Dancing as if their souls agree: Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand soar in the Paris Opera Ballet’s Swan Lake

Opéra Bastille, Paris
February 19 (Baluac/Louvet/Alu) & 20 (Gilbert/Marchand/Docquir), 2019

Joy Wang X.Y.

In Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake, there is no literal lakeside, only the restless enclave of Siegfried’s psyche. It his mind, with its tortured refrains, that is the setting for the myth. As Anna Kisselgolf wrote in a July 1986 review ‘Odette makes her entrances and exits from this drawing room of the mind – or rather from its apertures.’

Siegfried is human and Odette, in a sense, is merely phantasmic. In a way, Nureyev’s fascination with the fluid slippages of gender, with the male to male dynamic between Siegfried and Rothbart seems rather in tune with our post binary world. The problem though is that a translational gap exists between this Freudian framing and Nureyev’s actual choreography that can only be bridged by its interpreters.

Leonore Baulac in Swan LakePhoto Julien Benhamou
Leonore Baulac in Swan Lake
Photo Julien Benhamou

On Tuesday (19th), the idea remained largely at the level of form, mostly because Leonore Baulac and Germain Louvet are not the most ideal of interpreters. Louvet is a beautiful dancer – he has the French taste for eloquent footwork, soft arms and princely lines – but it is an opaque kind of beauty, a surface elegance that has none of the dark turbulence that animates this version. We admire his dancing without really caring for Siegfried. In another theatre and in another production that would be enough but not here where Siegfried, like Odette-Odile, carries the weight of personal and mythical history.

Baulac does, in short spurts, make us care. In the white adagio especially she is present, spontaneous. There is one moment where Odette stretching into arabesque reaches into the distance across Siegfried’s shoulder. He catches her and turns her around. It is a moment of surrender and trust; and when the heroic stretch of Baulac’s neck softens into a gentle murmur the effect is quite lovely. But she doesn’t yet have the technical command to shape the momentary effects she makes into a sustained narrative arc. Her line freezes where it should sing, Odile’s variation ends early and the double attitude turns and fouettés are haphazard. Where he doesn’t reach beyond the chiselled geometry of his dance to seize its poetic heart, she can’t go beyond her instinctive fragility to make the ballet full. And so, at moments they seemed to be trapped in a Disney fairy tale-the blonde princess with her pretty prince.

Paris Opéra Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev's Swan LakePhoto Julien Benhamou
Paris Opéra Ballet in Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake
Photo Julien Benhamou

That Swan Lake, in whatever iteration, is so much more than that is something that Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand showed the following evening. Marchand is a tall dancer with, though it escapes him a little in Act 3, a soaring leap. He also has a towering presence.

On 19th, Francois Alu as Rothbart, a firecracker of a dancer, dominated his duets with Louvet. If this was balletic chess, it was a game with a foreclosed winner. On 20th, Marchand offered a prince chafing at the control of his tutor/Rothbart (Thomas Docquir). In this strange dance of attraction and repulsion, we sense his repressed anger and deep melancholy. Near the end of the Act 1 variation Siegfried traces the perimeters of the stage with a circle of jumps into arabesque. With each outstretched line Marchand grows increasingly urgent but it is urgency that is also contemplative; there is a meditative stateliness to his dancing. He has both the quality of a thinker musing over the existential dilemmas of life and the romantic ardor of a poet- lover.

The object of his desire is the Paris Opéra’s leading female star, Dorothée Gilbert who lived up to her top billing and then some. Her Odette is a masterful blend of authority and vulnerability, of lyric gravitas and narrative immediacy. Like the greats in this role, she manages to embody an ideal while remaining profoundly human; to operate at the level of transcendent time while filling in its broad contours with pointillist detail. As Odile she dances with cut glass precision. Icy brilliance, she seems to say, can also be very sexy.

But beyond their individual commitment, there is the uncanny way they arrive at every step, every musical halftone as if completing each other’s thought. They dance as if their souls agree which is something far beyond mutual rapport or aesthetic symmetry: it is a shared sense of destiny; and it is that that allows them to touch cosmic heights in Act 4.

Their performance is enough to transcend the general air of staleness among the supporting soloists. Perhaps that is because the company’s resources is split in half – the other half of the company is over at the Garnier. Or perhaps it points to a larger fixation with academic correctness over dance’s beating heart. Still, Sae Eun Park breezed through the pas de trois on 19th, and Pablo Legasa was spirited in the Spanish. The female corps danced with synchronous beauty and the Paris Opéra Orchestra under the baton of Valery Ovysanikov was exceptional.