Pit, Paris Opera Ballet review — cocktail-party dance goes Gaga

The past few weeks have been a study in contrasts at the Paris Opera Ballet. On the one hand, the French company brought unexpected pizzazz to Who cares?, George Balanchine’s 1970 tribute to Gershwin, and celebrated a promotion spree: in the space of a fortnight, new director José Martinez appointed three new principals, including the troupe’s very first black étoile, Guillaume Diop.

And then there is Pit, a world premiere that dampens the mood. There were reasons to be hopeful: Bobbi Jene Smith and Or Schraiber, the choreographic duo behind it, are former dancers with Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company and fluent in its expressive Gaga technique, which lends movement an exhilarating, full-bodied sweep. While they are relatively unknown in Europe, they presented a strong piece, Quartet for Five, as part of an LA Dance Project bill last autumn in Paris.

There are flashes in Pit of the qualities that were evident then. Here and there, Smith and Schraiber meet the score — Jean Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and ominous additions by Celeste Oram — with fiery precision. Their version of Gaga comes with a special attention to the hands, which provide the impetus for many interactions, whether they’re caressing, pushing back or pointing to the floor.

Yet Pit as a whole is oddly unfocused. It starts like a film noir, with the 19-strong cast dressed for a glamorous cocktail party. Hints of aggression manifest as the dancers size each other up around a large central platform, engage in slow dances and, soon enough, launch into angst-ridden solos and pas de deux. Women keep throwing themselves at men who behave poorly — a dated malaise reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s 1978 Kontakthof, which was performed by many of the same dancers at the Palais Garnier in December.

The choreography in ‘Pit’ pays special attention to the hands © Yonathan Kellerman

Pit progresses similarly, through random, Tanztheater-style incidents. The lead violinist, Petteri Iivonen, walks up from the pit (get it?) to the stage. There, a dancer attempts to strangle him in between scenes; at one point, he shoots with a rifle towards the ceiling, and pheasants fall from above. Dancers undress, humiliate each other, scramble to find their shoes. Good Tanztheater weaves narratives out of such vignettes, but Pit never commits to any scene or relationship long enough to provide emotional or dramaturgical development.

Blame lies in part with the Paris Opera. Ballet companies have the lucky option of trying out choreographers in mixed bills, a less exposed setting that allows both parties to get to know each other. Under Martinez’s predecessor, Aurélie Dupont (who programmed Pit), that system was sacrificed in search of bigger coups — leaving the company with a string of unwieldy, mediocre productions. Martinez has already started to shake things up. Let’s hope commissioning is next.


To March 30, operadeparis.fr



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