French Masters of the 20th Century

The Paris Opera Ballet at the Lincoln Center Festival on Thursday, July 11.

Back in October 2008, when I attended a performance of the San Francisco Ballet, I ruefully wondered whether “the New York City Ballet has brainwashed me more than I realize.” Nearly four years later, having just seen the Paris Opera Ballet perform, I’m sure of it—in part because I quarrel with the whole idea of brainwashing. Choreographer George Balanchine’s crisp, coolly beautiful, exquisitely musical work—which comprises the bulk of the City Ballet repertory and influences much of the rest—is simply superior to most other choreography, is it not? I mean, I’m exaggerating a bit for effect there. Variety is a good thing, and I don’t really want all ballet to follow his distinct brand of neoclassicism, but I have to admit that style has become my preference, even when I’m presented with one of the oldest, greatest ballet companies in the world performing masterful work of their own.

Take Serge Lifar’s “Suite en Blanc,” set to music by Edouard Lalo. It’s actually quite a model of neoclassicism, “pure dance” in a series of variations: pas de trois, pas de cinq, sérénade, mazurka, and so forth. Everything is immaculately composed, and every member of the company carries him- or herself with downright regal bearing: long legs, long arms, long necks, graceful and lithe and proud. I particularly enjoyed the pas de cinq, in which ballerina Alice Renavand danced charmingly with four men and scarcely seemed to require a one, so perfectly balanced was her every arabesque and pirouette.

And yet, despite the fact that Lalo’s music is spirited and delightfully expressive, Lifar seems to have paid little attention to it when choreographing the work. His dancers never embody the lines and phrases the way Balanchine’s seem to, their gestures look rote rather than harmonious, and thus the entire “Suite en Blanc” feels perfunctory where Balanchine’s black-and-white ballets, set to much less accessible music, feel inspired.

Ronald Petit’s “L’Arlésienne,” with music by Georges Bizet, didn’t remind me of Balanchine so much as Jerome Robbins, the other founding choreographer of City Ballet—particularly “Les Noces,” his “dance-cantata” about a traditional Russian peasant wedding. Both “L’Arlésienne” and “Les Noces” employ numerous quasi-rustic touches—turning feet forward instead of out, linking arms, stomping between kicks—and both depict strained, even traumatic preparations for a wedding. For added fun, “L’Arlésienne” strongly indicates that the groom is somehow being coerced—how, I have no idea, but he clearly is just not that into the would-be bride. Thematically, I find that exasperating, but I must admit Petit does do a good job of setting a mood. I hadn’t a clue what the back story was (the Internet enlightened me when I got home), but thanks to the choreographer’s flair for emotional narrative—and dancer Jérémie Bélingard’s impassioned performance—I couldn’t possibly miss Frederi’s increasingly panicked hesitation, culminating in a suicidal leap out a window. Ultimately, though, I am just not that into incorporating faux-primitive steps into ballet; the marriage never seems like a natural, happy one.

The closing work of the evening was a lot more fun. How could a setting of Maurice Ravel’s much-adored, little-respected “Boléro” not be a pleasure, if something of a guilty one? Choreographer Maurice Béjart begins the crowd-pleaser with a single dancer atop a large table, eventually surrounded by several dozen men in a weirdly adulatory frenzy. Nicolas Le Riche took the starring role Thursday night, gradually escalating from the small angular gestures at the outset to the grand leaps and splits at the climax with dramatic flair and truly impressive stamina. (I could see the heavy sheen of sweat covering his skin at the closing bows from atop the third balcony.)

It wasn’t what I was expecting from “Boléro,” which I’ve always associated with partnered dance, probably in large part because of the ice dancers Torvill and Dean’s legendary Olympic performance with that accompaniment. But Béjart makes the “Boléro” entirely presentational, a sort of classed-up Magic Mike (what can I say?—it was the first comparison that came to mind), a half-reverential, half-lascivious glorification of the male body that reminded me a bit of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (and that’s the second comparison that came to mind—I am all about the completely inappropriate comparisons tonight!).

The result is … well, it’s weird, honestly, both sensual and detached, and all rather shallow. But there aren’t exactly depths to plumb in “Boléro,” and the technique and stamina and physique on display are undeniably incredibly impressive. (Le Riche deserved every single curtain call.) And on the way home I was thinking: When Balanchine wanted to create an obvious crowd-pleaser, he choreographed the insanely goofy, kitschy “Stars and Stripes.” Apparently, when the French masters want the same, they choreograph fifteen minutes of half-nude calisthenics. My loyalties to Balanchine notwithstanding, this may be one arena in which the French have the upper hand.