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Bel/ Millepied/ Robins – Paris Opera, 5 Feb

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A return ticket for the opening night became available the evening I arrived in Paris earlier this week (what a week to be there, dance wise!). I hadn’t previously seen any choreography by Bel or Millepied (or even heard of Bel) however thought “if all fails, at least I’ll enjoy the music to Robbin’s Goldberg Variations”. As it turned out, the piece by Bel was my definite favourite and Goldberg Variations was the piece that I liked least last night. I am writing this as someone who does not tend to watch contemporary dance as too much of what I’ve seen so far wasn’t much too my taste.


Jérôme Bel’s Tombe (grave) has its title from Giselle’s grave in act 2 of Giselle. The stage shows a tombstone, the scenery trees to both sides as well as the back of the stage. An article in the weekend magazine of Le Monde yesterday explained that Giselle is the preferred ballet of the dancers in Tombe. The piece is set in three parts, each related to Giselle. In each section, a male dancer from the company is paired with a woman with whom they would normally never be able to share the stage – a woman who worked in a supermarket close to where one of the dancers trained (NB the review in Le Monde today says that the woman is a baby sitter – in which case I misunderstood last night), a woman in a wheelchair, a woman well beyond eighty years old.

The first part starts with a dialogue between a man and a woman from off stage (I actually missed the first sentence, thinking it’d be a stage announcement that had gone wrong). The man explains, in a very warm and gentle manner, the scenery on stage and the story of act 1 of Giselle, and the man and the woman walk on stage and continue their dialogue. He (the male dancer) explains how the scenery can be moved and how the spotlights can be used. He has a spotlight directed onto the woman (the woman who had worked in a supermarket close to where the dancer had trained// the babysitter based on the review in Le Monde), and she asks whether he is also in the spotlight. He replies that no and explains “I am in the corps the ballet, I dance behind the soloists” (this produced laughter in the audience, and I thought, what a link to comments about hierarchy in the press this week). He has the lights switched on in the auditorium, and upon seeing her amazement, explains to the woman some of the wonders of the auditorium (the golden paint, the ornaments that look like jewels). She hands her phone to a technician off stage (who is actually the choreographer) and starts to dance – disco style - to music that she has on her phone (modern music that I presume will be on French radio at the moment), and he joins in with a few jumps. They then sit down near the edge of the stage to watch what happens next.

The second part sees mist flowing in on stage, music from Giselle and Albrecht – in Albrecht costume and with a bouquet of flowers – coming on stage, looking for Giselle. Giselle – in Giselle costume – rolls across the stage in a wheelchair, and Albrecht keeps missing her a few times. He finally sees her and begins to dance with her while she is in her wheelchair. In lifting her overhead and upside down, it becomes clear why the woman is in a wheelchair – one of her legs has been amputated below the knee. He puts her back down and they dance some more. At the end, he gently sits down on her lap, and she rolls offstage with him.

The third part has the male dancer walking on stage and explain that unfortunately that the woman he had chosen to perform with would be unable to do so. With great appreciation, he talked about the woman – a woman well into her eighties, who had come to the Opera House since the late 1940s and followed his career from the start, always talking to him when he left the building after a performance. With palpable pain in his voice and face, he explained that he had received a call that the woman had been hospitalised and wasn’t well. And that he and the choreographer had chosen to show a video of the most recent rehearsal with the woman. And so he sat down on stage and watched the video together with the audience, showing him gently guiding the elderly woman across the rehearsal room in small and slow steps, and repeatedly gently and carefully lifting her.

What started as intriguing and funny in the first part quickly became hugely thought provoking and charged with emotions in the second and third parts. The modern choreography was tailored to the personal situation of each woman with immense sensitivity, and it showed the dancers with a connection to their environment outside the opera building. Powerful and courageous; kudos to the choreographer and to everyone on stage, in particular the three women.


Millepied’s piece “La nuit s’achève” (“The night ends”) comes in two parts. In the first part, three couples, clothed in warm red, raspberry and blue day wear (dresses and trousers/ shirts) dance in combinations of short PDD and male or female solos, duets and trios. The clothing in the second part changes to night wear (pyjamas and night dresses in white, dark grey, dark blue or black), the dancing switches to long PDD of the three couples. The choreography is fluid and musical, jumps are mostly small and lifts are mostly low level. There are geometric patterns in the first part where often all three couples or dancers perform the same movement, then one couple/ dancer starts another movement which the next couple/ dancer repeats a few counts later, the same for the third couple/ dancer, and then all three couples/ dancers become synchronised again.


My main impression of Robbin’s Goldberg Variations was that it was long, very long. Maybe it was the pure length of the ballet (80 minutes), maybe it was that the music that played very slowly (similar to the 1981 Gould version whereas I much prefer the faster 1955 recording). In each of the two parts, dancers perform in combinations of solos, duets, trios, quartets, up to larger formations, and each part has three leading couples. Dancers change costumes – an introductory couple in period costume later dances in practice clothing, others who start in practice clothing later change into costumes. I found it difficult to identify individuals however from an attempt to match names in the cast sheet against their role in the ballet against the position in the company, I got the impression that the relatively more junior dancers who were having a prominent role in the ballet enjoyed it more, in particular with regards to the male dancers. On a few occasions though, a male dancer put their partner back on the floor when they hadn’t fully disappeared yet into the wings, and a few lifts looked like they were an effort. However maybe I was looking at these details in much more detail than usual, given the various comments about standards, so I would not want to overemphasise this.


The audience reacted a lot more positively to Millepied’s piece than the other two. “Tombe” received applause mixed with some sounds of “uuuh” where I wasn’t sure whether this was a local form of booing or of showing appreciation. “La nuit s’achève” received repeated enthusiastic ovations, in particular when Millepied came on stage. The applause for Goldberg Variations was sufficient for a few curtain calls however seemed rather polite following the enthusiasm after “La nuit s’achève”. Or maybe people were tired at the end of the evening – at least I was.


If anyone reading this post happens to attend one of the performances – last night ended a good 20 minutes later than advertised in the cast sheet so total running time was 3 hours 20 minutes; and some knowledge of French is really useful for the first piece.





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An interesting review - and a very long evening. I wonder whether the orchestra was paid extra.


Goldberg Variations was played by a solo pianist so if there was extra payment (I am not aware of the arrangements at Paris Opera) it will have only affected one person (I don't know about technicians/ ushers, etc.).

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Thanks for that lovely review, Duck.  The Bel piece sounds fascinating, and what a great concept.  I would love to be able to see it.  Your review is the next best thing.  Thank you.


Many thanks, Sim!

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Tombe is Bel's second work for the company. His Véronique Doisneau was a touching solo piece for a dancer on the eve of retirement. Can be seen on YouTube.


Thank you for pointing to YouTube, John, I watched this earlier today. The fact that the final performance of Véronique Doisneau was filmed and the words translated makes me hopeful that the same may be the case with Tombe so that it can be kept for posterity and made available more widely.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Tombe had touched me immensely when I saw it on 5 Feb, in particular Benjamin Pech, when he described the elderly woman he had chosen to dance with, and in the related video that that was shown – he had come across as genuinely sincere and generous. And so … I went back for the final performance on 20 Feb, which was also his farewell from the stage, having reached the retirement age at POB. To mark the occasion, Millepied’s La Nuit s’achève was replaced by Robbins’ In the Night (of which Pech danced the first part with Dorothée Gilbert), and the final PDD from Prelocaj’s Le Parc was added as final piece (which Pech shared with one of his regular partners, Eleonora Abbagnato). An emotional evening.


Whereas in seeing Tombe for the first time, I had a lump at the back of my throat towards the end, this time I was in tears throughout (not helped, I guess, by the fact that I had read just about everything that had been published on this piece over the last two weeks!). The audience reacted a lot more welcoming than on the opening night, with just one loud “boo” once the curtain was down, which however was quickly outnumbered by loud shouts of “bravo” … an interesting experience! … however the applause was still modest compared to that in response to the subsequent pieces. While extracts of the second and third parts are now available on the web, I still hope that the whole piece has been filmed and will be made public, and this with a translation into English.


In the Night does not feature in the current season and so, with its just one performance, seemed to suffer a little from the lack of repetitions. I had certainly been more moved by performances at the ROH of this ballet in recent years as the different moods of the three parts had been more distinct there (or maybe I just saw specific casts at the ROH too often and thus used those as benchmark?).


I warmed to Goldberg Variations even if it remains rather long. It did help that I counted the variations during the ballet (though that’s also what I do when I walk up a long flight of stairs as a means of self-motivation), and I could see patterns of interactions among dancers emerging in the first part, plus I enjoyed the dancing by the principal cast in the second part more (e.g., lifts looked easier, no wobbles in arabesque on demi point).


The final PDD “Abandon” from Le Parc. What can I say. If Clavigo includes a kiss than brings the house down, even more so for Le Parc. The woman puts her arms around the man’s neck and they kiss, he starts to turn, as a result the woman’s legs lift off the floor so she appears to fly, and so they turn and turn and turn. Beyond that flying kiss, the whole PDD bringing a sense of abandoning oneself in the love for and the being together with the other person, full of passion and tenderness, full of natural expression. Transferring this from the love of another person to the love of dance - what a choice for a final performance on stage! 


20-minute standing ovation by the whole house, flowers, stars raining down on Benjamin Pech. I wish I had discovered this wonderful dancer earlier.


That's me for Paris for a while I guess (sadly).




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