Fresh Take on Classical Dance at Lyon Opera Ballet

In terms of ballet, Seattleites are privileged to have a top-notch company conveniently located in the very heart of our city. However, as spoiled as we are by Pacific Northwest Ballet, one should still pay attention when visiting troupes come bearing new and unique windows into the magical art of classical dance. France’s Lyon Opera Ballet, which opened at the UW World Series on Thursday, April 16, was a perfect example of a new take on familiar movement. First created in 1969 by Lyon Opera Director Louis Erlo, the present Lyon Opera Ballet was established in 1984 when Mr. Erlo invited Françoise Adret to create a new ballet company committed to post-modern choreographers. At UW’s Meany Hall, these contemporary ballet dancers slid and slunk across the stage. Rather than simply creating lovely shapes, they moved with an authentic curiosity to explore their physical boundaries in a way that modern dance could admire.

Lyon Opera Ballet in Benjamin Millepied's Sarabande Photo by Michel Cavalca
Lyon Opera Ballet in Benjamin Millepied’s Sarabande
Photo by Michel Cavalca

The program was composed of three different pieces choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, former New York City Ballet principal who starred alongside his famous wife, Natalie Portman, in Black Swan; William Forsythe (a treat for those who loved PNB’s all-Forsythe program); and Emanuel Gat, an Israeli choreographer who has worked with major companies across Europe.

 

When the curtain came up on Millepied’s Sarabande (the first of two dances on the program set to Bach), a lone flute provided the impetus for a male soloist’s playful twisting movements, arabesque turns and hops. Later, more dancers, as well as the violin, were added to create an elegant pairing of music and motion. Clad in colorful, checkered button-downs and slacks, dancers Julian Nicosia, Alexis Bourbeau, Adrien Delépine, and Mathieu Rouvière shared the piece with solos, duets, and group partnering. Like any work so inspired by the music, there’s a risk of predictability. Millepied navigated this challenge by keeping the dancers’ vocabulary casual, as if improvising. This was seen in a skimming motion across the floor with low retiré and neutral turn-out, allowing the thrust of the dancers’ pelvises to help them fly across the stage. At times, this turned into an exciting slide or a launch-pad for a dancer to be catapulted across the stage by the others.

Lyon Opera Ballet in William Forsythe's Steptext Photo by Jaime Roque de la Cruz
Lyon Opera Ballet in William Forsythe’s Steptext
Photo by Jaime Roque de la Cruz

Viewers who want to simply enjoy a dance may not have cared for Forsythe’s Steptext, next on the program. But, if one likes a little more to chew on, the piece offered some compelling themes. It expertly commanded attention from the start. After Millepied’s work, the program called for a brief pause, during which the house lights were brought up. However, when one of the Forsythe dancers appeared on stage with the house lights still on, the audience quickly quieted and breathlessly watched the minimalistic arm movements that marked the beginning of the piece. It was as if the full lights made the audience more vulnerable, as if any cough or slight movement would be noticed. Forsythe’s dance for three men and one woman was technically set to Bach’s “Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor,” but the choreographer fragmented the score, not allowing his audience the satisfaction of hearing the music progress, or the choreography climax at predictable times.

 

Similarly, at certain crucial moments in the dancing, the stage went black; when the lights returned, the dancers were in a new arrangement, waiting to begin a new phrase. Steptext was the powerhouse of the night, and interestly enough, the only time the audience saw a dancer in pointe shoes. All the performers were ferocious and charged, allowing the genius of Forsythe to shine in all its colors. But the lone female dancer in the crimson unitard, Ashley Wright, proved irresistible; she danced with both clarity and sensuality.

Lyon Opera Ballet in Emanuel Gat's Sunshine Photo by Michel Cavalca
Lyon Opera Ballet in Emanuel Gat’s Sunshine
Photo by Michel Cavalca

Forsythe’s piece actively challenged its audience and their perception of what it means to watch a dance. Emanuel Gat’s Sunshine, the evening’s finale, also challenged its audience and stepped outside the bounds of conventionality, but the result was far less satisfying. Gat clearly asked the nine dancers to improvise, play, and create their own phrases within a certain framework during the creative process. The movements, which were connected by running, walking, observing others, and rolling on the floor, were certainly authentic, and they often resulted in spatial configurations far too dazzling and complex to have been constructed through traditional choreographic methods. However, the piece offered a single, long stretch of these different configurations without much change in dynamics. Similarly, the score, comprised of backstage-type noises of random chatter, orchestra tuning and snippets of Handel’s “Water Music,” didn’t add any other punctuation marks to the run-on dance.

 

Whether or not it was intentional, the entire evening followed an interesting arc. First, Millepied aimed to embody the music. Forsythe played with adding and removing music at crucial moments. And finally, Gat created a dance without music, then layered it over the choreography after the piece was completed. These diverse approaches to the music and dance relationship, in addition to the supple and virtuosic performers, provided ample opportunity to connect with ballet in new and exciting ways.

To learn more about the Lyon Opera Ballet, visit the company’s website.

Correction: An earlier version of this review stated that Dorothée Delabie was the dancer in Forsythe’s Steptext. Due to dancer injury, this role was danced by Ashley Wright.