In Retro Step Paris Ballet’s bourrées By Joel Lobenthal T Edited by Armond White New York’s Review of Culture • CityArtsNYC.com Up with Tutus Ballet music—one man’s evolution By Jay Nordlinger T he older I get, the smarter, wiser and more talented Verdi becomes. Funny how it works that way. When I was about 15, Verdi was basically a purveyor of corny tunes accompanied by oompah-pah. How had he managed to compose that masterly requiem, amid those silly operas? These days, I stand in awe at almost the least of those operas. It is similar with the ballet. From a musical point of view, ballet was the bottom of the barrel, as far as I was concerned. Ballet music was the equivalent of tutus: frilly, insubstantial, kind of ridiculous. Romeo and Juliet was a masterpiece, no doubt—but I thought of that as an orchestral work, rather than something to be danced to. Giselle, in particular, I considered a joke. Its composer, Adolphe Adam, scored a hit with “O Holy Night,” but the ballet was something else: a perfumed sleeping pill. Only later did I realize the joke was on me. Giselle, which has lived since 1841, may live to 2141 and beyond, and rightly so. These thoughts and memories are occasioned by a visit of the Paris Opera Ballet to the Lincoln Center Festival. Attending Giselle, I appreciated the score anew. It is a piece of “program music,” in a way, helping to tell a story. It has coyness, intimacy, anxiety, pomp, gaiety, pathos and, of course, ethereality. It also has longueurs and mediocrity, to be sure—but the gold compensates for the dross. The next day, the Parisians performed, among other ballets, a work called Suite en Blanc, whose music is taken from Lalo— Edouard Lalo, whom we know almost exclusively for his violin-and-orchestra piece Symphonie espagnole (and also, maybe, for Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle at Lincoln Center. the overture to his opera Le roi d’Ys). I was glad to get to know this music—new to my repertoire. One reason for my prejudice against ballet music was that I so often heard it performed badly. Who among us hasn’t snickered at ballet orchestras? They are often the Appalachian League of the orchestral world, the bottom rung. Onstage, you will have surefooted dancers, and, in the pit, you will have clumsy instrumentalists. Years ago, I asked Valery Gergiev, the conductor, “Why do people make fun of Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff?” He said, among other things, “You can perform anything in an insipid way. Even Mozart. But then the fault is yours, not the composer’s.” Exactly so. Giselle will be hopelessly la-di-da, if you play it that way. Doing the honors for the Paris Opera Ballet was the New York City Opera Orchestra, a group that has not had much work lately, given the fortunes and misfortunes of City Opera. At worst, the orchestra played respectably, and, at best, impressively. Boléro’s rhythm was imprecise, which was a shame, because the piece is so dependent on rhythm. But not much harm was done. Some ballet music, I still contend, is beyond hope. During its recent season here, the American Ballet Theatre put on Le Corsaire, whose score is cobbled together from five composers (including Adam). Act I is like a parody of ballet music, invented by ballet haters. But Swan Lake? Honestly, I could see and hear it once a week. Probably twice. he Paris Opera Ballet, France’s national ballet company, had both a rocky and triumphant opening night last week. It was a momentous occasion: their first New York visit since 1996, their final U.S. appearance under the direction of outgoing chief Brigitte Lefèvre. The company arrived after stops in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and its accumulated mileage seemed to have caught up with it during the first ballet, Serge Lifar’s 1943 Suite en Blanc (Ex-Diaghilev star Lifar directed the Paris company for decades.) It was the most classically exposed and taxing thing on the program, and as the performance began, there were enough bobbles to go around both male and female ensemble. The men, however, seemed particularly off. The female soloists and corps eventually rallied; indeed, they carried the performance, although the men, too, improved as the ballet progressed. But the real point was, this is a company with so strong a profile and foundation that you could easily see through its transient condition to its illustrious potential and possibilities. And forget about Gallic condescension: New York may have lost some of its luster as a capital of international ballet in recent years, but the dancers were trying with all their might to perform with dazzle and integrity. POB style in Lifar’s day was flouncier and jabbier than it became after Rudolf Nureyev’s tenure as artistic director in the 1980s. It was interesting to see the dancers negotiate Lifar’s slouch-hipped poses, his little pitty-pat bourrées. Cleaner and more economical as their current style may be, they nevertheless brought out all the charm and oddity of these quirks. Suite en Blanc is an exhibition piece that is something of a tribute to the Opera’s history. A trio of apparent sylphs wander in and out among the tutu-clad classicists: a reminder that the Opera was fulcrum of the romantic movement that brought us the sylphs. Indeed, later in the week, POB would be presenting Giselle, one of the greatest and most enduring of romantic ballets, which was given its world premiere by the Opera in 1841. This week, the POB is concluding its season with Pina Bausch’s Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Gluck’s opera will be sung as well as played. POB director Brigitte Lefèvre graduated from the company’s excellent school but pursued a career in modern dance before returning to the Paris arts establishment. She has aggressively interjected contemporary choreography in the POB repertory. Given the company’s stellar classical technique and style, a beacon amid the international decline in ballet standards, Lefèvre’s contemporary protectionism can seem excessive. But really, in terms of casting and repertory, she seems to have done everything right on this tour. Read more by Joel Lobenthal at Lobenthal.