One of the few benefits of lockdown has been the proliferation of dance teaching material online.  The ability to watch and sample ballet classes from all over the world has enabled comparison and reflection on the characteristics and relative merits of different methods of schooling, which one would normally have little opportunity either to observe or experience.  Recent trawling for fresh ideas for my Zoom teaching lead me to look closely at films documenting the classes and pedagogic approaches of two established and respected teachers from the Paris Opera Ballet and its school, Alexandre Kalioujny and Raymond Franchetti.  Of Russian origin but born and brought up in Prague, Kalioujny had a long association with the company, initially as a dancer, but later after a distinguished performing career as a teacher of its leading dancers, forging a close relationship with Rudolf Nureyev who greatly respected his work.  His alumni include luminaries Elisabeth Platel and Charles Jude, who for the film La Classe d’ Alexandre Kalioujny teach a class demonstrating and explaining some of the principles and concerns which informed his teaching, shaping future generations of French ballet dancers. 

Discussion about this prompted a colleague to point me to a documentary about the teaching of Raymond Franchetti, himself a pupil of the renowned French teacher Gustave Ricaux, and dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet, before becoming a hugely respected teacher in his own right and subsequently Director of Dance at the Paris Opera in the 1970s.  A short but very informative documentary follows a class taught by Franchetti, interspersed with his own forthright observations on ballet technique and pedagogy, interview material, and reminiscences of historic dance studios. On 27th January the Paris Opera Ballet staged its grand opening Gala in the Palais Garnier; having studied these classes I was very keen to watch this programme, to see how the ethos and technique of the dancing visible in the studio translated into performance. 

The programme of one hour and ten minutes, unable to be performed to a live public, was filmed in the ghostly magnificence of the empty auditorium, the camera panning round gleaming gilded boxes and pillars in melancholy shadow during the title sequence.  A programme consisting of four contrasted episodes suggested the range of the company’s repertoire – classical, established showpieces, indicative of its recent history and strengths; short but substantial works suitable for online viewing and computer weary eyes and attention spans.  Long curtain calls and formal repeated bows to a patently empty house felt forlorn; it would have been perhaps better to cut these shorter and find a way to aim them more directly at the camera and the home viewer.

Défilé du Ballet

The programme opened with the legendary grand Défilé du Ballet in which traditionally all the dancers of the company process and take a reverence to the audience.  Women from little girls to grandes étoiles in simple white tutus, the more senior with diamond tiaras – boys and men in romantic white shirts with black or white tights – and this year all wearing pale blue disposable face masks… A mirror at the back of the black curtained stage endlessly reflects the dancers as they solemnly goose step downstage in rows, first all the women starting with one small girl, then all the men from the youngest boys; all peeling off sideways when they get to the front, gradually framing the stage with a great horseshoe, as ever more senior dancers appear.  Stars are permitted to run forward in solitary splendour and take a personalised bow, framed between lines of company members.  At the end all gather on the stage to form an intricate tableau.  The music is a rousing Berlioz march; there is a palpably powerful aura of militaristic hierarchy and discipline; all the dancers save the stars held rigid, extending their legs forward stiffly, gazing straight out to the empty auditorium even when marching off to the side. Redolent of establishment superiority in an event sponsored by Rolex, Chanel and Taittinger

Grand Pas Classique

The dancing, all for small ensembles performing without face masks, began with a revered piece of iconic French repertoire, the Grand Pas Classique choreographed by Victor Gsovsky in 1949 for Yvette Chauviré and Vladimir Skouratoff. Gsovsky had an influential career as a teacher of major companies and great dancers, but his choreographic reputation seems to rest almost entirely on the Grand Pas Classique; a technical showpiece of virtuosic difficulty requiring crisp precision, much loved on the international ballet gala circuit.  There are numerous versions on YouTube to compare, particularly of the ballerina’s bravura solo; with a selection of Russian dancers being applauded for their high extensions in 2nd; although less impressive in the punishing sequence of relevés travelling forward.  Most authoritative of the versions I watched were Elisabeth Platel on YouTube, and Valentine Colasante in this gala transmission, both rock solid on the supporting leg, and bringing a certain dry understated French chic to transcend the execution of unforgiving pointe work.  I particularly savoured the way Colasante suspended and sailed serenely round in a half turn in attitude.  She made the most of what seems a signature gesture in this work, stepping upstage on pointe with her arms rounded above her head, looking back with elegant épaulement; and elsewhere fastidiously closing her feet on pointe.  This kind of detailed punctuation and crisp, almost staccato, gestural flourish seems very much a choreographic characteristic of the work, alongside breath-taking balances; little that is melting or expansive, much that is upright and audience focused.

Hugo Marchand seemed to enjoy his exposing variation, smiling broadly, his wavy locks tossing, dancing with ease but also rhythmic precision and elegant line.  It seems that here, unlike the hurtling variations of some Russian showpieces, there is a measure of containment about the choreography; this doesn’t make the solo any easier, but arguably more technically challenging in its requirement for detailed accuracy rather than broad brushstroke.  In general the dancing in this pas de deux doesn’t travel much; it is centrally placed and symmetrical, vertical and en face.  Such technical rigour seems of a piece with the centred enchaînements in the French classes I have been exploring.  Apart from the soulful lyrical brass ensemble passage which opens the pas de deux, Auber’s music is emphatic and rhythmic.  I loved the navy blue Chanel designed costumes with a scattering of silver; for the ballerina one of the most gorgeous tutus I have ever seen, her sleek chignon with silver stars completing an elegant look.

In the Night

It was wonderful to see in complete contrast to this Jerome Robbins’ In the Night set to four Chopin Nocturnes.  Earlier in lockdown I had greatly enjoyed a Paris Opera Ballet Jerome Robbins programme, so was very aware of this company’s experience in this repertoire, admirably expanding their signature precision into expressive gesture and fluidity.  Gone here the outward focus and showmanship, a hushed inward focus now creating a night-time environment with stars gleaming in the darkness above three duets depicting very different relationships.  The colours of Anthony Dowell’s costumes in tune with the mood of each duet, simple and stylised decoration lending a hint of individual character.  Once again amazed at Robbins’ interest in and invention of backwards movements, particularly noticeable in the beautiful opening of the first pas de deux.  This is choreography that fully uses the space, with drifting runs and arcing lifts, dancers melting and revolving around each other.  The duet is apparently about young love, but it seemed more ambiguous and dreamlike, the backwards motion sometimes giving a melancholic flavour of wistful retreat.  Mathieu Ganio partnered Ludmila Pagliero with chivalrous care, both dancers tenderly reflective.

I was not so convinced by Leonore Baulac in the second pas de deux.  Memories of seeing the Royal Ballet performing this work in the 1970s had created an expectation of grounded sophistication in this duet; knowing, perhaps ironic beneath its formal courtliness.  I longed for Baulac to be more accented and less pleasant and pretty, to stay within the intimate world of the piece and build a more edgy relationship with her partner in response to the grave tones of the music.  I found Alice Renavand more convincing in the last pas de deux.  Here histrionics and sudden changes of mood are built into the choreography through dancing gesture; it feels conversational, requiring the dancers to consider what is being communicated with every move.  The woman is more the focus of attention, extravagant and passionate, the man gazing darkly, running and supporting her as she rails and then relents.  After such individuality and emotional intensity the ballet’s finale when all the couples come together felt somewhat too artificial and tidy, lacking the authenticity of each pas de deux, even though echoing elements of their material and motifs.

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude

The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude does exactly what it says.  William Forsythe’s response to the febrile Allegro vivace from Schubert’s 9th Symphony is relentless in its speed and complexity.  I could wish for more pauses to draw breath and take in the quirky idiosyncrasy of the combinations of steps with changes of direction and body weight.  Having admired a previous crisp performance by the Royal Ballet, I wondered too whether the flamboyant arms and hyper-arched feet of the POB’s female dancers perhaps contributed to a slight loss of clarity in its unstoppable choreographic flow.  Whether a characteristic of the choreography itself and its particular aesthetic – remembering that Forsythe’s ground-breaking In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated commissioned for the company by Rudolf Nureyev in 1987, originally featured the hyper-flexible gymnastic body of Sylvie Guillem – or its execution by this cast, this wonderfully exuberant exploration of fast balletic vocabulary began to feel all on a level, thus perhaps losing a little of its thrill.

This magnificent programme, a distillation of balletic technical expertise proudly displayed, is still available to watch free of charge online – well worth enjoying its richness and detail, and a great introduction to the world’s oldest ballet company in its current manifestation.  I relish the potential for familiarising oneself with this distinctive stylistic tradition that repeated viewing online of both schooling and performance has enabled.

Susie Crow

22nd February 2021

Watch the Paris Opera Ballet Gala online here: https://chezsoi.operadeparis.fr/ballet/videos/gala-d-ouverture

You can find out more about La Classe d’Alexandre Kalioujny here

Watch the documentary Cours de Raymond Franchetti a L’Opéra here