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Wings and poetry

The Two Pigeons: La Fontaine at the Paris Opera’s Ballet School — By Stéphanie Viallefond

In the Paris Opera Ballet School’s annual presentation, scheduled from March 29 through April 4, Albert Aveline’s Les Deux Pigeons offers a link between literature and dance, evoking the eternal dialogue between the librettist and the choreographer. From the make-believe world of fables to the fantasy of dance there is but one step.


Two Pigeons loved each other with a tender love:
One of them, growing bored at home,
Was mad enough to undertake
A journey to a far-off land…

“I use animals to instruct men.” Using Fables and anecdotal accounts, La Fontaine created a menagerie to depict human passions in order to “instruct and please” in accordance with the classic rule of the 17th century. This was successfully achieved in The Two Pigeons (1678), one of the most endearing fables which warns of the dangers of leaving on a journey when one is in love. From billing and cooing, to courtship, flights, and hurt feelings, the ballet offers the ideal time span to translate the events of a tale that expounds a theme popular in literature since Homer’s Odyssey, namely, a beloved’s return. In this case, the Pigeon has dual symbolic value: that of the animal messenger, the carrier pigeon, and that of the companion of Venus, goddess of love. Romantic and lyrical, the fable concludes with the melancholic Have I passed the time to love? Yet it also evokes passing time and the love that one must know how to preserve. In 1885, Henri Régnier, formerly of the Comédie-Française and the choreographer Louis Mérante, used the tale as the framework to write the libretto for their eponymous ballet, a light and delightful work in two acts and three tableaux.

Les Deux Pigeons par l’École de Danse de l’Opéra, Palais Garnier, 2019
Les Deux Pigeons par l’École de Danse de l’Opéra, Palais Garnier, 2019 © Svetlana Loboff / OnP

The libretto

The heroes are two adolescents: Pépio is set to wed the lovely Gourouli but he has a restive yearning: before getting married, he wants to see the world. Just then, some Gypsies pass by playing music. Amongst them is the beautiful Djali. Pépio is enthralled and decides to join them. Anxious, Gourouli disguises herself as a gypsy and follows him. Once inside the Gypsy camp, Pépio falls victim to a series of mishaps: his money is stolen and he is mocked and ridiculed. He then finds himself alone outside in the middle of a thunderstorm, shunned by everyone. Gourouli who has been watching on, consoles him and takes him, soaked, dispirited, and cursing his curiosity, back to the comfort of the family nest. In this love story, Henri Régnier retained the innocence of La Fontaine’s fable by adorning it with shimmering Bohemian colours. Louis Mérante’s choreographic outline is traced on a light canvas that highlights Gourouli’s impish and seductive grace and her avian nimbleness. For his part, the young, 32-year-old André Messager composed a pitty, lively and harmonious score that would make him famous. The Ballet School now presents the Albert Aveline version that was reworked in 1923 and which entered the repertoire in 1978.

Ballet and literature

The world of dance is wordless and it shuns any formulated discourse. And yet, it is far from being devoid of text. Indeed, the relationship between the choreographer, the composer, the librettist and the poet are very close. A ballet is like a visible symphony that everyone is free to interpret. Ballets often feature an archetypal location—in this case, the no-man’s-land of a Gypsy camp in 18th century Hungary. Certain incidents indicate a demarcation between two worlds: a place of metamorphosis in which the hero encounters and struggles to discover himself through a real-life experience—in this case the violent thunderstorm. Indeed, the ballet works to blur temporality and negate the reassuring points of reference in a utopian place. As for the two characters, they represent the classic example of the loving couple. When one creates dance to express the body's rhythm and sensuality, only the action in the present remains. Choreography is the sole resource to depict human passions and make them intelligible without captions throughout the various tableaux. Dance is above all a fantasy. Thus, to be inspired by a fable is convincing since the ballet itself is a fable, a made-up tale. This choice makes it possible to choreograph events and passions. It also inspires a given era and a particular land with enchanting scenery and dazzling, colourful, folkloric costumes.

Les Deux Pigeons par l’École de Danse de l’Opéra, Palais Garnier, 2019
Les Deux Pigeons par l’École de Danse de l’Opéra, Palais Garnier, 2019 © Svetlana Loboff / OnP

Poem in motion

Like in a silent dream and as if speech has been stripped from the dancers by magic, the audience are presented a creative work based on a theme offered by the author and the choreographer. The audience interpret it and put their own words into it which gives rise to a tangible and ideal performance. Comparable to a poem, the ballet thus offers a canvas upon which the audience may project their own fantasies at will. A nocturnal and chimerical world of intuition and senses, it opens up everyone’s imagination. After seeing The Two Pigeons at the end of the 19th century and to recount his pointed impressions, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé made use of the semantics of literature: “Here dance is wings, a question of birds and of departures into neverland, of homecomings like vibrant arrows.” He goes on to add that dance is a “poem” and in doing so makes a reference to the Greek etymology of the word poem, which signifies the action of creation. As for the ballerina, “she is a metaphor, she is a sign” (from Crayonné au théâtre Ballets). Les Deux Pigeons has a longstanding place in the Ballet School’s repertoire. Elisabeth Platel, the director of the Paris Opera Ballet School says “it is our duty to preserve certain pieces by passing them on to the pupils. Les Deux Pigeons has everything that forms the foundation of our identity: French music, characters, and mime. Virtuosity as well, but without the quest for prowess for the sake of prowess alone.”
The creation of Les Deux Pigeons also heralded a major change in the technical habits of the Opera Ballet. Until 1885, and despite the relative melodic complexity of the works, choreographies were rehearsed to a violin often supported by a viola. At André Messager’s request, these were replaced by the piano in the Palais Garnier’s dance studios. And that has been the case for 135 years…

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