Palais Garnier, Paris, France; September 29, 2013

Grace Milandou

Last March, after a laborious performance of Neumeier’s “Mahler 3rd Symphony” by the Paris Opera Ballet, I heard a teenage girl telling her friend: “You see, ballet is like that: very impressive, girls dance on pointe shoes, they jump and do all this stuff with their body you cannot imagine, but there are no emotions. Emotions are only for modern dance!”

As much as I disagree with this stance, I could understand how, after what we had just experienced, someone could conceive detachment as being part of ballet DNA.

But to that girl or anyone who has ever doubted the emotional potential of French ballet style, I would advise that they watch POB in “The Lady of the Camellias”.  This ballet, also by John Neumeier, entered the Opera repertoire in 2006 and is a piece the company can render better than the choreographer’s massive abstract frescoes. The plot, an end of 19th century French drama, is a classical case of love ‘till death,  taking you into a whirlwind of Chopin, endless portes, love, night visions and despair.

Isabelle Ciaravola, the artist

Isabelle Ciaravola is one of the three étoiles retiring this season and tonight was her last appearance in “Lady of Camellias”. Her impersonation of Marguerite Gautier was a lesson of arts and style. Both her acting and dancing were stunning. She personified French style at its best, never being below nor beyond the point of perfection, which made her acting so moving. She was colourful, human and yet sublime. Her technique was flawless.

Much has been said of her long legs and wonderful feet, but the impressive lightness in her arms helped her float in effortless grace. She might be a tall dancer but her clever use of her upper body makes her appear weightless.

Karl Paquette, her partner on stage, is also the company’s best Armand Duval.  Particularly moving in his despair, he was stunning in the pas de deux. There was a strong chemistry between the two artists. Though the female parts in this ballet sometimes overpower the male parts, he gave the ballerina the best counterpoint to her performance.

Myriam Ould Braham danced the secondary role of Manon, whose story parallels Marguerite’s and haunts her night visions. Ould Braham had a shy beginning; her Manon ignores Marguerite until Act III. Even in their pas de deux, there was no real connection between the two of them – Marguerite clearly outshone Manon. Only in their last scene together, as they are both close to death, did they really connect, Manon soothing Marguerite in all delicacy.

Though sometimes imprecise, the corps de ballet was well involved, making a particularly beautiful second act.

We mustn’t forget Neumeier’s version of “Lady of Camellias” is also a three hour musical performance for pianists, even more demanding than a classical recital because of its length and the difficulty of the pieces chosen. Played by two pianists: one onstage, the other in the orchestral pit, Chopin was at his best.

So, detachment?

Tonight, after giving the artists a lengthy (fifteen minute) ovation, a clearly moved audience went about discussing how magnificent the performance was, and how much a dancing body could express. Already, during the intermission, I heard my neighbour gasp, “this is so much better than Traviata! The feelings these dancers express with their body cannot be expressed with voice.”

It would be pointless to compare Neumeier and Verdi, or ballet to opera. But tonight’s memorable performance, where the part of Marguerite Gautier was taken to new heights, also put Ballet back into its right place. More than an impressive gymnastic performance, it is an art, and it is sublime. In the choreographer’s production, this piece could stand as a manifesto: a big yes to moving and being moved.