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The Paris Opera: when Etoiles move to the beat of Dance Music

Blake Works I on the Garnier’s stage — By Gil Colinmaire

Until October 15th, the Palais Garnier gis hostin Blake Works I, the triumphant creation of American choreographer William Forsythe, premiered in 2016 by and at the Paris Opera. A work that also showcases powerful songs from James Blake’s album, The Colour in Anything. At the Hawk’s Well, an original ballet realised by Japanese plastic artist Hiroshi Sugimoto and Alessio Silvestrin on a Ryoji Ikeda’s song, opens the show, resolutely influenced by electronic and neo-classical styles. Feedback on the first performances.  

On one side, a surrealistic, meditative and Japanese inspired tale, At the Hawk’s Well, that draws its inspiration from 13th century Nippon theatre called “Nô”. On the other, Blake Works I, an exhilarating dance, virgin of narration or costumes. At first sight, it seems that both works have nothing in common. Yet, they share the same artistic approach: rewriting the codes of classical dance. From the first notes, we know what to expect from Alessio Silvestrin and Sugimoto’s ballet. Black figures, wearing shapeless costumes and with long hair start to move on oppressive, low frequencies, breaking the line of their androgynous bodies as well as their gestures.

This work is a modern adaptation of a play written in 1916 by Irish playwright William Butler Yeats. It tells the story of a young man seeking a water of immortality and setting foot on a far away island. When he finds the long-searched source, he realizes it has dried out. He must face the source’s fanciful keeper and an old man that has been waiting, in vain, for 50 long years for the waters to burst again. Shrouded in their glittering cloaks designed by Rick Owens, the three figures are dancing with restricted gestures, constrained by their costumes, leaving us an impression of an anti-academic influence, made by random movements, or as Silvestrin like to put it “a controlled spontaneity”. The second part of the performance echoes the first, for Forsyhte’s choreography is much more malleable and fits each dancer’s interpretation. At the Hawk unveils the artists themselves, who can’t hide behind a character, and their performance reveals their incredible technique and a refreshing feeling of freedom.

We also feel that the choreographers needed to anchor their show to the “real world”, to some excessive extents with scenes inspired by everyday life (unexpected screams, a battle clubbing-style dance) but always lightly, elegantly presented. Both ballets share the same artistic intentions (it’s no wonder that Silvestrin was a regular guest at the Forsythe company), but with completely opposite scenographic choices. And even though both works are based on electronic soundtracks, the songs highlight dancers’ gestures in a different way. Ikeda explores a deconstruction of his art and thus offers the perfect abstract context for At the Hawk’s Well’s metaphorical narration, whereas James Blake’s powerful, colourful songs retain the audience’s attention, occasionally undermining the choreography itself. Despite the dancers’ technical feats, this diversion gives us the strange feeling of being at a pop concert, with gestures illustrating music and not the other way around. The songs sound like they come out of nowhere, maybe because the album was composed after the ballet, creating sometimes an artificial atmosphere. But this quickly fades away thanks to instrumental parts where Blake’s sensibility superbly sublimes the dancers.

At the Hawk’s Well and Blake Works I performances will be given until October, 15th at the Palais Garnier. To find further information, visit the event’s Facebook page.

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