Arriving at the Palais Garnier is an almost ecclesiastical experience on any given day, but especially on the evening of the opening gala of the Opéra National de Paris’ dance season. On Friday, guests climbed the grand marble staircase, a piece of theater in itself, which, with its 30-meter high vault, was dressed in a cascade of satin ribbons identical to those used to tie ballet slippers – scenography designed by the Opera Patron of the Chanel ballet.
The return to the live dance performance after 18 months of hiatus due to the pandemic added to the air of anticipation in the auditorium as the audience took their seats under the ceiling painted by Marc Chagall. Just two nights earlier, the newly appointed musical director,
Gustavo Dudamel inaugurated his first season at the Palais Garnier by taking the public, including French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, on a journey through more than a century of opera, from Georges Bizet Carmen to John Adams Atomic Doctor.
As dance director Aurélie Dupont told me later that evening, the mood backstage was a mix of excitement and nervousness. “Cinema has been a great way for audiences to see our performances,” she says. “But dancers are born to be on stage with a live audience. If you don’t have the reaction, if you don’t have the orchestra, if you don’t have the lights, it’s not the same thing. And when it ends, you’ll never see the exact same performance again.
Dressed in Chanel jewelry and a black cotton waistcoat and matching pants from the Spring 2021 collection, Dupont greeted gala guests from the stage alongside chief executive Alexander Neef and introduced the evening’s program. True to tradition, the first act was the ballet parade, procession bringing together all the dancers of the company, from school pupils to stars. The first ballerinas wore tutus, corsets and tiaras made in collaboration between Chanel, the Opéra workshops and the Lesage embroiderers; continuing the fashion house’s long affiliation with dance, which began in 1920 when Gabrielle Chanel helped Serge Diaghilev revive The Rite of Spring (1913).
Two contemporary works commissioned by Dupont will follow. The first was Breakwater (Breakwater) by Damien Jalet, who recently premiered his latest work Planet [wanderer] at the National Theater of Chaillot. During the second confinement in France, the Belgian-French choreographer created this complex sequence of fluid and intertwined movements for nine dancers inspired by the crests and hollows of the ocean. Breakwater, as Jalet wrote in the program is “a metaphor for frontline resilience, strength and vulnerability”.
The second book, Clouds inside by Tess Voelker, designed for an uplifting performance at halftime. At 24, the American choreographer is a kind of supernova in the world of dance, and through this tender and playful duo, she wanted to reflect the nostalgia of childhood naivety with the soundtrack, cello song by British singer-songwriter Nick Drake evoked.
Entering the repertoire of the Paris Opera in 1952, the deceased Danish choreographer Harald Lander Studies once again returns to the stage. In this effervescent ballet in one act, the dancers ritually repeat simple movements such as folded and strained until they are equipped to take flight and engage in more elaborate tosses and jumps. By closely examining these building blocks of classical ballet, Lander sought to demonstrate both the technical and physical prowess as well as the passion and dedication it takes to be a ballet dancer.
Once the curtain fell, guests from Chanel, Rolex (partner of the Paris Opera) and the Opera itself were invited to a dinner in the Belle Époque grandeur of the Grand Foyer. Photographers Inez & Vinoodh; designers Virginie Viard, Haider Ackermann, Isabel Marant, Pierre Hardy and Ludovic de Saint Sernin; actors Golshifteh Farahani, Fatou N’Diaye and Marine Vacth, and burlesque dancer and model Dita Von Teese were among the 750 people in attendance. A menu curated by restaurant guide Le Fooding has brought together some of the boldest names in modern French cuisine, including Manon Fleury, Céline Pham, Jessica Yang and Robert Compagnon. While floral arrangements courtesy of Eric Chauvin incorporated seasonal blooms such as hydrangeas, calla lilies, lisianthus, dahlias and roses.
As the evening drew to a close, it marked the start of a new dance season, at which point I asked Dupont what excited him the most for the coming year. New work by Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter (March 14-April 13, 2022), a ballet adaptation of Stendhal’s novel The Red and the Black by French choreographer Pierre Lacotte (October 15-November 4) and an evening inspired by Russian contributions to dance (November 29, 2021-January 2, 2022) are among the productions it has highlighted.
“Historically, the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet has been very classical,” concludes Dupont. “But as we saw tonight, the company has the talent to do it all, both classic and contemporary.”