The Paris Opera Ballet Comes to Chicago
by thomas connors
Talk about pedigrees: The Paris Opera Ballet traces its roots to 1661, when Molière was still a man-about-town, and the “Sun King” sponsored the show. Ever since, this historic institution has been revered by balletomanes as the great incubator of classical dance. The company hasn’t been seen on these shores in more than a decade, but this summer, it launches a North American tour right here in Chicago, its first-visit ever to the Windy City.
While the French pride in cultural patrimony sometimes seems stifling—with tradition trumping all else—the Paris Opera Ballet has long permitted outsiders and less-than-mainstream performers to make a showing on its stage. Thanks to its peripatetic personnel, the company absorbed influences from across the continent in the 19th century, resulting in trailblazing works, such as Filippo Taglioni’s La Sylphide and Giselle (by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot), pieces whose Romantic sensibility brought a new narrative style to ballet (not to mention tutus and pointe work). In 1929 Serge Lifar of Ballets Russes fame joined the company and set about stressing the formal values of the ballet vocabulary over the crowd-pleasing components of music and décor. Anticipating the strategies of such modern dancers as Merce Cunningham, in 1935 he created Icare, which was performed to a score that was added only after the choreography had been completed. When the company hits the Harris Theater (June 26–July 1), the master’s 1943 abstraction, Suite en Blanc, will be on the bill.
Superstar Rudolf Nureyev directed the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980s and in addition to giving the classics a kick (Swan Lake, for one), he invited a wide range of choreographers to Paris, including William Forsythe, Paul Taylor, Karole Armitage, Lucinda Childs, and Michael Clark. Under current director Brigitte Lefevre—who has welcomed Pina Bausch, Robyn Orlin, and Sasha Waltz to mount work on the company—the Paris Opera Ballet remains a repository of classics and a showcase for the newest work, where Coppelia and Romeo and Juliet are as passionately performed, as is Wayne McGregor’s Genus.
The company’s Harris Theater engagement offers a tantalizing taste of all this great troupe can do, but what a teaser. In addition to the Lifar ballet, the program includes the indestructible Giselle, Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne (set to Bizet and situated amid a Van Gogh-like landscape), and Maurice Béjart’s erotically charged Bolero, performed to that maddening (or magical, depending on your point of view) score by Maurice Ravel. A living link to the dance traditions first promoted by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century and as rich in treasures as any museum and as creatively au courant as the latest media-driven meme, the Paris Opera Ballet occupies an unassailable position in world culture Allez-y!
The Paris Opera Ballet will be at the Harris Theater from June 26–July 1. Tickets start at $55. 205 E. Randolph St., 312-334-7777
photography by sebastien mathé (dancer); byhedrich blessing (theater); julien benhamou (giselle)