Critic’s Notebook: William Forsythe Revival at Paris Opera Ballet

December 29th, 2012

PARIS — On May 22, 1987, two female dancers in green leotards and black tights stood on the empty stage of the Palais Garnier here, in a pool of light. The women, hands on hips, each swiveled a point-shoe tip on the floor idly and glanced up at two golden cherries inexplicably suspended over their heads. Then one gave an almost imperceptible shrug and walked off, and the other began to dance, suddenly galvanized by a rhythmic, electronic crash of sound.

The work was “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” and a new era for ballet had begun.

The choreographer was William Forsythe, an American. It wasn’t his first ballet for the Paris Opera Ballet (Nureyev, its director, had commissioned “France/Dance” in 1983), and it was hardly his first demonstration of the way he would push Balanchine’s extensions of the classical vocabulary into even more extreme terrain.

But “In the Middle” brought together Mr. Forsythe’s brilliantly innovative rethinking of ingrained balletic conventions — about balance, weight, effort, line, presentation, illusion and gender — with theatrical panache, and it catapulted him into the international spotlight.

Twenty-five years later “In the Middle” is a repertory staple for ballet companies, and Mr. Forsythe’s influence on classical dance is virtually ubiquitous. “In the Middle,” which the Paris Opera Ballet has been performing as part of a William Forsythe/Trisha Brown program at the Palais Garnier this month, remains a fascinating work: a daredevil exploration of the limits of ballet technique, informed by a thrilling suspense.

But the real draw of this program is two other Forsythe pieces, both created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1999, and rarely seen since. It’s hard to know why, since both these dances, “Woundwork 1” and “Pas./Parts” are superb works of craft and imagination, evidence of a choreographer at the height of his powers. They are the last pieces that Mr. Forsythe choreographed for a company that is not his own, and his last ensemble pure-ballet works. (He has since worked almost exclusively with his own troupe, the Forsythe Company.)

The 12 years between “In the Middle” and those later ballets is a generation when it comes to dancers. And, indeed, in the interim the young Paris Opera corps members whom Mr. Forsythe showcased in 1987 (the étoiles-to-be Sylvie Guillem, Laurent Hilaire, Fanny Gaïda, Isabelle Guérin and Manuel Legris, among them) became mature artists. (Ms. Guillem left the company).

Mr. Forsythe speaks of that maturity in the magisterial “Woundwork 1,” a looping, weaving, golden-hued quartet set to sustained, layered, melancholy lines of sound by Thom Willems, who also composed “In the Middle.” And in “Pas./Parts,” a large-scale, 15-dancer piece, he offers a kind of exhibition of the layers and levels of accomplishment in the company.

Vital to all these works is Mr. Forsythe’s canny understanding of the culture of the Paris Opera Ballet, with its formal hierarchies of grades and its deeply rooted competitiveness, which begins at the Paris Opera Ballet School, where students are ranked from top to bottom each year.

This ranking continues through their professional life — once in the company, promotion can be achieved only through an annual competition. “In the Middle” perfectly captures the intimate, prickly, ambiguous relationships of dancers who grow up together but must never forget that their friends are also their rivals.

When “In the Middle” is performed by other companies, this wary surveillance, the bravado that masks fear, is often enacted as a vaguely sulky aggressiveness. But when the curtain went up on Dec. 8 and 9 at the Palais Garnier, and Alice Renavand and Aurélia Bellet eyed each other warily, it was immediately clear what was at stake: center stage.

That position is never secure. Even during the solos of “In the Middle,” there is always another dancer, or several, to the side or back of the stage. Moving slowly through formal ballet poses, they are waiting, by implication, to replace whoever is dancing. (The frieze of poses that forms at one point across the back looks like a picture book guide to ballet positions; here are the classical references, the foundation for the exploded, off-balance movement at the front.)

In the final moment of the climactic pas de deux, the second lead woman, who has been watching at the side, jumps high, an attempt to steal the attention from the drama downstage. It may not work, but she (and Mr. Forsythe) will give it a try.

“Woundwork” offers no such games. The four dancers (Emilie Cozette, Benjamin Pech, Laëtitia Pujol and Nicholas Le Riche on Dec. 8; the superb Eleonora Abbagnato replaced Ms. Pujol on Dec. 9) are entirely sure of their places. We see them first standing with their backs to us, on a glowing stage framed by high white walls at the sides and back.

“William Forsythe/Trisha Brown” runs through Monday at Palais Garnier; operadeparis.fr.

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