Nicolas Le Riche. Photo © Sebastien Mathé

Nicolas Le Riche.
Photo © Sebastien Mathé

…and why that performance was memorable

Grace Milandou

It was the Parisian ballet viewer’s question of the year: ‘How can I get a ticket for Nicolas Le Riche’s farewell evening?’ The program was a mystery; a once in a lifetime event planned for the 9th of June 2014. A year before, the public was already wondering. As the season opened, seekers were advised to wait January for information on bookings. Five months of waiting. What’s so special about this performance anyway?

First, Nicolas Le Riche

There are not many great ballet soloists or performers who’ve reached his level of mastery. In the French dance world, he rightly deserves his status of talented genius.

Then, Nicolas Le Riche

Because he’s been a principal for the last twenty-one years, more than any other man in the company, and one of the greatest.

And again Nicolas Le Riche

Because he is the last dancer of the Nureyev generation, and as he leaves, a glorious page in the company’s history definitely closes. After his farewell, a long-time ballet lover and blogger, Shana, wrote on the French dance discussion website DansesPluriel, “Come back Nicolas! Come Back Rudik! Come back Isabelle! My ballet days are gone!”

During that last performance, Le Riche and Sylvie Guillem, a pair of ‘sacred monsters’ of ballet, danced the ‘pas de deux de la Porte’ from Mats Ek’s “Appartement”, bringing viewers a taste of nostalgia. The past is very dear to the Parisian Ballet lover’s heart, especially those who crave academic ballets. Nureyev’s dancers remained long after he left. He gave Le Riche his first solo part at 19. Le Riche was also one of Roland Petit’s favourites; he worked with Bejart on “Boléro” and “The Rite of Spring”, and with Mats Ek on the creation of “Appartement”. Just the thought of that legacy justified the waiting for January.

January

January brought a sibylline message from the Opera Booking service explaining that due to high demands, only a few selected people would be allowed to buy tickets for the star’s farewell performance. Among the selection criteria was having been an Opera subscriber for more than five years and having demonstrated a particular interest for ballet. Some of those would be chosen to purchase a limited amount of tickets for the coveted evening. A certain number of seats were also reserved for the honourable Association pour le rayonnement de l’Opera de Paris (AROP, Association for the development of the Paris Opera). So in January, five months before the performance, I officially gave up on the idea of attending Le Riche’s farewell evening.

Nicolas Le Riche in 'Bolero'.  Photo © Sebastien Mathé

Nicolas Le Riche in ‘Boléro’.
Photo © Sebastien Mathé

Spring ‘til June

Spring came with a few hints on the program. Nicolas Le Riche would dance “Boléro” and “Le jeune homme et la mort”. There would be guests and Sylvie Guillem might even be there.

Considering the growing discontent, June brought good news, along with the definitive program. The performance would be broadcast live in three movie theatres in Paris, and, for the first time, it would also be available online through live streaming on the Paris Opera and Arte Concert websites. Free tickets for the movie theatres would be distributed at the Palais Garnier ticket desk, two days before the performance, on a Monday morning…and who knows, there might even be a few tickets for sale for the actual venue.

July

The first motivated ballet maniacs came to the Opera desk on Sunday evening at 11:30 pm to be sure of getting a ticket. Any seat, even blind, at the Opera, or a ticket for the movie broadcast was worth having. Luckily, all those who waited long enough got what they wanted. For my part, having no time to spare to get in line for hours, I felt grateful enough for the opportunity to see the performance online.

Wednesday night

Before an evening at the Opera, I would usually spend time getting dressed, doing my hair, makeup; selecting jewellery… my usual ritual before being seen in public. Before Wednesday’s performance, I had to plug my computer to a TV and pair it to loudspeakers. It was nothing about being seen, but everything was in order for what I expected to be an anthology performance, from my couch. My living room certainly lacks the grand majesty of the Palais Garnier, and I do not own red Opera chairs. Still, the curtains are red.

Goodbye Nicolas Le Riche

The pop singer Matthieu Chedid, also known as ‘M’ stepped onstage with his blue guitar. He starts an ostinato and Nicolas Le Riche appears, dressed in a blue shirt and blue jeans. With his sweet voice, M starts a song and Nicolas dances. His choreography is a mix of all the characters he gave life to in the last 21 years. Suddenly, there they are, Siegfried, Apollo, Albrecht; he pays his respects to the spirits of Nureyev, Balanchine, Robbins, Petit. To choreographers dead or alive he dances a little prayer on a soft French song.

Then, the voice stops, the guitar continues. Nicolas turns towards the shade and then abruptly stops, makes a quick step to the side before disappearing. Quasimodo, in a wink. He comes back, a child on his shoulder. He had invited the Paris Opera Ballet School to perform excerpts of “Les forains”. Then he introduces the young Francesco, a boy whose mission it is to dance the little drummer variation the star used to perform in his school years. Whether or not these children become dancers, Le Riche offers them an experience they will cherish their whole life. An anecdotic “Raymonda” passes as one ballet fades into another.

After a first short break, Jeremie Belingard dances Nijinsky’s “L’après midi d’un faune” with the brilliant Eve Grinsztajn, a Nymph so beautiful the faun is almost forgotten.

Nicolas Le Riche in 'Le jeunne homme et la mort'.  Photo Sebastien © Mathé

Nicolas Le Riche in ‘Le jeunne homme et la mort’.
Photo Sebastien © Mathé

Roland Petit’s “Le jeune homme et la mort” is the first pinnacle point of this program. A rare moment of intensity where a generous Le Riche gives his all, desperately, every minute, in front of an imperial Eleonora Abbagnato as death. Even on a TV screen, in a small living room, that Young Man was to die for.

Guillaume Gallienne, French actor, playwright and recently acclaimed movie director reads a poem in honour of a friend who gave him his “most beautiful apnoeas”. Gallienne wrote the libretto of “Caligula”, a ballet by Le Riche, of which we saw an excerpt – Ganio as a horseman, Bezard as a jumpy horse, Le Riche as a choreographer.

That was followed by Bejart’s “Boléro”, the apotheosis of a cleverly built program. It finishes as it starts, with an ostinato, this time on a snare drum, as Le Riche appears on the red table, surrounded by a men only corps and soloists Karl Paquette and Joshua Hoffat. Le Riche dances the whole “Boléro” with a smile.

And then it was done. Time for the final bow.

Where to go  

The ritual for a principal’s farewell bow is carefully planned. At the end of the performance, after the last general curtain call, the stage reopens with the retiring dancer alone, for a final bow. Stars fall from the Chagall ceiling. They always do, as a farewell to a dance King.

Le Riche remained surrounded by his dancers. His wife came onstage with his two daughters, so he could share this moment with his family. An old lady with a black purse in her hands came onstage, her hair carefully tied in a Grace Kelly bun and an evening dress. The dancer came to her, kissed and hugged her. It was Claude Bessy, his childhood ballet master.

When the curtain finally fell, there were neither cocktails nor ceremony. The magic left my living room. I rushed to twitter and dance blogs, looking for a little dance conversation online. Sometimes, what we share after a performance makes it last a little longer.

An image sticks, suspended into my mind. A dancer dressed in blue, sliding whiled M sings, asking “Where to go, where?” Où aller, où?

Nicolas Le Riche’s farewell performance can be seen in full until October on Arte Concert