, see properly performed elsewhere.

As for its being art, that is of course quite another story.

You may have noticed that nations where people are humble, dedicated, and just quietly get on with the job, like Italy, or Denmark, tend to regularly produce true artists in whatever field their country excels in. Nations where people are extremely arrogant....well, I shall be diplomatic and break off here.

[ January 07, 2002: Message edited by: katharine kanter ]

[ January 07, 2002: Message edited by: katharine kanter ]



#3 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 07 January 2002 - 11:04 AM

i won't speak to your views about the dancing in paris. your closing statement belies a racist point of view and for me, nullifies everything else you say.

[ January 07, 2002: Message edited by: Mme. Hermine ]



#4 Alexandra

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Posted 07 January 2002 - 01:12 PM

I feel I must stick my Administrator's two cents in here. Strong opinions are welcome, but there are people from many nations who post and read this board and we want everyone to feel comfortable doing so. Arguably our least arrogant poster happens to be French, but even were that not so, we'd like to avoid generalizations about nations or groups, particularly unflattering ones, or those which could give offense.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 07 January 2002 - 01:23 PM

I've only seen Paris Opera Ballet in three short seasons in D.C. (dancing "Swan Lake," "La Bayadere" -- both Nureyev's productions -- and a triple bill of "Suite en blanc," "Icare" and "Les Rendez-vous." I've also seen them quite a lot on video, as there are frequent performances on French TV. I especially admired a program a few years ago of older ballets: "Soir de Fete," "L'Arlsienne" and "Symphonie Fantastique."

Many of my friends disliked the corps in Swan Lake and Bayadere -- too cold, too objective. It took me a performance or two to adjust to, but then I did like it; it's the company's personality. (The long lines, long neck and small head as an ideal of beauty can be seen in 18th century French painting.)

I've liked several of their ballerinas, especially Platel and Guerin, both now retired; there's an alarming ballerina shortage there. The principals of the past 15 years were, for the most part, all chosen by Nureyev. As one friend of mine put it, "They've been living off him for years." That generation is about to retire; no one with as great a gift for discovering and fostering talent, it seems, is working there now.

I think the company's acting is generally excellent. Like it's dancing, it doesn't thrust itself out at you; it's reserved. The dancers can make distinctions among ballets -- they don't dance everything alike. The season we saw "La Bayadere" and the French triple bill, I thought the acting in La Bayadere especially, deliberately, cold and formal. But in Petit's "Les Rendez-vous" -- one of his Young Man falls in love with The Most Beautiful Woman in the world -- a/k/a Death -- they were completely different. The acting was very passionate, very immediate. Cyril Atanasoff, a former etoile then in his 50s, I believe, was wonderful as Death, an aging Dandy who seemed to have spent the last century in a sewer.

I do think that the company is going down, not up, however. Not only the lack of true etoiles, but there is a studiedness about the dancing -- I agree with Katharine Kanter here. It's become about the technique. But I've seen that in the Kirov, too. (Arlene Croce wrote a wonderful piece years ago about what happens to technique when there isn't living choreography.)

I hope that Estelle, who's seen the company quite often over many seasons, will add to this thread.

#6 BW

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Posted 07 January 2002 - 08:05 PM

Merci, all. smile.gif

#7 Estelle

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Posted 09 January 2002 - 05:26 PM

BW, there's a page about the history of the Paris Opera Ballet on my web site, at:
http://www.cmi.univ-...nce/POBhis.html

I'm afraid it has remained "under construction" for years, and needs some updating. It's mostly a compilation of what I found in some dictionaries and in books by Fernandino Reyna and Ivor Guest.

[quote]Originally posted by katharine kanter:

An Internet search will readily provide you with the basic facts. There is also an official site for the Paris Opera, which you will find under Opéra de Paris, or Théâtre national de l'Opéra de Paris, with a great deal of information.


The URL for the site is:

http://www.opera-de-paris.fr/

However, as far as I know, it's only in French,
and some links don't work (for example the link to the list of the ballets of the season- one would think that any competent webmaster would have fixed it, as it has been broken for months and it probably is one of the most often clicked of the sites...) And I've yet to find anywhere on the site the list of the dancers of the company...
I wish it were as complete as that of the Comédie-Française (the oldest French theater, founded approximately at the same period), which has detailed biographies of all the actors, pages about the repertory, etc.

[quote]
The current style of dancing among the women at the Paris Opera, 90% of whom are products of the Opera School, thus reflects Claude Bessy's "aesthetic" - tiny heads perched on spider-like limbs - as well as a discipline at the School so draconian, that the girls have had all the stuffing knocked out of them by the time they emerge into the company.


Well, I think that it's a bit excessive to say that all the POB female dancers look the same... Among the youngest ones, for example, the tiny Ninon Raux doesn't exactly have "spider-like limbs"... About the discipline, I agree that it is very strong, and perhaps excessive, as it probably discourages a lot of potentially good dancers who don't bear the very strict and competitive atmosphere of the school. I remember a TV report about the school one or two years ago, and while the classes were very interesting, I was a bit frightened with some of the interviews of kids (I don't find it very sane to hear 9 years olds little girls saying that they won't help a classmate who asks them to explain a movement because they want to be the best of the class)- but above all with the attitude of the parents...
Perhaps the atmosphere at the Conservatoire is easier to deal with (and also they might get more opportunities to get involved with the cultural life in Paris).

[quote]
Can they mime ? No. The POB does not keep on older dancers for the mime roles, so you get seventeen-year olds dancing Coppelius and Giselle's mother, that sort of thing.

Actually, the only teen-aged Coppélius I saw was
in a performance of the POB school, when all the roles were danced by students (except for some performances when Pierre Lacotte danced Coppélius), and there are some senior members of the company, like Jean-Marie Didière, Laurent Quéval or Richard Wilk, who dance mostly mime roles. But I agree that it's a bit silly not to keep the dancers after they turn 40 or 45 for such roles- for example it's a pity that Fabrice Bourgeois (who is now one of the ballet masters of the company), who turned 45 a few years ago, doesn't dance such roles any longer. They sometimes invite former principals, like Cyril Atanassoff or Miachël Denard, but really too rarely.

About the mime, it reminds me of the performances of Lacotte's version of "Paquita" last season. It was one of the most successful programs of the season, with enthusiastic audiences and a full theater, and I was a bit surprised to be told by a dancer that most of the dancers of the company were not very happy to dance it (and were in fact surprised by its success). From what she said, one part of the problem was the great deal of mime in the production, which the dancers found difficult- she said that when Lacotte showed it to them, everything was clear, but they had trouble doing it as well as him. There are indeed some mime classes at the POB school (taught, as far as I know, by Yasmine Piletta, wife of the former principal Georges Piletta) but it seems to be not enough.

[quote]
One should add that for so long as I have been here, the POB casting policy is excessively elitist - as everything else in France. Only the étoiles, and occasionally, a premier danseur, get to dance the good stuff. So one rarely gets to see corps de ballet people having a go at something difficult or exciting.


It seems to be one of the big differences with the Nureyev era: from what I've read, he gave some big roles to very young dancers, which often proved successful. It caused some problems too, as some dancers who had been given such roles didn't want to go back to corps de ballet roles, and also he was criticized for breaking the ends of the careers of respected principals like Michaël Denard or Cyril Atanassoff. But at least corps de ballet dancers were given a chance to shine.

Perhaps one part of the problem is that Nureyev's successors found themselves with a large number of very talented principals, who sometimes were too numerous for the roles (which lead to having seven different Giselles in a row, for example). So it was easy to the direction to have good casts, and there wasn't much left for younger dancers, who were a bit forgotten. But most of those dancers were from the same generation (born in the late 50s or early 60s) and retired in the same period, and now the company is lacking people to replace them. The policy seems to have changed a bit since the beginning of the last season: some hierarchical rules still apply (for example, the premiere of a program always is danced by the people with the highest rank for each role), but there have been more and more roles given to premiers danseurs and corps de ballet dancers. Sometimes it has been out of necessity (for example in "Paquita" because all the principals who were supposed to dance it were injured), and the direction seems to have some fondess for recently promoted dancers like Karl Paquette, Emilie Cozette and above all the premieres danseuses Eleonora Abbagnato and Marie-Agnès Gillot (who are cast de fact as principals).
But there's also a problem of coaching, and perhaps of role models. And I do regret that some talented dancers who are now in their late 20s or early 30s, like Miteki Kudo, Laure Muret, Hervé Courtain or Stéphane Phavorin seem to be considered as already "out"... Probably they were not principal material, but I think that they would have been able to do better than the few roles they were given.

About the acting and whether the POB is moving or not, well, I'm lacking elements of comparison as the only company I've seen rather often is the POB. Perhaps I have bad taste, but there were many moments when I was moved.

And about the final remark... oh well, when it comes to arrogance, better leave it to a specialist.

Alexandra wrote:

But in Petit's "Les Rendez-vous" -- one of his Young Man falls in love with The Most Beautiful Woman in the world -- a/k/a Death -- they were completely different. The acting was very passionate, very immediate. Cyril Atanasoff, a former etoile then in his 50s, I believe, was wonderful as Death, an aging Dandy who seemed to have spent the last century in a sewer.

I think that adding Petit's older choreographies to the POB repertory really was a good idea, and dancers like Pietragalla, Belarbi or Bridard really are good in that repertory (unfortunately, Belarbi doesn't dance it much any longer, apparently for some conflict problems with Petit, who isn't exactly renowned for his good temper). I'm far less convinced by his more recent works, or even by his "Notre-Dame de Paris", but his works of the 40s and 50s really are well-suited to the company.

Not much has been said in this thread about the company's repertory, which is another real problem in my opinion. Well, in some sense it has almost always been, since the POB has known several long periods without a talented choreographer- and it is a problem with many companies, as genius choreographers aren't exactly numerous today... Personnally I'm not a fan of Nureyev's productions (even though they seem to be quite successful with the dancers and the audience) and his contrived choreographic style. And Lefèvre's recipe for the repertory seems to be an alternance of Nureyev's classics and modern works commissionned to various choreographers (often with limited success). There have been some valuable additions (like "Jewels" and "Paquita" last season), but it's worrying to see that much of the 20th century repertory is getting ignored more and more.

#8 Alexandra

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Posted 09 January 2002 - 05:46 PM

I think the point of "20th century choreography is getting ignored more and more" is an important one, and it's not a problem just in Paris. You've got your Far From Petipa versions of "the classics" and you've got your Made Yesterday choreography, and there's about 120 years in between that's ignored. (NYCB an exception here obviously, and London's Royal Ballet still has performances of Ashton and MacMillan, although not many this year). But elsewhere? In Paris, Staats (whom Balanchine admired) is almost never performed. Lifar, Petit and Bejart....well, at least they're native choreographers smile.gif And Fokine and Massine are given very, very few performances anywhere.

#9 Estelle

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Posted 09 January 2002 - 06:31 PM

Staats' "Soir de fête" was danced again in 1997, after about two decades of absence, but I wonder if anything else of his works remains...

There has been quite a lot of Petit in the recent seasons, and a few works by Béjart (it seems that the relationship between Béjart and the POB are quite complicated, with many periods of conflicts) but not many, and some of his works which had been danced quite a lot in the 1970s and 1980s like his "Rite of spring" or "Firebird" are not danced by the company any longer. As for Lifar, the only work of his danced in the last 10 years was "Suite en blanc" in 1996 (except some performances by the school- Claude Bessy seems to care more about the repertory than Brigitte Lefèvre).

There were some Fokine works in recent seasons ("Les Sylphides", "Le spectre de la rose", "Pétrouchka"), but I was a bit sad to read quite a lot of comments (by critics or audience members) calling it "outdated". Massine's "Le Tricorne" was, I think, a good addition to the repertory in the early 1990s (those sets were just so lovely), but I'm not sure it will be danced again.

I'm having a look at the two editions of Ivor Guest's "Le Ballet de l'Opera de Paris", which include a list of all the works created by the company since 1776, and also lists of the most often performed works. There are some serious inconsistencies between the two lists (for example "Soir de Fête" is listed to have been performed 303 times between 1925 and 1974 in the 1976 edition, and 269 times between 1925 and 1997 in the 2001) and I don't know which figures are the right ones. "Coppélia" still is at the top of the list (it doesn't count Bart's "modernized" version, which will be danced again this season), but "Giselle has won the second rank against... "Psyché" by Pierre Gardel (performed around 560 times between 1790 and 1824. It's interesting to see that in those times with so many political changes, there still was a big audience for the ballet...) And "Telemaque" (by the Gardel too) remains at the 4th rank, "La Dansomanie" being high on the list too.

The list of the second edition includes all the works performed at least 100 times; among them the 20th-century works are, in decreasing order:
"Suite en blanc", "Suite de danses" (last danced in 1974- how good is it?), "Soir de fête", Bourmeiester's version of "Swan Lake", "Etudes",
"Palais de cristal", "Le spectre de la rose", "Les mirages", Béjart's "Rite of spring", Lifar's "Divertissement" (1932), Alonso and Hightower's versions of "La belle au bois dormant", Skibine's "Daphnis and Chloé", Nureyev's "Swan Lake", Béjart's "Firebird", Clustine's "La Péri", "Pétrouchka", Aveline's "Elvire", Nureyev's version of "La Bayadère", Lifa's "Entre deux rondes", Nureyev's "Don Quixote", "Apollon musagète", Lifar's "Istar", Polovtsian dances from "Prince Igor", Taylor's "Aureole" (I was a bit surprised by that one!!), "Agon", Aveline's "La Grisi", Staats' "Siang-Sin", Lifar's version of "Afternoon of a faun", Forsythe's "In the middle, somewhat elevated" and "The four temperaments". That still reflects quite a lot the Lifar period, but I suspect that in that period the repertory was less diverse than now, and some works were performed over and over every season... I wish I could travel to time and see some of the other works listed, like "Les pages du duc de Vendôme" by Aumer (danced 126 times between 1820 and 1833) or "La rosière" by Maximilien Gardel (danced 115 times between 1783 and 1808)...

#10 BW

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Posted 09 January 2002 - 09:37 PM

Many thanks for your posts Estelle...and for another point of view, as well.

#11 katharine kanter

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Posted 10 January 2002 - 04:57 AM

Having seen the ballet of La Scala at the Paris Opera last night (house was packed to the rafters), in "Excelsior", it is now clearer to me why people abroad simply collapse in relief when they get to see the POB. The Milan standard is notoriously feeble - although there are a number of good things to be said about the troupe, notably the way they use the music, and the fact that they keep the older dancers - including bald, paunchy men - to do character roles. Difficult to believe nonetheless, technically, that is the land of Salvatore Vigano, Blassis, or Cecchetti...

Will write more on La Scala on another thread.

However, some allowances probably have to be made for Garnier's raked stage, and for the Italians' terror at having to emerge, in their half-baked state, before the ballet world's equivalent of five-star generals. I think there is scarcely a dancer in the world who would not get the willies, looking out from the wings and seeing the likes of Manuel Legris, Isabelle Guérin, and Elisabeth Platel in the audience (yes, they were there ! ), not to speak of half the POB troupe.

As an aside, with respect to the situation in the School, I would endorse Estelle's remarks here. A Opera School student aged about 14 was interviewed in the Figaro, two years ago: "here in this school", she said, "of course, we cannot have friends (amies), only school-chums (copines), because here we learn to compete."

Is that not quite un-artistic, and indeed anti-human, as a way of dealing with little plantlets, and setting them up for life ? Is not a troupe supposed to live and breathe with the music like a single soul ? No matter how individual one may be ? Incidentally, the étoile Aurélie Dupont, a bold and daring sort of young woman, has, in the mass media, lambasted the School on that score.

(May I be allowed here to refer to a short piece entitled the "Barre, and the Colour Bar", that I did for ballet.co's January issue, on the POB school ?)

Again further to Estelle's latest posting, I think I should probably pour a great slosh of water into my wine, as the French say. With the world virtually shredding about us, it is no doubt somewhat petty on my part to criticise POB people who are, after all, out-and-out professionals giving their all, and who themselves, as individuals, are in no way responsible for the fact that musical and artistic standards have slipped badly worldwide. On the contrary, they have tried to keep standards up !

And it is certainly not they who launched television, the "entertainment industry", video games, snuff films, Techno-Raves and the rest of the rot that has destroyed the public's ability to concentrate.

The étoile Manuel Legris for example, is a true artist, and, carp as I may at the lack of musicality in France, that is one criticism that certainly cannot be levelled at M. Legris. Reserved, distant, and his acting is always a little under the weather, but does that make his work any less committed, any less central to the troupe's high standards ? Although Bournonville says that "dancing must be an expression of joy", joy simply does not seem to be in the national character at this particular point in history. Too many wars in a few short decades, have got into our pores I think.

[ January 10, 2002: Message edited by: katharine kanter ]



#12 BW

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Posted 10 January 2002 - 08:15 AM

Just an aside here:

Never did I expect that my POB question would spark such a lively and interesting conversation!

Many thanks to you all - you are so well-versed and such good writers that it is a real pleasure to read your posts as well as your witticisms!

#13 Estelle

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Posted 10 January 2002 - 08:18 AM

[quote]Originally posted by katharine kanter:
Incidentally, the étoile Aurélie Dupont, a bold and daring sort of young woman, has, in the mass media, lambasted the School on that score.

From her interviews, she seems to have disliked quite a lot the time she spent at the school (she also said that a difficult point was that her younger sister, Benjamine, was not authorized to stay at the school at some point. By the way, she now is a soloist in Marseille). She mentioned it in last year's documentary by Nils Tavernier about the Paris Opera. On the other hand, it seems that there are some people like Marie-Agnès Gillot who felt at ease in such an atmosphere.

Another problem might be, as a dancer told me, that after such a hard discipline, the dancers who get accepted in the corps de ballet at 16 or 17 suddenly find themselves free, with nobody to look after them, a salary to spend and an independent life in Paris, and sometimes they're likely to stop working and to spend one year or two enjoying their new freedom, and somtimes they realize a bit too late than it can be detrimental to their career and that lost time is hard to repair...

The Paris Conservatoire (CNSMD) seems to be less hard with the students; also it usually recruits them at a later age (it's very difficult to get accepted at the POB school after 13 or 14...) and most of their ballet teaching staff comes from the POB. On the other hand, there seems to be a greater and greater emphasis on modern dance in their students' program in the last seasons (perhaps to adapt to the trend with many companies?)

And at least we find ourselves in agreement about Manuel Legris, who is one of the treasures of the company in my opinion. One of my most bitter regrets is that not having seen the company in the time of his partnership with Monique Loudières.
He's a bit reserved, but I think his modest stage demeanor is part of his personality; I especially appreciate his courteous manners with his partners, he's never trying to show himself too much at their expense, or to sacrifice style for virtuosity. And for me, his performance last season in "Suite of dances", "Other dances" or "Rubies" were wonderful moments.

#14 Babou

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Posted 14 January 2002 - 07:32 PM

Hello,katherine ! did you go to the last Paris Opera School Performance on the1st,22d or 23rd of december?I dont think so! Of course everybody seems to race always higher ,leaner,faster,longer...just seeking for
perfection !Perhaps somebody else saw those boys and girls performing and expressing their joy being part of that excellent school!

#15 katharine kanter

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Posted 15 January 2002 - 07:30 AM

In response to "Babou" - I've got nothing to add to what's been said above. Estelle and others have already done the rounds on the subject, and unless and until other dancers choose, as Aurélie Dupont has, to lift the veil, I think I would do better to apply to myself the maxim

"fools rush in where angels fear to tread".


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