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Paris Opera Ballet’s return to Montreal was 13 years in the making

Paquita had its premiere in 1846. Opéra de Paris - Paquita Télécharger l'original Ballet de l'Opéra national de paris Photos : Christophe Pelé

Christophe Pelé/Ballet de l'Opéra national de paris

When the Paris Opera Ballet takes the stage at Montreal's Place des Arts on Thursday, it will be a momentous occasion. The last (and only) time the legendary company appeared in Canada was during Montreal's Expo 67.

Even more exciting is the repertoire. Paquita, which premiered in Paris in 1846, has never been seen in North America. Dance archeologist and former company dancer, Pierre Lacotte, recreated the work in 2001 based on extensive research.

This visit, after an absence of 47 years, is due to the enduring friendship between Gradimir Pankov, artistic director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and Brigitte Lefèvre, director of dance at the Paris Opera Ballet. Says Pankov: "Way back in 2001, I told Brigitte of my dream to bring her company to Montreal. It has taken 13 years to make the dream come true."

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When ballet cognoscenti say "Paris Opera Ballet" it is with deep reverence. The company is not only the oldest in the world, it is arguably the finest. The Bolshoi and Mariinsky troupes may be more famous, but the Paris company has the august lineage. Louis XIV established the umbrella organization, which includes both the ballet and the opera, in 1669.

The home of the Paris Opera Ballet is the grandiose Palais Garnier, once the largest stage in the world. Little-known architect Charles Garnier was the surprise choice when he won the 1860 competition to build the new Paris opera house, which opened in 1875.

Last March, I was among a group of Canadian journalists invited to Paris to meet with the company, where we had a backstage tour of the opera house, which also included a ballet rehearsal of Don Quixote. (Tourists can visit the Garnier's public spaces for €10 ($14) which raises €7-million a year for company coffers.)

Perhaps the best moment for me was to stand on the Garnier stage looking out at the opulent theatre. What one doesn't see from the house is the 5 per cent rake of the stage. The angle, in fact, seems quite steep.

Dance needs a sprung floor that absorbs shocks while providing a softer landing. Modern-day sprung floors are often supported with foam backing. In the 19th century, a clever engineer created the Garnier's sprung floor by cutting tennis balls in half for the hardwood to rest on. The stage can be lifted in panels so the company can take it with with them when touring theatres have an inadequate bounce factor.

The dyeing room with brightly coloured swatches of fabric everywhere, the millinery room festooned with hats, the wardrobe rooms with their cutting tables and sewing machines, make the Garnier feel like an industrial metropolis. Only current repertoire is actually stored at the Garnier. Most amusing are the specially designed vertical hangers for tutus, which are suspended overhead from the ceiling. The tutus are affixed by clips, one above the other.

The Don Quixote rehearsal was in the space that Rudolf Nureyev carved out beneath the Garnier's dome at the very top of the building when he was director of dance (1983-89). He wanted a rehearsal room that had high ceilings for lifts and a floor as wide as the Garnier stage.

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The organization of the Paris Opera Ballet is like none other. In fact, its cutthroat atmosphere is notorious. There are 154 dancers split over five categories, which, from bottom to top are quadrille, coryphée, sujet, premiere danseur and étoile. To move up the hierarchy, a dancer has to undergo an annual exam in which he or she performs solos, one assigned and one personal choice.

In contrast, étoiles are appointed by the director of the Opéra national de Paris (the collective name for the ballet and opera) on the recommendation of the dance director. We were lucky enough to witness an elevation to étoile. The dancers were taking their curtain call after a stunning performance of John Cranko's Onegin when suddenly joining them on stage was Lefèvre and her boss, Nicolas Joel. The dancers stopped in their tracks. Together Lefèvre and Joel announced that Amandine Albisson, who had been a luminous Tatiana, was promoted to étoile.

The ballerina burst into tears while her colleagues applauded. The other dancers kept pushing her up to the front to take her many solo bows. The ballerina cried the entire time, and one couldn't help being caught up in the emotion. Incidentally, it was Nureyev who first made the étoile-naming a public event.

The Paris Opera Ballet is bringing 122 people to Montreal, and a mandated feature of their visit is that each person must have his or her own hotel room. The total cost of the visit is $2-million. Says Pankov: "All we want to do is break even."

The Paris Opera Ballet performs Paquita at Montreal's Place des Arts Oct. 16 to 19.

The travel expenses of the Canadian journalists were underwritten by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

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