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New Zealand premiere dancer stars in opening season of the Paris Opera Ballet

The opening of the dance season at the Paris Opera was a grand affair attended by all the notables of French politics, art and fashion.


John Daly-Peoples
Sat, 08 Oct 2016

Sehgal, Peck, Pite, Forsythe
Paris Opera Ballet
September 28

Palimpseste Duo
Theatre de Chaillot
September 30

The opening of the dance season at the Paris Opera was a grand affair attended by all the notables of French politics, art and fashion, to see works by four of the top contemporary choreographers working today - Tino Sehgal, Justin Peck, Crystal Pike and William Forsythe.

Preceding the event, the audience encountered one of Tino Sehgal’s impromptu events, which many art travellers would have seen at the Venice Biennale in 2005 and 2013 as well as two years ago at the Gallery of New South Wales. This piece consisted of staff members of the Paris Opera House randomly dancing around the foyer singing, “This is so contemporary, this is so contemporary, contemporary.” It’s a simple statement on one level but also confrontational and seems out of place in the gilded halls of the Paris Opera.

However, his untitled work which was the final piece on the programme, proved to be even more radical. Rather than have an orchestra in the pit, the music was provided by a cellist, guitarist, keyboards, saxophone, drums and percussion.

When they began to play the curtain didn’t go up. Instead, the lights around the Chagall mural on the Opera House ceiling flicked on and off, then lights in the boxes went on and off and the lighting display continued for several minutes all in time to the music.

Then the decorative fire curtain went up, and then down and the plush velvet curtain also went up and down, again for several minutes. Then the black fly curtains went up and down, exposing all the working of the backstage area, even exposing the back wall of the stage. Then, in what seemed to be as piece of magic trickery, the back wall vanished to be replaced by a gilded hall with chandeliers. This was in fact the seldom used reception area at the rear of the Opera House which replicates the one at the front.

Only then did some dancers appear but they had their backs to the audience and they advanced walking backward to the edge of the stage with some of the them lowering themselves into the orchestra pit and then emerging to join the front rows of the audience. They were followed by the sudden appearance of other dancers on the floor of the house as well as in the boxes. They performed their dance-like postures as well as engaging the audience in conversation The audience were bemused, shocked and delighted but finally erupting into a standing ovation as the dancers disappeared, never to appear on stage for their curtain call.

It was an abstract work that could have been conceived by Billy Apple: an investigation of what lies behind the production, that which the audience never sees.

Earlier this year Auckland audiences were lucky enough to see The Statement, a pared down work by Crystal Pike in which four dancers performed around a table to the dialogue of a meeting.

With her latest work, rather than a handful of dancers, she elected to have more than 50 dancers on stage. The Season Canon opens with the dancers forming a large, heaving, reptilian form bathed in an angry red flaming light.

The body seems to pulsate as heads bob up and down and limbs flex. The body takes on new forms, reforming, changing in dimensions.

It seemed like the beginning of life as this simple form emerges from the primal sludge, the red light an indication of volcanic activity. In some sequences the dancers whirl creating cloudlike formations of bodies.

Throughout the work there is the idea of simple biological forms providing a parallel to a study in human dynamics and interactions.

All of the dancers wore baggy trousers with the men bare-chested and the women in skin tight tops making for a sensuous and primal impression

There was an emphasis on the architecture of dance and the building of sculptural forms. There was also an emphasis, enhanced by the lighting on the bodies of the dancers themselves, the flexing muscles of the men, the sinuous flexibility of the females

At times there seemed to be connections to many of the interpretations and variations around the Rite of Spring and the eventual mourning and arrival of a goddess. There is a sense of desperation in some of the dancing, with a combination of aggression and defensiveness.

The dancers seemed to be continuously fleeing, re-joining, assembling and floating. At times. At one point they form into a single line forming an undulating curve like a spinal column. The almost robotic series of movements seem close to the animated video works of Gregory Bennet.

The major dance of the evening and one which received a sustained standing ovation was William Forsythe's “Blake Works. The title came not from William Blake, although an interpretation could have been made about themes from his poetry but rather the English singer/composer James Blake

His six songs sung in a growling piercing voice were about love, relationships and connections. The gestures of the dancers looked to be a mixture of semaphore and signing as they appeared to communicate with each other their clipped movements like marionettes.

In one sequence all the dancers danced independently of each other, creating endless variations, their almost whispering movement contrasting with solid rhythms of the music.

The opening work on the programme was “Justin Peck’s In Creases”set to Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos, in which two groups of four dancers created more and more complex geometric shapes and formations,

Combining classical dance moves along with contemporary movement, they created dynamics movement that recalled the movements of figures in the German Expressionist film “Metropolis”

Just as the pianos seemed to play the music in a harsh, slightly disjointed way, the dancers also occasionally interrupted each other as though unclear as to their movements. At one stage the dancers crowded around the pianos peering at the music as though attempting to find out what was expected of them and what structures and formations they were expected to create.

Dancing one of the roles in In Creases was Hannah O’Neil, a New Zealander who is one of the premier dancers with a lifetime appointment at the Paris Opera Ballet.  Earlier this year she was named dancer of the year at the prestigious Benois de la Danse competition, often described as the Oscars of dance.

On the other side of town at the modernist Theatre de Chaillot choreographer Michelle Noiret danced her work Palimpseste Duo along with Dominique Duszynski on a minimalist stage to the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen. The work Tierkreis pour clarinet et piano relates to the signs of the zodiac and is in twelve parts but like the use of the signs in Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it is difficult to comprehend their relevance.

Part of the score is a barely heard music box emitting tiny bell-like sounds while other sequences more dramatic sounds of a clarinet and piano.

Like a palimpsest where ancient inscriptions are covered over by others so the original is almost obliterated and one sees only traces of the original, so too the dancing appeared to explore aspects of memory, the repetition of movements and gestures extending and expanding the idea of traces of memory.

The dancing was also linked to the various sounds of the musical score with hands, arms, legs, torso and head responding to the sounds of the instruments

Michelle Noiret, who is on stage most of the time, performed with a mixture of mime and dance, seeming to speak inaudibly, gesturing as though trying to convey a message. She appeared at times to be pursued by some invisible or internal force which she was responding to. Often the flailing, shuffling movement seemed derived from Charlie Chaplin, at other times from that of a ghostly apparition

When the two dancers worked together their dancing took on a more elemental tone with greater stress on conveying the body’s sense of weight, momentum and emotional expression.

At all times the two dancers displayed a sense of total control of their movements, even when these were erratic as they responded to and complemented the musical score.

John Daly-Peoples
Sat, 08 Oct 2016
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New Zealand premiere dancer stars in opening season of the Paris Opera Ballet