Thanks to Louis XIV’s love of dance, French is the language of ballet and Paris has remained the center of the art for more than 300 years since the Sun King’s splendiferous 72-year reign ended with his death in 1715.
Yet for a company so richly steeped in history, the Paris Opera Ballet has gained a 21st-century reputation for fostering the best in modern dance. Some of the credit for this certainly goes to its Director of Dance Brigitte Lefèvre, who is retiring this year after nearly two decades leading the company.
Speaking to The Japan Times ahead of the company’s upcoming Tokyo season featuring the classics “Don Quixote” and “Lady of the Camellias,” Lefèvre — a holder of France’s highly prestigious Légion d’Honneur — said, “Dance should be modern and new, but also keep the glory of the past.
“Paris Opera Ballet holds a rich place in ballet’s history, so in order to keep that high standard, we must constantly be looking to the future of dance. The Paris Opera Ballet must be the innovators with modern dance.”
With a nod toward the Japanese audience, Lefèvre explained her choice of repertoire, saying, “Within these classical ballets, our dancers are excited to be discovering something fresh and new for the Japanese audiences. They are classics, of course, but the choreography is important for each.”
“Don Quixote,” the first of the two productions to run, is being staged as it was reworked in 1966 by the legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev based on its original 1869 choreography by the French maestro Marius Petipa to the music of Viennese composer and violin virtuoso Ludwig Minkus.
In 1960, Nureyev had been discovered by a stunned Janine Runguet from the Parisian Artistic and Literary Agency when he was dancing with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad in the then little-known work, “Don Quixote.”
Runguet was in Russia with the agency — the body in charge of cultural exchanges between France and the Soviet Union — to organize a Kirov tour in the West, and she insisted that the young Nureyev was included on it. The rest is history: Nureyev danced at the Palais Garnier, the home of the Paris Opera, then defected at the city’s Le Bourget Airport on June 16, 1961.
With an average age of 25, the Paris Opera Ballet — where Nureyev was artistic director until his death, age 54, in 1992 — is one of the youngest companies in the world, and their Tokyo tour will showcase the best of both rising talents and established veterans. The lead role of Basil in “Don Quixote,” the merrily cocky barber in love with the innkeeper’s daughter Kitri, will be danced by two veteran étoiles, the highest rank in the company: Mathias Heymann, who returned last year after injury, and Karl Paquette. On March 15, audiences can also see rising star François Alu, who was named a premier danseur earlier this year, while on the 13th and 15th, Alice Renavand — one of the company’s newest étoiles — takes the stage as Kitri.
The Tokyo tour also accords pride of place to two company members who will retire this season, Agnès Letestu and Isabelle Ciaravola, who will each dance the title role of Marguerite in John Neumeier’s “Lady of the Camellias” — Letestu on March 23 and Ciaravola on March 21 and in the evening performance the following day.
Meanwhile, as Lefèvre explained, ” ‘Camellias’ is a great romantic ballet, and Neumeier is one of the best choreographers of the modern age. We also have high expectations of and admiration for the Japanese audience; they notice so many of the fine details in the costumes, the setting, the music.
“So we hope they will feel with her the tragic destiny of Marguerite, and also be fascinated by the adventures of Don Quixote.”
In contemplating these classical ballets, Lefèvre also recalled a fellow French national and contemporary-dance legend — one, indeed, whose works will be featured by The Tokyo Ballet later this year as part of their 50th anniversary celebration.
“In coming to Japan, I can’t help but think of Maurice Béjart, who was such a lover of Japan and Japanese culture. We talked often of Japan and dance,” she said. However, Lefèvre herself also feels a special connection to Japan. “The very first time I performed as a dancer overseas was in Japan, and I was shocked and impressed by the culture, by the blend of the very modern with so many traditional elements remaining.”
After her retirement this year, Lefèvre, a fan of Japanese literature, hopes to return here “to just experience Japan as an individual, not as a dancer nor a company director.
“The Japanese audience is challenging to perform for, as they are so knowledgeable about ballet. For all our artists, the Japan tour is important, and it’s important to keep our high standard and high reputation for our fans here. Since it is my last time in Japan as the company’s director of dance, I am really looking forward to this challenge.”
Paris Opera Ballet performs at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan in Ueno from March 13-23: “Don Quixote,” March 13-16; “Lady of the Camellias,” March 20-23. Tickets ¥7,000-¥25,000. For details, call 03-3791-8888, visit www.nbs.or.jp or email firstname.lastname@example.org.