Parisian delight for ballet lovers at Harris Theater

June 22, 2012

by Sid Smith, Chicago Tribune

And so, very soon, we'll always have Paris — memories of the Paris Opera Ballet, that is, on a Chicago stage for the first time in most of our lives.

It has been almost 64 years since the renowned troupe visited here, so long that the company's current officials say they have no institutional memory of that 1948 stopover. The trip is a big deal, a rare visit by the oldest ballet company of them all, one that gave birth to the venerable classic "Giselle," which is on the lineup. Only two other stops are on the tour, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in the nation's capital.

Thus, the ballet's Chicago host, the Harris Theater, not yet 10 years old, forms one-third of a team of giants, and, as it happens, will be the theater that launches the U.S. minitour this week with the arrival of "Giselle" (Tuesday through Thursday) and a bill of three repertory works (Friday through July 1). The price tag is well more than $1 million, the Harris' most ambitious undertaking to date.

"To us, it means the chance to see the Harris as realizing its potential," Michael Tiknis, the theater's president and managing director, says. "As we finish our first decade, it's clear the Harris isn't just a rental theater, but one that plays an active role in Chicago's artistic community."

Says the city's most famous dance enthusiast, Mayor Rahm Emanuel: "I've seen (the Paris Opera Ballet) twice over the last two decades, and I'm very excited they're kicking off their first North American tour in 15 years in Chicago. You've got to put them in the top five companies in the world, and it speaks loudly about Chicago as a dance center.

Noting that Wednesday's sold-out performance of "Giselle" will be simulcast for free outdoors beginning at 7:30 p.m. on screens in Millennium Park, Emanuel says, "It's very Chicagoan to try something innovative and different like that, and I look at this visit as a down payment on my goal of making Chicago the dance capital of the world."

When prompted, he offered this mini-review: "They're tremendously classically trained, with a great reach in terms of modern ballet, too, and that's what's exciting."

"(The tour) helps fulfill the (Harris') mission not only to help Chicago (dance) companies reach their potential, but to bring international companies and attract visitors to our city from all over," says Alexandra Nichols, vice chair of the Harris board of trustees and co-chair of Tuesday's gala performance. (In that vein, the theater plans to host the Hamburg Ballet's full-length "Nijinsky," by Milwaukee-born John Neumeier, next season.)

What makes the visit so big?

History, for starters. The Paris Opera Ballet dates to the late 1600s and Louis XIV. For more than three centuries, the organization has been a defining institution and fan destination, surviving the French Revolution, two rounds of Napoleon, the Depression and Nazi occupation. While not immune to weak spells over that vast time period, it ranks today right up there with the Royal Danish Ballet and London's Royal Ballet (which both play here rarely), as well as the Kirov and Bolshoi Ballets (which visit regularly). It's also huge, boasting some 150 dancers, including 90 who'll make the trip here, preceded by four cargo bins shipped weeks ago.

Ballet officials naturally claim a long-lasting aesthetic heritage. King Louis XIV's ballet school, which trains these dancers, itself turns 300 next year.

"The work we do proceeds from all that evolution over hundreds of years," says Brigitte Lefevre, Paris Opera director of dance. "Ours is a very long story, and what's most specific about us is how that history is still transmitted, how it evolved to get to where it is today.

"The technique is not so different from, say, the Kirov or the Danish, but it's the way to interpret things, to interpret steps, that's at the same time very demanding," she adds. "The execution, especially for the corps de ballet, may be less demonstrative than with other companies. But it also may be more inner-motivated, designed to live more from the inner body, maybe more poetical."

"The fact that we were begun by the king is really vividly evident in our style today," Olivier Aldeano, the troupe's administrator, or top business manager, says. "Not so much royalty as a grandeur special to our company. Maybe we don't always think of it every day, day in and day out. But this past is always with us."

That past will certainly be evident in "Giselle," staged in 1841 by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot, one of the oldest classics in the surviving ballet repertory. After a quarter century or so, it was retired by the troupe for more than 50 years, only to return in a celebrated revival in 1924. The current version, staged in 1991 by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov, now uses sets and costumes originally designed for the 1924 revival by Alexandre Benois, a painter for the Ballets Russes.

Some critics about town question if the Harris stage can accommodate such a huge production, which, after all, more typically plays Paris' Palais Garnier, one of the biggest stages in the world. Early discussions involved a split engagement, with the Auditorium Theatre housing the full-length, but that proved too costly, Tiknis says. He adds that the Harris stage is workable and that the Parisians assure him there will be no compromises. "They're used to touring all over the world and adapting," he says. Notes Lefevre, who toured the Harris with other troupe officials in 2010, "Both staffs have worked together to be sure we have everything we need. It is one of our conditions that it will be the full version."

Other critics complain that "Giselle" is overseen, performed here as recently as last spring by American Ballet Theatre.

"Each company has its own version, and ours is the French way to do it," Lefevre responds. "We created 'Giselle,' so I hope we bring something special to it."

"It's like saying, 'We've heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony too much,'" Tiknis says. "Each company brings a certain look, just as Daniel Barenboim and Riccardo Muti conduct Verdi's 'Requiem' differently. I might have preferred Pina Bausch's 'Orpheus and Eurydice' (which is on the New York bill), but it would have required a second and very different orchestra for just that work, something we weren't prepared to do."

The Grant Park Orchestra will accompany all performances of this engagement.

Defending the programming is the fact that, as of press time, "Giselle," except for certain high-priced gala benefit seats Tuesday, is sold out, while the repertory programs have some remaining tickets. Ironically, for the balletomane, that's the program to see — the Paris Opera showing off great works by major modern choreographers, what Lefevre calls "our all-French program," to music by French composers.

"L'Arlesienne" by Roland Petit, to Georges Bizet, and "Bolero" by Maurice Bejart, to Maurice Ravel, represent major 20th century dance-makers known to Chicagoans but seen too little, and rarely this authoritatively. But the real prize may well be "Suite en Blanc," to Edouard Lalo, choreographed by Serge Lifar, a kind of George Balanchine of the Paris Opera Ballet, an important figure during two separate periods from the late 1920s to 1958. "He came from the Ballets Russes, and he ran our company for more than 20 years," Lefevre notes. "He brought with him a spirit of neoclassicism, and 'Suite en Blanc' (1943) is his manifesto."