A visitor to the School of the Paris Opera Ballet observes the students from balconies positioned at ceiling height above their studios or through panoramic glass partitions cut into the classroom walls, as if he were examining rare, exquisite specimens in an aquarium. The pupils of this celebrated academy – nearly 300 years old, masterfully headed since 1972 by the former POB ballerina Claude Bessy – represent the highest level of refinement in classical-dance training. Recently, a bevy of the conservatory’s advanced students performed in New York, at the John Jay College Theater, in a program designed to display the unique nature of their achievement.
Two pieces – Dessin pour Six, by John Taras, and Péchés de Jeunesse, by Jean-Guillaume Bart (an alumnus now an étoile with the parent company) – served as showcases for the purity and precision of technique the POB school transmits to its scrupulously chosen young. Every step, every gesture, every pose is precisely articulated and confidently etched in space, a marvel of combined strength, clarity, and grace. The style is eerily homogenous, to an extent that might be off-putting were it not for the fact that, repeatedly, if only for the space of a phrase, you can see through these late-adolescent prodigies’ relentless, fine-tuned schooling to their nascent artistry.
New York–based dance fans, accustomed to the comparable teenage wonders emerging from the School of American Ballet, will notice that our dancers – a mongrel crew in terms of its diverse early training, as opposed to the French, who have been groomed together from the age of 8 – are, on average, less dazzlingly accomplished, certainly less accurate, but thrillingly more daring. Each group, no doubt, reflects the culture it springs from. An excerpt on the French dancers’ program from Balanchine’s Western Symphony – the adagio second movement – actually invited the comparison. Inevitably, the Gallic rendition lacked the panache that performers heading for the New York City Ballet would have brought to it. Still, the choreography and, equally important, the tone of the material (tender and amusing) were faithfully rendered, undistorted by a foreign accent.
Act Two of Coppélia (in a version descended in the French line, not the Russian one) displayed the breadth of the skills inculcated in the POB aspirants. They are not merely adept classical-dance technicians. From year one through graduation, their comprehensive curriculum includes folk dancing and mime. As a result, they’re at ease when called upon to play the soubrette, the peasant swain, the old half-crazed inventor with a wild dream, or one in a set of czardas-prone villagers. In all of their work, actually, they are precociously comfortable onstage. They are methodically taught – in their daily technique class – not simply to execute material but to present it, so that their aplomb is guaranteed. Impressed with the idea that they’re being bred to be looked at, they respond with a discipline that has become automatic and – here’s the unpredictable miracle – an individual charm that their meticulous instruction has failed to squelch.
Shortly after the visit of the Parisian academy, our local equivalent was on display in the School of American Ballet’s annual Workshop Performances. The advanced students of what used to be called “Balanchine’s School,” many of them on their way to feed the ranks of the New York City Ballet as well as other companies worldwide, appeared in a program designed to reflect what their artistic godfather represented – tradition and innovation.
Two works from the Balanchine repertoire that is their specific heritage revealed a thought-provoking contrast in staging styles. Suki Schorer, a former NYCB principal and long a linchpin of the SAB faculty, mounted the sweet-love-remembered Andante and the Rondo alla Zingarese with its gypsy high jinks from Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet. As usual, Schorer rendered Balanchine gloriously, as he used to be danced – with a bold attack on space, a sweeping follow-through, and an unfailing focus on the clarity that makes steps thrilling and the musicality that gives them a human, and dramatic, dimension.
Merrill Ashley, distinguished (beloved, actually) in her NYCB dancing days for her unaffected freshness and fine-edged athleticism and now a teaching associate with the company, staged Ballo della Regina, created by Balanchine for her unique gifts. This was Ashley’s first Workshop production, and, not unexpectedly, it was governed by the meticulous quality of her dancing. Compared with the impact of the Ballo in which she once shone, however, that of her own mounting was curiously muted, reduced in terms of size and energy. Throughout her stage career, Ashley was consistently so modest and (with her reverence for correctness) so moral an artist, she may never have seen the larger requirements of putting on a show. I suspect she may learn with time and experience.
Peter Martins’s Les Gentilhommes, for nine gentlemen (here, in their late teens), showed the uncommon strength of the current male contingent at SAB. Les Gentilhommes was created for the NYCB in 1987 as an homage to Stanley Williams (1925–97), the Danish teacher, lured to the States by Balanchine, who became a mainstay of SAB teaching, particularly for the men. The piece is a formal exercise that is both a test and a display of the qualities Williams cultivated: purity, simplicity, and harmony – of soul, perhaps, as well as body – in the face of the most devilish challenges. The young men rising to the occasion in Peter Boal and Victor Castelli’s staging haven’t yet attained a uniform mastery, but they were all clearly in service of the concept of classical dancing most likely to allow them, one day, to earn the title of danseur noble.
This year’s new work, Copland Portrait, by the NYCB principal dancer Damien Woetzel, was a dead loss, unfortunately. Set to piano pieces by Aaron Copland that don’t much encourage dancing, it appears to be inspired by Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, portraying “real” people rooted in a landscape that binds them. Unlike Robbins, Woetzel hasn’t developed a personal dance language – a dialect of classical ballet, if you will – in which to express the emotional weather and the relationships he wants to convey. He seems unaware, too, of some basic principles of choreographic structure. I found it touching to see the SAB dancers serve him as faithfully as they did the worthier dance-makers on the program.
School of the Paris Opera Ballet
At the John Jay College Theater.
School of American Ballet
Workshop Performances at the Juilliard Theater at Lincoln Center.