Jean-Guillaume Bart’s ‘La Source’—A New Image of Classical

Written by Steve Ha

Ludmila Pagliero in Jean-Guillame Bart’s La Source
Photo by Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau

SIFF’s first screening of a ballet on film this season was the Paris Opera Ballet’s new production of La Source, a 19th century ballet once lost to time and now reinvented by choreographer and former principal dancer of the Paris Opera, Jean-Guillaume Bart. La Source is Bart’s first major choreographic work, and longtime artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre took considerable risk in granting Bart the opportunity to realize his dream of recreating the ballet. Her conviction was clear—directors cannot afford to invest the amount of time and resources necessary to create a full-length ballet in someone they do not believe in (especially with ornate costumes designed by couturier Christian Lacroix, rich in moody colors and glittering with Swarovski crystals). If only there was a larger audience in Seattle to have seen and known of it.

Originally choreographed by balletmaster Arthur Saint-Léon to a score by both Léon Minkus and Léo Delibes, La Source follows a rather confusing (even by ballet standards) libretto, which takes place in the Caucusus, where a young hunter Djémil, becomes enamored with Nouredda, a woman en route to marry the Khan of Ghendjib. When Djémil obtains a flower Nouredda desires, she initially rejects him, and Djémil is nearly beaten to death by Nouredda’s brother Mozdock. Left for dead, Djémil is then rescued by Naïla, the nymph of a spring who has fallen in love with him and promises to help him find Nouredda and seek revenge. In Act II, the Khan welcomes Nouredda to his palace, and during celebrations, Djémil appears in disguise and produces a magic flower that summons Naïla. The Khan is taken with Naïla and dismisses a humiliated Nouredda, also enraging Mozdock. When Djémil tries again to declare his love for Nouredda, Mozdock happens upon them and is about to kill Djémil (for good this time), when Naïla and her magic flower save the day. Nouredda falls unconscious, and Djémil carries her away but is unable to resuscitate her, prompting Naïla to use another magic flower, and sacrifice herself in order to revive Nouredda. If it sounds as ridiculous as a messy hodgepodge of Le Corsaire, Giselle, and Ondine—it’s because it is.

Paris Opera Ballet in La Source
Photo by Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau

Though Bart worked with a dramaturge to flesh out the story, it has obvious problems that render La Source conducive to being an audience “unfriendly” ballet. It is virtually impossible to relate to the main characters whose actions are largely inexplicable, and even the supposedly tragic end of Naïla sacrificing herself to save Nouredda has no gravity. The magic flower is a perfunctory symbol with little purpose or discernible limits in power, and the addition of characters like Dadjé, a favorite in the Khan’s harem, and the mischievous elf Zaël, while providing significant dancing roles, do little to drive the plot. The mixed score, with its inconsistencies between Minkus and Delibes, also exacerbate the progression of the story, and because Bart also chose to eliminate mime scenes, there are few indicators of what is actually going on, and the audience is left with no reprieve from the dancing. As it is, Bart’s La Source is almost entirely danced through from beginning to end, and without a highly developed story, it almost comes across like a symphonic ballet, except over 2 hours long, with mind-numbing results. Classical ballets also have a tendency to include iconic moments that construct some semblance of a story arc, things that first time ballet goers remember for a lifetime and seasoned balletomanes wait in anticipation for—the mad scene in Giselle, the Rose Adagio of The Sleeping Beauty, the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère, the White and Black Swan pas de deux of Swan LakeLa Source offers none, further flatlining its already insipid libretto, and causing the ballet to move at a painfully slow pace.

Matthias Heymann in La Source
Photo by Opéra national de Paris/A. Deniau

However, a few things are certain—the Paris Opera Ballet is a wonder to behold, and Bart is a remarkably gifted choreographer. His sensitivity to the music is innate, and manifested in creative, highly complex sequences of steps that are a feast for the eyes. The influences of the masters are all there, with certain steps and poses paying their subtle respects and maintaining a perception of the art of choreography as a transmissible folklore. One of the highlights was the marvelous petit allegro for Zaël and his quartet of elves, which was highly reminiscent of August Bournonville and Frederick Ashton, perhaps with a dash of George Balanchine, and Matthias Heymann delighted in fleet-footed wonder as the green elf. The pas de deux contained elements of MacMillan, with stunning lines by Ludmila Pagliero (Naïla) and Isabelle Ciaravola (Nouredda), who exhibited the refinement in technique of the French school, showing the most exquisite turnout with the leg extended forward at a tasteful 90 degrees. The entire company is, of course, the picture of elegance, as is the production itself, though the modernized set design offered something of an odd contrast to the more traditional costuming.

Bart certainly has great taste and an eye for the chic; if his first ballet is any indication, he has an incredible future as a choreographer. One can only hope that his next project will have a far more suitable story for his talents. The world of classical ballet seems to constantly wonder who will be the next gifted storyteller and give the audience the new story ballets it craves, and it may very well be that of all the current prospects, Bart has made the biggest impression with his first ballet in La Source. Though the ballet itself is not riveting, excitement lies in an in-depth glimpse of his potential.

SIFF offers a number of dance films this season. Visit their site to find out more: http://www.siff.net/cinema/index.aspx.