Goecke, Lidberg and Cherkaoui at the Paris Opera Ballet

Palais Garnier, Paris
February 21, 2019

Joy Wang X.Y.

With history comes a certain reputation. For the Paris Opera, an institution that is in its 350th year of existence, that reputation is anchored by a twin drive for classical excellence and cutting-edge innovation. And so, while one half of the company dances Swan Lake at the Bastille, the other half finds its way to the Garnier for a contemporary evening of works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Marco Goecke and Pontus Lidberg.

At the end of Marco Goecke’s Dogs Sleep, a solitary dancer attempts a waltz, a jagged jiggle which feels unbearably sad; like a puppet Petrushka pulled on a string trying to mimic its human manipulators. Though it is a rather disingenuous move to aim at the erasure of everything human (Goecke’s signature dance-language is based on deconstruction and fragmentation) only to suggest through its quasi-Frankenstein, humanoid form that there might be value in it after all, it is at least, in a world consumed by rupture, fair warning.

Emilie Cozette, Heloise Bourdon and Sae-Eun Park in Dogs Sleep by Marco GoeckePhoto Ann Ray
Emilie Cozette, Heloise Bourdon and Sae-Eun Park
in Dogs Sleep by Marco Goecke
Photo Ann Ray

But if Dog’s Sleep starts with something important to say, it quickly descends into a fractured musical experience. Goecke’s movements bear little relation to the score, either formally or in idiomatic register. It’s almost always the same set of repetitive frenzied movement at different degrees of intensity that, though impressive in itself, inevitably ends at the limits of the dancer; energy rarely radiates outwards. When a dancer lies on a coach and consumed by billowing smoke dissolves into the background, one can’t help but wonder if that is all there is to this.

In Pontus Lidberg’s Les Noces, movement explodes in another direction. The piece danced in full exclamatory mood and at high-octane pace, is performed with conviction by its 18-strong cast. It also draws particularly impressive turns from Takeru Coste and Antoine Kirscher. But it is hard to escape the feeling that the real drama comes from the pit, under the baton of Vello Pahn, and the formidable choral body that is the singers. It is the music and the vocalists that carry the dancing; and for all its intermittent bursts of explosive power, Les Noces feels a little aimless and structure-less.

Paris Opera Ballet in Les Noces by Pontus Lidberg
Paris Opera Ballet in Les Noces by Pontus Lidberg
Photo Ann Ray

Dancers weave in and out of moving black panels. For the most part they run alone, in pairs, in groups. But what holds the running together? What are the stories they are coming together to tell? What are they running from and where to? Stravinsky’s music offers us many possibilities but Lidberg can’t quite create a universe where we might begin to imagine those possibilities.

The best piece on display was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun. Set to Debussy’s music, it first premiered in 2009 at Sadler’s Wells in London. The first piece of the night and the only piece that has already been seen on the Opera stage it bears re-watching.

The curtain opens to reveal Marc Moreau alone. His movements are slightly awkward. He falls over. He tries again. He totters on the precipice. But he is also on the threshold of a sexual awakening. Like a revolving spiral, he and Juliette Hilaire sculpt themselves into intertwining images. While exploring the sweets joys of erotic love they seem to be discovering themselves. There is to the fluid streams of Moreau’s movements a genuine sense of exploration. If that holds the piece back from its more primal instincts it also gives it a certain honesty, a sense perhaps of the purity of first discovery.