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Marie-Agnes Gillot: Notre Dame de l’Opéra de Paris, Grande in Ballets Petit & Bejart

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

In tonight’s return to the Paris Opera Ballet repertoire of Maurice Bejart’s “Bolero,” Marie-Agnes Gillot will dance the lead role. Gillot retires from the Opera March 31. Special thanks to DI supporter NR for enabling our ballet coverage.

PARIS — As spectacles go, you can’t get much more spectacular than Roland Petit’s 1965 ballet “Notre-Dame de Paris,” created for the Paris Opera Ballet and performed by the POB from etoiles to corps with gusto last night at the Garnier, as its opening production of the season. Because we have rather been plagued by new story ballets in recent years (“Othello,” “Pied Piper,” “Snow Maiden,” and more Draculas than there are corps maidens to feed them), I would like to comment on what Petit, a past and present master of spectacle, teaches us about how to make the form not just work, but work on our emotions. It’s in the details….

In “Notre-Dame de Paris,” based on the Victor Hugo novel more typically translated in the U.S. as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” we are provided with the potential for grandeur and intimacy, and Petit delivers on at least one of these levels, and the more important one. And in the Paris Opera dancers, who have this story and that poet in their blood memory, he couldn’t have found better vessels.

What struck me — and I use that word “struck” literally, for it hit me like a blow — most about Petit’s choreography for the four principals, as they were interpreted last night, was that it is Quasimoto who emerges as the most human of the quartet. As portrayed by Wilfried Romoli, Quasimoto is not so much “a hunchback,” as dehumanizing as reducing a man to such a description can be, but a noble soul trapped in a body that can’t quite meet, or can’t quite rise to, the elevated level of his soul and aspirations and heroic and romantic inclinations. He does, in fact, and often, regularly straighten his spine and rise, but can only remain erect for a fleeting moment, before, almost ritually, collapsing on bent knees, his right arm pulling his shoulder down (the hunch is communicated not by an artificial lump in the actor-dancer’s back, but by the way he carries and arrays the rest of his body, most notably the arms and a constantly drooping shoulder), his lower arm left to swing, lifelessly and out of his control, back and forth, its fingers splayed.

The most compelling moment arrives in a sort of role-reversed Rose Adagio: Technically Quasimoto is lifting heroine Esmeralda’s arm and hand so that she can lift one leg up and stand on just one pointe; in reality it’s Esmeralda who is lifting him so that he can stand up straight, as becomes clear when they release and he automatically crumples and re-hunches. (A sharp contrast with the arch deacon Frolo’s treatment of Quasimoto, manifest in his constantly pushing him down into a hunch.)

This passage is delivered in what is also the ballet’s romantic pay-off, the final duet between Quasi and Esmeralda, who he has secured — only tenuously, it turns out — in the church, having just saved her from the gallows. Both Romoli and Marie-Agnes Gillot, last night’s and the opening night’s Esmeralda, deliver. In her first appearance, aptly telegraphed by a solitary tambourine (played with gusto by a soloist of the Orchestre Colonne, as was the entire Maurice Jarre score, conducted by Paul Connelly), Gillot’s Esmeralda struck me as rather cold and constrained for a Gypsy Dancer. It might also have been her white tight short skirt designed by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose costumes overall affected me as almost too sleek and modern for a tale driven by such raw individual and crowd passions. (Rene Allio’s stage designs were much more appropriately medieval.) As the ballet progressed, however, Gillot displayed that greatest and rarest of acting gifts: She seemed to be responding and reacting to her progressive partners and in a way suitors, her temperament changing based on what they gave her….

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