September 25, 2008

A Robbins Moment in Paris Played in Enigmatic Tones

By Roslyn Sulcas

A man and a woman stride across an open space, crossing paths with a quick glance at each other, then disappear from view. A second woman walks in, another man appears; they pause, confront each other and run off together.

A series of such fleeting encounters, quotidian and yet imbued with mystery, mark the beginning of Benjamin Millepied's "Triade," a Paris Opera Ballet commission that had its premiere at the Palais Garnier on Saturday night as part of "Homage to Jerome Robbins," the company's first program of the season.

These opening walks, ordinary yet theatrical, are reminiscent of the beginning of Robbins's "Glass Pieces," which shows a purposefully striding crowd, individuals yoked together, choreographed by urban life. And this is just one of many references to works by Robbins that Millepied, a French-born principal dancer with New York City Ballet, makes in "Triade," set to a commissioned score by Nico Muhly. (Muhly collaborated with Millepied on "Amoveo," a 2006 work for the Paris company, and composed the music for "From Here on Out," created for American Ballet Theater last year.)

There are the jazzy physical inflections of "Interplay," the friendly macho rivalries of "Dances at a Gathering," the improvisational, casual air of "Fancy Free." But "Triade," starkly presented on a bare, black-curtained stage, is both more minimalist and more maximalist than any of these works - as if Millepied had put a microscope on four anonymous individuals in Robbins's crowd and revealed their bursting inner lives and barely contained emotions.

Millepied has often spoken of his connection to Robbins, who chose him, at 16, for "2 & 3 Part Inventions," made for the School of American Ballet, and whose works he has danced regularly since joining New York City Ballet in 1985. And since "Triade" was specifically commissioned for this Robbins evening - presented after "In G Major" and before "In the Night" and "The Concert" - these references are no doubt deliberate. But "Triade" is far more than the sum of its influences.

It offers a series of brief, enigmatic stories, as its four dancers (Marie-Agnes Gillot, Laetitia Pujol, Audric Bezard and Marc Moreau) move through loose, almost careless encounters to Muhly's modulating rhythms, often reminiscent of the work of Philip Glass or John Adams, although less reliably propulsive. (Muhly conducted his excellent ensemble: two trombonists, Bruno Flahou and Jean Raffard, and the pianist Frederic Lagnau.)

Leaping and turning, their bodies crumpling out of ballet positions or skidding across the floor, the performers, dressed in simple bright-colored dancewear (Millepied's designs), might be playing a game, testing one another's limits. The two men circle each other closely without touching; Pujol falls and jumps from one man's arms to another's (are they fighting over her?); Gillot coolly holds an arabesque for an improbably long moment while Bezard watches.

Balletic prowess as seduction? Perhaps, because this sequence evolves into a long pas de deux for this pair that is the suddenly resonant heart of "Triade" and shows the tall and powerful Gillot as the superb artist she can be. Circling each other's bodies, their limbs flashing into space, or their torsos suddenly buckling and convulsing against each other (here the influence of William Forsythe is visible), Gillot and Bezard gradually accrue a remarkable emotional intensity.

Millepied doesn't achieve these heights consistently; sometimes "Triade" feels a little vague, its structure a bit arbitrary. But the world that he creates onstage (helped by Patrice Besombes's subtle lighting) has the feel of our time, and in it ballet seems to be a language that can be spoken today. That's no small achievement.

Neither was that of the four dancers. Gillot and Pujol are etoiles, Bezard is a soloist, and Moreau a corps dancer, but all showed that it was possible to shake off the cool, impersonal perfection that tends to characterize Paris Opera Ballet dancing.

"In G Major" showed Gillot in this detached mode. Her partner, Florian Magnenet, is a fine dancer who seems a little hesitant about extending himself in space, and neither he nor Gillot captured the ballet's playful spirit.

The best performances in the Robbins ballets (all impeccably staged by Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Christine Redpath) came from Aurelie Dupont and Nicholas Le Riche in the final, emotionally fraught pas de deux of "In the Night."

I had never found Dupont a particularly interesting dancer when I was watching the company regularly over a decade ago, but here she was a revelation. Making her body speak in the subtlest of ways, the arch of her back, the tilt of her neck, told you everything about the dance and about herself.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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