Paris Opera Ballet delivers Rite and Rhapsody

It’s easy to believe that we know everything there is to know about The Rite of Spring. Vaslav Nijinsky’s epoch-making choreography may have been lost after its 1913 premiere, but in 1987 Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer crafted a reconstruction that has since become a repertoire staple — and that’s in addition to the hundreds of reinvented Rites haunting theatres around the world.

Now the Paris Opera Ballet is delivering fresh insight into Nijinsky’s style, courtesy of Dominique Brun, in its Ashton/Eyal/Nijinski triple bill. The French choreographer and reconstruction specialist first restaged the original Rite with contemporary dancers in 2014, drawing on new research conducted with two historians. Now their thorough work can be seen on the scale it deserves, with Nicolas Roerich’s sets and costumes carefully replicated at the Palais Garnier.

Most fascinating is Brun’s attention to the then-shocking posture Nijinsky demanded of ballet dancers. While the Hodson/Archer production has looked somewhat amorphous in recent years, the 36 Paris dancers committed to the hunched-over, turned-in positions with striking force. The group of maidens looked convincingly crushed by the weight of the ritual, including appeals to forces above and, at one point, an audible cry.

Gutsy effort: Frederick Ashton’s fiendish ‘Rhapsody’ © Yonathan Kellerman

Some vignettes are a welcome addition. During one musical transition, the bearded elder who leads the sacrifice confers with a young man; after that, a circle is drawn on stage with a piece of chalk to select the Chosen One. Alice Renavand’s final solo in the role seemed stripped of all pastiche. While outwardly more contained than previous iterations — the character’s two-dimensional positions are meticulously sculptural — Brun has restored an inner urgency to her attempts to escape and trembling wait.

This Rite is an intriguing step for the Paris Opera Ballet, which has otherwise steered clear of the worldwide trend toward period reconstructions. For contrast, another Nijinsky work, Afternoon of a Faun, was subjected on the same bill to a reinvention by top contemporary choreographer Sharon Eyal. It is sculptural, too, with eight dancers in skin-coloured, skin-tight costumes putting a rippling new spin on the work’s frieze-like quality.

In ‘Faunes’, dancers put a rippling new spin on the work’s frieze-like quality © Yonathan Kellerman

Yet Eyal’s Faunes lacks a dramatic arc to make more of Debussy’s score. As for the third work on the programme, bless the Paris Opera Ballet’s heart for even attempting Frederick Ashton’s gorgeous, fiendish Rhapsody, from 1980 (with Patrick Caulfield’s garish costumes and sets, rightly ditched in London). Its swooping British style is entirely foreign to them. Ludmila Pagliero put in a gutsy effort, but the sullen faces behind her suggested Rhapsody could have used the level of care Rite received.

★★★★☆

To January 2; operadeparis.fr

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