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Demonstrations of the École de Danse of the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris (School of the Paris Opera Ballet) / Opéra National de Paris: Palais Garnier, Paris / December 5, 2004

The Paris Opera Ballet School, founded by Louis XIV in 1713—it’s the world’s oldest academy for producing classical dancers—is now located in a utilitarian complex specifically built for it in Nanterre, on the bleak outskirts of the City of Light. But for more than a century it was located in the bowels of the lavish Palais Garnier, at the hub of urban elegance. It was there—cocooned in that opera house’s imposing Second Empire decorative excesses of varicolored marble offset by gilt and bronze; of statues, bas-reliefs, frescos, and mosaics; of deep red plush and heavy figured and tasseled drapery; of an infinity of mirrors and chandeliers—that I saw the daylong program this extraordinary school, the oldest and arguably the greatest of its kind, modestly calls its “Demonstrations.”

The program, nearly six hours long, with a break midway in which valiant spectators went out to revive themselves with shots of strong black coffee, comprised separate mini-classes for boys and girls from Level 6 (ages 12 to 13) up to Level 1 (18 and under). (You work your way up in this system, those who stay the rigorous course graduating into the parent company or a life in dance elsewhere, at the age of 18, though the precocious may join POB earlier.)

The gracefully and intelligently constructed instruction samples were led by the regular teachers attached to each group, most of whom have been dancers with the parent company. Introductions were performed by Elisabeth Platel, a former POB star, who this year succeeded Claude Bessy, the formidable woman who led the academy to new heights in the course of her three-decade tenure. The grandeur of the Palais Garnier setting provided an elaborate frame that underscored the importance and dignity of the process being revealed on stage—the development, by means of a system begun some 300 years ago, of exquisite dancers. Seeing the succession of children and adolescents methodically attaining professional capability in their esoteric art was like watching one of those films that show a flower unfurling from bud to blossom—always itself, always expanding.

The goal of the youngsters’ scrupulous training, it would seem, is threefold. The most obvious aim is for precision, which permits the uncanny clarity these pupils display at every level of their development. The mark their bodies make in space, while it never relinquishes its sculptural dimension, recalls the fine, incisive lines of an etching.

How is this achieved? Guessing from what I saw, there are several contributing factors, starting with the selection of youngsters physically apt for the work (and the yearly weeding out of those who, for one reason or another, prove unsuitable). Once begun, the training continually emphasizes an independence of the upper body from the lower body, achieved through a fierce command of the mid-section. This allows the young dancer to control what the legs and feet are doing while the torso, arms, and head tell a separate but complementary story. Simultaneously, there’s an intense cultivation of mobility in the hips, knees, ankles, which lends the dancing its all-important fluidity.

A significant aspect of the teaching process, apparently, is the anatomization of steps. At the barre and in the center, steps are minutely taken apart—deconstructed, you might say. Astonishingly, when the discrete elements are reassembled into the complete step, the calculated effort all but disappears, and the step is produced with confidence and ease. For example, the youngest boys perform an exercise for tour en l’air (jump straight up, legs neatly together, turn a full circle without wavering while in the air, and land, still utterly composed, neatly on the take-off spot). As if the sequence were a valuable fragment of choreography, they essay quarter turns, half turns, and three-quarter turns—in both directions, without leaving a clue to the fact that every dancer has a strong and a weak side—and then, triumphantly, the full turn. The feat is produced with such exactitude and with such an air of repose that the audience awards it the kind of fervent response usually reserved for virtuosi at their most spectacular. Boys only a year or two older execute one-and-a-half turns with equal equanimity.

This anatomization, which leads to freedom rather than the constriction you’d predict, is just one aspect of the process the school employs to develop bodies that might well be described as machines for dancing. Yet the POB students are in no way automatons. Equally important in their schooling is an insistence on musicality. As soon as possible, exercises are turned into dancing, where mere accuracy is transformed, animated, made memorable by flow and rhythmic inflection. Shepherding the advanced girls through an intricate exercise in multiple pirouettes—nothing if not a test of sheer technical prowess—the instructor utters only one admonition: “Use this music well.”

Pervading the entire POB academy’s process, it seems to me, is the cultivation of aristocratic virtues, among them elegance, refinement, understatement, the illusion of effortlessness in the most challenging endeavors, and conduct governed by beautifully honed manners. Even the youngest boys on view seem to be descendents of Renaissance cavaliers—gentlemen at once skilled horsemen, lovers, soldiers, diplomats, and poets. The girls who are their counterparts—and foils—possess incomparable delicacy and charm, along with a self-possession suggesting half-hidden capabilities that might enable them to rule the world.

The gaucheness that goes hand in hand with adolescence has been repressed in these aspirants to a remarkable degree. Awkwardness, the weakness that often accompanies growth spurts, the plumpness that goes hand in hand with a newly maturing female body—all these are denied to them. Vulgarity is equally unknown to these young practitioners; apparently, it has been extirpated from their lives. Their dancing is not allowed the slightest degree of gymnastic distortion; their line is utterly pure. The 14-year-old girls of Level 4, a group of long-stemmed lilies, stand in a profiled row at the barre to display their arabesque and, though their extensions are now spectacular, they are kept scrupulously within the boundaries of classical harmony.

Nothing is allowed to appear difficult. POB style insists upon the dancing that is invariably light, gentle, and smooth. Thus, grands battements (ferocious high kicks), even when they’re executed without any support, reveal no visible expenditure of energy. In the same way, multiple pirouettes are spun out as if they were part of the silken filament of a spider web. Huge traveling leaps seem to float—like petals or leaves, released by a breeze from their stalks or branches. (Théophile Gautier, the nineteenth-century French poet of the dance, would have made much of this.) No matter how much virtuosity is required of these youngsters, their audience rarely hears a footfall.

Masters of composure, the students at every level finish each sequence of movements required of them in a perfectly harmonious pose, which they hold, calm and still, turning themselves into living statues. Suffused with dignity, grace, and a self-confidence that’s modestly worn, they offer themselves to be admired.

The senior classes reveal the results of the POB system. The young women, in their pale rose or ivory costumes—the simplest elaboration on practice dress, but ravishingly cut—resemble a cluster of porcelain figurines. At this advanced point in their schooling, every single one of them has been transformed into a creature of the stage. Slowly and almost secretly, they’ve learned to seduce the spectator with their dancing, and, little by little, each of them exudes a unique temperament, like a personal perfume. In partnered adagio, the men concentrate on the intricacies of the support they’re providing, but the women—as with adolescents in real life, more sophisticated than their male peers—seem to harbor a secret excitement vis à vis their partners.

On their own, these 16- to 18-year-old ingénues display sparkling footwork that makes you think of water drops set in play by an exuberant fountain. Their extensions fly high, as do their huge cross-stage leaps, yet everything appears unforced. The beautiful alignment in which they’ve been schooled from the start—and can now maintain even when they’re sweeping through space—has become second nature, and they’ve learned to make the correctness that governs their most complicated and difficult feats look like child’s play.

In the 17- and 18-year-old men, the stripling look of boys just a year or two junior to them has given way to a firm manly build. This year’s group is a vintage crop; in most of them, the quality of dancing seems to predict stardom. They offer a demonstration of double pirouettes from every conceivable position, each ending with the working leg extended high into the air: in attitude, stretched to the side, or reaching arrow-like for the stars. This is followed immediately by cascades of small jumps, fleecy and buoyant, and then by jumps with beats in which the legs work like incisive Solingen scissors. (Most dancers are turners or jumpers; these fellows aspire to be both.) One by one, a half dozen of them execute a manège of tours jetés with the back leg curved, unwavering, in attitude. Then the most courageous of the lot offers a circle of barrel turns in which, at the very top of the arc he outlines in the air, he seems to rest, as if in an inverted hammock. Perfectly poised finishes give the final touch to an accomplishment that is little short of stupefying.

In addition to their graded classes in academic dance (the danse d’école, with partnered adagio as a special department), the students have supplementary lessons in mime, folk dancing, character dancing, modern dance, and some mysterious endeavor called “chorale,” which had the youngest children singing or speaking and moving at the same time in archly playful material. All of these “extra” subjects were represented on the program with an almost reverential acknowledgement of their importance (secondary yet essential) in forming a fully-equipped classical dancer.

The display of mime instruction began with basic exercises for the solid grounding of the body (which contradicts the ballet dancer’s eternal impulse to be airborne) and moved on to matters of weight displacement, the exaggerated isolation of body parts, and the use of the face. With these articulations of stance, gesture, and facial features, the performer learns to convert physical expression into emotional expression and acquires the ability to make the actions of a wordless body tell a detailed story. The style on view was that of the commedia dell’arte, an earthy street theater, and the young pupils entered into it with enthusiasm. Their display culminated with a simultaneous improvisation in which each student acted out his unique version of a madcap narrative—it opened with the preparation of dinner and somehow wound up with a burglary—dictated by the instructor, who cautioned them, as they dealt with dozens of invisible props, “Give every object you touch its proper weight.”

Weight is a primary issue in character and folk dancing, too, along with rhythmic complexity, dynamics, and relating to one’s partner. “On ne danse pas seul, hein?” (You’re not dancing alone, right?), remarked the character dance teacher, as she imitated the 14- and 15-year-olds’ shy indifference to each other when they coupled up for a Polish mazurka. On a second go, some of them managed a little eye contact, even a complicit smile. Next they launched into a series of intricate space-and-timing maneuvers, first executed neutrally, then with a Spanish flavor. “You think too much,” their teacher cried out. “You seem so glum. When you do it that way, it has no interest whatsoever.” Obviously, this indomitable lady takes it as her mission to inject them with spirit: “Quickness of body! Quickness of mind! That’s what you need. Eyes! Eyes! Eyes!”

The more mature teenagers’ character class showed them doing a special barre that evoked, in turn, the national dances of Hungary, Poland, and Spain. The young women were duly outfitted for the occasion in heeled shoes, the young men in red boots. First they worked in an aristocratic mode, with the instructor urging them to be “very grand, very sumptuous.” Then they shifted into the peasant manner, with much clapping of hands, much flexing and stamping of feet. “The face, the face,” their teacher called over the music and the body percussion. “Animate the face. Don’t close the shutters!”

The senior students demonstrated modern dance in the manner of Martha Graham. Everyone was appropriately barefoot, the young men bare-chested as well, the young women in vermilion tops. Like most ballet practitioners confronting Graham’s singular, visceral technique, they operated from the outside in, trying to replicate the look of the material, rather than from an energy source at the core of the body, as the genre requires if it’s to be authentic. And of course it was impossible for these students to shed the habits of their own highly evolved language, in which they’ve been rigorously schooled since childhood. The instructor, who evidently knows full well what she’s up against, remained undaunted, encouraging them to summon up more force and, interestingly, amplitude. In the floor exercises they remained merely decorative. However, at the peak of the traveling work, they suddenly tore through the space, devouring it like panthers, proving that their gift—and it’s a lavish one—is for dancing, not merely ballet.

The achievement of the Paris Opera Ballet’s academy has its human cost. As with any program effectively training children to become topnotch professional dancers, a fierce system of selection and discipline is imposed on minds, bodies, and spirits too immature to give meaningful consent to their fate—and the process has its casualties. Nevertheless, the lure for the children and their parents and guardians remains irresistible. Who does not, at one time or another, aspire to be perfectly beautiful? The difference between the young people who emerge successfully from this extraordinary education and the blessedly ordinary people who constitute most of the world’s population is that Terpsichore’s chosen ones aspire to this transfiguration far more intensely than “normal” types, and more steadily. Observed in the course of their formation, they become, collectively, a work of art in itself, a phenomenon that takes your breath away.

Photo: Photos Icare: Students of the School of the Paris Opera Ballet: (1) Level 5 girls; (2) Senior students in a demonstration of partnered adagio work.

© 2004 Tobi Tobias

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