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Thursday, April 28, 2011

New DVD set offers three contemporary works from the Paris Opera Ballet

The new DVD box set The Paris Opera Ballet from BelAir Classiques compiles three recent contemporary evening-length works originally filmed for French television: Angelin Preljocaj's Le Parc, Carolyn Carlson's Signes and Roland Petit's Proust.

The directorial choices in filming the ballets seem well-considered and wise. Oftentimes, filmed ballet can be disappointing: It's frustrating to watch an intimate duet that looks as though it was filmed in a long shot from the highest balcony or an ensemble piece that's shot in close-up that rushes around trying to track the movement. In some films, we're either offered a single static shot of the entire stage or worse: directors will go for a series of fast cuts to try to capture the rhythm and motion of the performance.

But here those problems are averted. The films offer a nice balance, a natural rhythm, between long-shots and close-ups. There's a relaxed quality—an aesthetic exhaling—rather than an anxiety about catching every last movement in its entirety. The filmmakers understand that a story can be told by what's left out of the frame as much as by what's left in: A beautiful close-up of a dancer's slow-moving arm, when caught at the right moment, doesn't make us miss the fact that we can't see her foot.

Angelin Preljocaj's Le Parc was a huge hit when it was staged at the Paris Opera Ballet in the 90s; it made the choreographer a household name in France, and it has been staged and restaged many times in Paris and on other stages in Europe. The ballet is an examination of 18th century ideas about romantic love and erotic entanglements (think Dangerous Liaisons) set to music by Mozart. Preljocaj has a way with creating and arranging memorable images and tableaux that build into a cohesive and dramatic whole: male and female, servant and master, love, betrayal, shame, lust, intimacy, they're all woven into the tapestry here. Le Parc is the box set's artistic home run.

The movement style in Proust will satisfy those looking for recognizably traditional balletic movement in contemporary work. Set to music by classical composers like Beethoven, Wagner and Debussy, the story ballet dramatizes several vignettes from Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. The story of Monsieur de Charlus, told over several “chapters” at the center of the ballet, is a masterpiece in miniature. Though the movement is compelling throughout, the work is at its strongest when tied to specific characters in narrative situations: the more abstract chapters, particularly at the beginning, were less compelling.

Signes, while certainly not a bad production, was the weakest link here. Olivier Debré, the Zenlike, quiet, masterly grandfather of French abstract painting, and Carolyn Carlson, the voluble, spirited, assertive American choreographer are both great artists, but they're clearly not a match. The little documentary extra showing the behind-the-scenes collaboration catches some uncomfortable moments, and Carlson in her interviews mostly recounts little tiffs and frictions. You could do worse than Signes, but somehow it doesn't live up to the promise of the talents involved. Though Debré's sets are breath-taking and Carlson's choreography is lovely, there's a failure to mesh the visions in any meaningful or compelling way. (René Aubry's score is great and seems to have survived the inauspicious collaboration unscathed).

Pointing out that a recording doesn't quite measure up to being there is something of a cliché, but in the case of dance it's usually true. Video flattens things: dance takes place in three dimensions, and the immediacy of dance, which is its lifeblood, is often absent from a recording. But I don't always have the time to make it to my pied-a-terre in Paris to use my season tickets to the Paris Opera Ballet, and when I do have the time, I'm confronted with the harsh reality that I don't have a pied-a-terre in Paris or season tickets to anything. In the meantime, the box set will have to do. Fortunately, they're well-made videos comprised of smartly and carefully considered documentation of three great live performances by one of the world's best companies.

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