Opéra Bastille, Paris, France; June 30, 2014

Grace Milandou

Notre-Dame de Paris (040). Eleonora Abbagnato and Nicolas Le Riche in Notre Dame de Paris.  Photo © Anne Deniau

Eleonora Abbagnato and Nicolas Le Riche in ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’.
Photo © Anne Deniau

In the pantheon of great French ballet masters, Roland Petit holds a very special place. He is both loved and hated; many productions (other than “Le Jeune Homme et La Mort”) are slowly fading out of companies’ repertoire. “Notre-Dame de Paris” is one of those, falling out of fashion for its deemed ‘out dated’ roots in the 60s. Personally, I had never liked much from Roland Petit except for “Le Jeune Homme” and had avoided his work. But tonight I saw “Notre-Dame de Paris”, its first reprise in thirteen years.

Petit’s works are very modern compared to other ballets of his time. However, they still use a very academic chorographical language. His aesthetic is a balletic witness of the 60s, with music, colors and movements of his time. There is very little left of Victor Hugo in his interpretation; “Notre-Dame” is more of a punk ballet.

Because I had avoided his work, I didn’t understand the nature of Petit’s choreography. He likes his main characters to be outcasts. Carmen and Esmeralda are not princesses but scandalous gypsies. His young man is sad and suicidal, and he went as far as to choreograph Quasimodo’s handicap. Instead of immaterial fair blonde ballerinas, Petit preferred his characters to be dark incandescent brunettes – hair colors have importance for him. In “Notre Dame de Paris”, Esmeralda and Quasimodo must be dark haired, Phoebus has to be blond. In this performance, Eleonora Abbagnato, who made a career out of dancing Petit, empowered the poisonous Esmeralda with her strong warrior personality. The beautiful Italian, recognizable for her long blond hair often goes through transformations for Petit’s ballets.

My main purpose for coming to the Bastille this week was to see Nicolas Le Riche in one of his favorite parts. In nine days, he will give a special farewell performance, marking his official retirement from the Paris Opera Ballet. He is a dancer of a rare quality. His art of gesture and pantomime is in the lineage of Nijinsky and Charles Jude. He has fiery fast turns, light jumps, and poetic tenderness. When he steps onstage, he goes back to his childhood – the childhood of a 20 years old virtuoso, even at the age of 42.

Finishing his career with the company as Quasimodo is a very special choice. Some consider Frollo as the main male soloist part, because he has more occasions to shine while Quasimodo must be ugly and disgraceful. Most dancers wouldn’t go for that in their last performance. Nureyev himself criticized Petit’s choreography for Quasimodo, for including too much pantomime and not enough dance. His attempt to improve it by incorporating more ‘dance’ made the choreographer irate.

Nicolas Le Riche in 'Notre-Dame de Paris'. Photo © Anne Deniau

Nicolas Le Riche in ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’.
Photo © Anne Deniau

It takes a very special kind of artist to embody this romantic character, touch the heart of his audience, and give humanity and so much tenderness to the hunchback as to make him unforgettable. There are no pyrotechnics to impress, but Le Riche shone in his ability to display Quasimodo’s field of emotions. His relationship to Frollo remained complex, his love for Esmeralda evident, the pas de deux between the two brilliant.

It seems to me the story appealed to Roland Petit because of the inversion of body and character relationship between Quasimodo and Phoebus. Quasimodo is the good guy, the hero, yet his face and body are ugly. While Frollo is the great villain, Phoebus is an archetype of a beautiful blond strong young man, attractive to women but mainly shallow, vicious and coward. Florian Magnenet made the best out of this ungrateful part that is not the easiest to interpret.

Joshua Hoffat gave a surprisingly great performance as Frollo, the evil priest. His jumps were particularly ample and fast. He gave the character a little Spartacus flavor that was much to the taste of the audience who greeted him with warm applauses.

The corps de ballet sustained the soloist quartet with a vibrant energy and an obvious pleasure that made up for the relative poverty of the ensemble’s choreographic material.

A well-balanced cast, an energetic corps and choreography that pleases as much as it astonishes are all ingredients of a good performance. A success, outdated, but a success indeed.