As ballet companies go, Paris Opera Ballet and New York City Ballet could hardly be more dissimilar. The French outfit boasts centuries of classical history, and has looked mostly to European contemporary trends to adapt to changing times. The American company, meanwhile, still abides by the style and neoclassical outlook of its 20th-century founder, George Balanchine. By happy accident, however, both currently find themselves performing similar repertoire in Paris.
NYCB has been installed at the Théâtre du Châtelet as part of the Etés de la Danse festival, with five different programmes. One could have wished for a more varied diet: out of 20 works, 14 are by Balanchine. Instead of Apollo, an early work exhausted by nearly every company under the sun, or Mozartiana, a slight confection set to join POB’s repertoire next season, a substantial Jerome Robbins selection or more of Alexei Ratmansky’s NYCB creations would have been welcome.
Still, this is a company dancing with such vitality that it is unmissable. Since its last Paris tour, in 2008, an outstanding generation of principals has come to the fore, from the commanding Sara Mearns to Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin and Taylor Stanley. They took no prisoners in the opening “Balanchine Black and White” programme, imbuing such classic works as The Four Temperaments with thrilling musicality and daring.
In Balanchine’s grand, imperial-style ballets, however, you’d be forgiven for wavering between NYCB’s occasionally rough attack and the more elegant discipline of old-world companies. In NYCB’s all-Tchaikovsky programme, moments of brilliance alternated with clumsy alignments and ports de bras.
Meanwhile, POB successfully co-opted Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet at the Opéra Bastille. Transatlantic fare has been a hallmark of the tenure of Benjamin Millepied, the former NYCB principal appointed director in 2014, and Brahms-Schoenberg came adorned with elegant new costumes by Karl Lagerfeld, ranging in inspiration from Daniel Buren-style stripes to folk-like headdresses. More important, the POB dancers looked at home in the piece’s evocation of opulent Austro-Hungarian ballrooms. Dorothée Gilbert and Mathieu Ganio made a romantic pairing, while Laura Hecquet and Karl Paquette gleefully played up the fourth movement’s character dancing.
Balanchine is not the only name the NYCB and POB programmes have in common. Both are presenting ballets by Justin Peck, soloist and resident choreographer with NYCB, whom Millepied commissioned to create his first European work in Paris. The result, Entre Chien et Loup (“between dog and wolf”, a French expression meaning twilight or dusk), boasts striking production values, including John Baldessari’s 1989 print “Rollercoaster” as backdrop, but falls short of Peck’s New York creations.
By way of score, he opted for Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto, which was also used in 2010 by Liam Scarlett for Asphodel Meadows. Peck’s take is more structurally ambitious than Scarlett’s, but less attuned to the intricate, changing texture of the music.
As a further tribute to Baldessari, Peck chose to saddle his 11-strong cast with round masks, mimicking the colourful dots with which the Californian artist hides faces in some works. More could have been made of the resulting tension between individuals and the anonymous crowd, but Peck, true to his Balanchine roots, focused on shapes in space. He and the French dancers failed to meet each other halfway: there is a bright, earnest quality to Peck’s work that few in the cast really made their own, despite some striking male solos.
Peck was back in his comfort zone with NYCB, who presented the impressive Everywhere We Go at the Châtelet. The choreographer’s American colleagues filled out his steps and kaleidoscopic patterns with remarkable energy and presence. On the same programme was an offbeat treasure, Ratmansky’s 2014 Pictures at an Exhibition, proving that dance can converse with the abstract moods of its Mussorgsky score and Kandinsky projections. What a time to be watching ballet in Paris.
POB ‘Peck/Balanchine’, to July 15, operadeparis.fr
NYCB, to July 16, chatelet-theatre.com