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French connection: Paris Opera Ballet alights with grace upon the Hollywood Bowl stage

World-class ballet is a transient in Los Angeles. All other genres of Western classical performing arts — orchestral, chamber music, operatic, even choral — have seen resident ensembles flourish since the founding of The Music Center in the 1960s. Yet with all due respect to folks like the Los Angeles Ballet led by Thordal Christensen and L.A. Dance Project with Benjamin Millepied who make nice contributions when and where they can, the region has not had a noteworthy local company offer prominent annual seasons of something non-Nutcracker since 1992; that was the year the Joffrey Ballet decamped from the Dorothy Chandler and ended its decade-long run as a bi-coastal presence. Since then, Angelenos, namely the big donors that fund such endeavors and the audiences that justify such expenses, seem content on importing dancers and productions from other parts of the USA to grace Southern California stages. When the most famous of these companies arrive, support is enthusiastic.

So it was this past Thursday when the Paris Opera Ballet joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic for the second of two nights at the Hollywood Bowl. If you have to import classical ballet, you might as well go for the top, and the self-described “cradle of classical dance” had no trouble filling the seats (and parking lots) as much as star conductors or instrumental soloists. Gustavo Dudamel, Music Director of both ensembles (with the added “Artistic Director” honor for the orchestra), was on the podium and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, French native turned Angeleno, added star power of their own while also adding some connectivity between the Parisian visitors and the local band. Yet despite their presence and formidable contributions of the LA Phil, there was no mistaking it for a classical music concert: this was first and foremost a presentation of elite dancers with some elite musicians providing luxurious accompaniment.

The Parisians presented a nice mix of classical and contemporary ballet from composers whose Bowl presence ranged from ubiquitous (Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Debussy) to rare (Auber). You didn’t have to be a ballet aficionado to be impressed, with the most memorable aspects coming in unexpected ways.

Most striking was Faune, the company’s interpretation of Debussy’s Prelude à l’aprèsmidi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) choreographed by Sharon Eyal, which closed the first half. The ensemble of eight dancers sinuously contorted themselves through a series of small curvilinear movements and poses in a way that was as antithetical to the stereotypical long-lines, extensions, and athleticism of classical dance as it is to the angular, jaggedness of Martha Graham. It felt completely organic even if it looked more alien than cervine. Underneath was Debussy’s score, expertly played by the orchestra and shaped by Mr. Dudamel. Principal Flute Denis Bouriakov was ravishing in the prominent solos. Taken together, it was mesmerizing.

The Pas de deux from Le Parc, danced to the Adagio from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major and featuring choreography by Angelin Preljocaj, was equally compelling. Laura Hecquet and Germain Louve, two of the company’s official “Étoiles” (literally, “stars”), were superb, imbuing the piece with a sense innocence and wonder. Angelin Preljocaj’s contemporary choreography was full of technical difficulties yet remained approachable. The combination of 21st Century aesthetics and 18th century soundtrack made the whole experience seem timeless. Mr. Thibaudet played the piano solo with the perfect sense of lightness and freedom to match the choreography without stretching phrasing in ways that would have conflicted with how the concerto would be played on its own. Mr. Dudamel and orchestra were similarly up to the task.

Trois Gnossienne by Erik Satie gave Mr. Thibaudet more room for pianstic freedom and expressivity, and he took just enough to demonstrate his mastery of the genre while always being supportive of Ludmila Pagliero (Étoile) and Florian Magnenet (Premier danseur). The pair maneuvered through the technical challenges of Hans van Manen’s contemporary choreography with strength and style.

Two classical dance pieces served as the night’s bookends. Auber’s Grand Pas classique was the ebullient opener. The French composer’s music is cheery, easy to digest Romantic-era fare, and it provided ample opportunities for Valentine Colasante (Étoile) and Marc Moreau (Premier danseur) to dazzle with a panoply of leaps and fancy footwork. At the end of the concert, the finale of Schubert’s 9th Symphony, ”The Great,” provided the foundation for The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. With the women — Ms. Colasante, Hannah O’Neill (Première danseuse), and Marine Ganio (Sujet) — in bright lime green and the men — Pasul Marque (Étoile) and Pablo Legasa (Premier danseur) — in aubergine, it was a colorful and non-stop explosion of energy and artistry.

The Dying Swan gave Dorothée Gilbert (Étoile) the chance for a solo turn on stage, dancing the title role with poignancy. Mikhail Fokine’s classical choreography was set to “The Swan” from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, with Mr. Thibaudet and especially Principal Cello Robert deMaine melting hearts with their moving accompaniment. Similarly, Clair de lune provided Germain Louvet (Étoile) an opportunity in the spotlight for himself, though Mr. Thibaudet’s enchanting take on Debussy’s famous score overshadowed Alastair Marriott’s choreography.

The Pas de deux from Act II Swan Lake was, surprisingly, the part that stuck out to me the least. There was nothing wrong with Sae Eun Park (Étoile) and Mr. Marque as they gave their all, nor with Mr. Dudamel and the LA Phil giving Tchaikovsky’s iconic music a worthy interpretation. Rudolf Nureyev certainly gave the choreography an elevated pedigree. Perhaps the technical and artistic subtleties just went over my head or there were details that I didn’t notice, but in the end, it was the piece that I was least interested in seeing again for whatever reason.

What didn’t go unnoticed was the technical skills of the audio-visual crew at the Bowl. The orchestra and soloists sounded quite good overall and spectacular when grading on a Bowl curve: the combination of clarity, warmth, and blend was as good as I can remember. The camera work was equally skillfull. Dancers were framed wide enough to show their whole bodies, even when whizzing across the stage, but with enough detail to see that their faces matched their publicity headshots from the program. Lighting was mostly simple, yet effective, with the slow shifts in color pallette during the two Debussy works being most notable without ever being jarring.

Given Mr. Dudamel’s leadership positions here and in France, there’s a good chance the Paris Opera Ballet will find its way back to Southern California in the near future. The LA artistic scene would certainly be better off for it.

More importantly, their appearances could help catalyze more demand for performances from the local dance companies. Let’s remember that Walt Disney Concert Hall was all but dead until key donors experienced Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the LA Phil in the excellent acoustics of the Châtelet Theatre in Paris. Perhaps a different French connection will launch a renaissance of classical dance in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Philharmonic: July 21, 2022; Hollywood Bowl
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Robert deMaine, cello
Paris Opera Ballet

  • Auber: Grand Pas classique
  • Mozart: Pas de deux from Le Parc (Adagio from Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488)
  • Tchaikovsky: Pas de deux from Swan Lake, Act II
  • Debussy: Faunes (Prelude à l’aprèsmidi d’un faune)
  • Saint-Saens: The Dying Swan (“The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals)
  • Satie: Trois Gnossiennes
  • Debussy: Clair de lune
  • Schubert: The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude (Finale from Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944)


Photo credits: Brett Johnson via his Instagram page

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