Members of the Paris Opera Ballet: Alice Renavand and StÃ©phane Bullion in âOrpheus and Eurydice.â
IN a large, circular studio in the cupola of the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera Ballet étoiles Aurélie Dupont and Mathieu Ganio were rehearsing the moment, close to the end of “Giselle,” when the heroine, transformed into a ghostly Wili, must leave her mortal lover, Albrecht, forever.
First Ms. Dupont, petite, with the face of a Renaissance Madonna, glided backward, slipping through Mr. Ganio’s arms. Then she tried out a variant, turning sideways. Clotilde Vayer, the ballet mistress, surveyed the pair thoughtfully. Finally she shrugged. “What matters,” she said, “is to see a beautiful image.”
In a nearby studio, a little later, three women rehearsed a section from Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc” with the ballet mistress Viviane Decoutures. “Pretty feet!” she cried out urgently. “Pretty feet, everyone, please!”
Beauty and uniformity are no small matters at the Paris Opera Ballet, which opens a 12-performance run at the David H. Koch Theater on Wednesday after stops in Chicago and Washington. It’s the company’s first United States visit since 1996, and there has been no skimping: New York gets two full-length works, “Giselle” and Pina Bausch’s “Orpheus and Eurydice,” as well as a French-themed program with ballets by Lifar, Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart.
“It’s extremely important for us to go to the U.S.,” said Brigitte Lefèvre, the director of the Paris Opera Ballet since 1995, speaking in French in her office at the Palais Garnier. “It’s a renewal of a relationship with the public and also an approach to a new public which has never seen us. Will we be accepted for who we are, and what we do, for our differences?”
There is no doubt that the Paris Opera Ballet differs in many ways from American companies — most significantly in its style. Companies in the United States tend to draw dancers from all over the world, and the consequent emphasis is on individuality and personality.
At the Opera, however, more than 90 percent of the dancers come straight from the Paris Opera Ballet School, and most of the remainder are drawn from French dance conservatories that follow similar training programs. (There are very occasional exceptions, most notably the Argentine-born and -trained étoile Ludmila Pagliero, whose recent appointment wasn’t without controversy.)
That training is highly specific. From the age of 8, the children are coached in the placement of the head, arms and hips known as épaulement, in precise footwork and small beaten jumps. The accent on grace, line and legibility dates to the establishment of the Paris Opera Ballet school in 1713; over the years that style has been successively influenced by choreographers and teachers without ever losing these principles. And for all the company’s technical strength, there isn’t the emphasis on athleticism that tends to permeate the heterogenous (often Russian-influenced) training of American dancers.
As Élisabeth Platel, a former Paris Opera Ballet étoile who now runs the school, pointed out, there is also, quite outside of the specific exercises, the fact that the children spend six to eight years as boarders together at the school.
“We grow up together,” she said in a telephone interview. “We have absorbed the same ideas, had the same teachers. There is an oral tradition passed down that is part of our way of being. We haven’t read about these things in books; we have lived them.”
The result is a purity and specificity of style — elegant, precise — that is becoming a rarity in the increasingly cosmopolitan and migratory world of ballet today. It’s a world in which even companies like the British Royal Ballet have more foreign principal dancers than local ones, and in which an American dancer like David Hallberg can join the Bolshoi Ballet, or the Russian ballerina Polina Semionova can dance with the Berlin State Ballet, then American Ballet Theater.
“The company spirit predominates over individualism,” said Philippe Noisette, a dance writer for Paris Match. “It is always a question of serving the ensemble, not putting oneself forward to the detriment of others. There is also a certain languor that one could call elegance.”
In an interview after her rehearsal, Ms. Dupont, too, spoke of the school’s emphasis on the group.
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