You know those intermissions that seem to drag on for far too long? That's how Les Grands Ballets Canadiens seemed to regard the absence from Montreal of the Ballet de l'Opéra National de Paris, which on Thursday performed at Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier for the first time in 47 years.
This great company brought with it a work that had also taken a lengthy break from the stage – 150 years, the span between the last Parisian performances of the romantic ballet-pantomime Paquita in 1851, and the day in 2001 in which a resuscitated form of the work reappeared. A ballet unperformed is usually a ballet forgotten, and indeed choreographer Pierre Lacotte had to draw most of the revived Paquita from his imagination, while retaining portions of a famous suite of dances added by Marius Petipa in 1881 to the ballet's last Russian incarnation.
The work as danced is a sympathetic and erudite guess at what the first audiences might have seen, or even felt, while absorbing the skimpy tale of a supposed gypsy lass and the young French aristocrat who falls in love with her. Luisa Spinatelli's sets, a system of tea-stained gauzy cloths painted in taupe and grey, encouraged the impression that we were peering straight into the past.
The mid-19th century was a great and formative period for the stage gypsy, that long-lived caricature of actual Roma people. Prosper Mérimée's novella Carmen appeared in print in 1845, one year before Paquita arrived on the stage.
But Paquita is a stage gypsy as far from Carmen as could be – girlish at first, with nothing exotic about her, dancing in very clean open movements. As performed by Amandine Albisson, she seemed quite transparent as a character, and in ballet, this kind of transparency signals virtue and even innocence, which was never a quality of the stage gypsy. Her opening steps would have sown doubt about her Roma nature in the minds of a 19th-century audience, and indeed she later discovers she's really the kidnapped daughter of a French nobleman. Lacotte's choreography actually recreates the essentialist view of the time: Paquita doesn't dance like a gypsy because she isn't one by blood. This is emphasized in Act I by the contrast with Inigo, her gypsy would-be lover, danced with great flair by Audric Bezard, whose en l'air entrance number hinted at the kind of technical display Lacotte had in store for later.
Lacotte's style for much of the ballet is precise, soft-edged and restrained, as befits an effort to revive the look of early Romantic ballet. He's a very musical choreographer, who at his best follows the feeling of the melody, not just its contour. This was beautifully displayed in Albisson's first duet alone with her Lucien (Josua Hoffalt), an elegant and emotionally efficient encounter in which the couple's movements often gave new depth to conductor David Coleman's arrangement of the fluent original score by Édouard Deldevez (and in later scenes by Ludwig Minkus).
Lacotte is also a skillful creator of dances for the corps de ballet, and brought his admirable corps into the action whenever possible. He took a cue from Petipa's famous "choral" pas de deux – in which the women of the corps echo the steps of the supported female lead – to show off the corps even when the principal pair might be expected to hold the stage alone. In a waltz section of the second act Grand Pas, Lacotte replicated the choral effect with two lines of couples that echoed the movements of the main pair. He also produced some strong dances for the men of the corps, including a spectacular number with capes in Act 1, and a warriors' dance in Act 2, performed in the uniforms of Napoleonic officers.
The choreographer's feeling for the period extended also to its love of mime, deployed with such economy that the thin plot business of the second act – exposing a foiled murder plot on Lucien, and revealing Paquita's true parentage – was over in two minutes. That left plenty of time for the plotless celebratory dancing that completed the elevation of Paquita and Lucien, not just as united lovers, but as the supreme balletic pair whose skill makes them worthy of such happiness.
The final scenes were an escalating trial of their prowess, demanding a great sequence of leaps and pirouettes from Albisson, as well as a string of fouettés to rival the famous 32 in Swan Lake. Hoffalt showed off his most athletic moves since the brilliant round of grand jetés that closed his first solo in Act 1, while displaying the elegance and apparent ease that marked the performance of the entire ballet.
Paquita leaves Montreal on Oct. 19, but the ballet's reappearance as a full-length work has another chapter in store, one that anyone can witness in a live stream broadcast from the Bavarian State Ballet on Jan. 11. That's when a revisioning by Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky – working with a small phalanx of dance and notation scholars – will be loosed on the world, less than a month after its Munich premiere. The company's website calls it a "reconstruction and new creation in one" – an apt description also of Lacotte's fine work.