Nearly seventy years ago, anticipating the political surge of feminism, two women from different countries created dramatic ballets about independent women, an aristocratic seductress and a possible killer. Few female choreographers have ever established worldwide reputations, even fewer whose work has survived their death. So the Paris Opéra Ballet‘s staging of Birgit Cullberg’s Miss Julie (1950) and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend (1948) animates an intriguing chapter of dance history while commenting indirectly on the current artistic landscape.
Never before produced by this company, Miss Julie distills Strindberg’s play into a sensual struggle, a seesaw of personal ambition channeled through sexual barter. Rejecting her father’s choice of a husband, the headstrong Julie chooses her own partner, confident that her valet’s subserviant position requires him to satisfy her passionate whims.
Violette Verdy, who first took the title role in America, described the ballet as “something constructed mentally, like a film scenario, then filled with dance.” To me, the ensembles looked extraneous, possibly because Nicolas Le Riche and Aurélie Dupont drew every flicker of eroticism and power from the leading roles, essentially embodying the play by themselves.
Fall River Legend
Alice Renavand, the company’s newest étoile, brought the same riveting focus to Fall River Legend, portraying the infamous Lizzie Borden who in 1892 was tried and acquitted of killing her parents with an axe. Already well-known for her ballet Rodeo and the musicals Oklahoma! and Brigadoon, de Mille captured this emotional narrative of strait-laced American morality in vigorous legible movement that still grips the imagination.
Whether because they lack sufficiently charismatic dancers or no longer value their art’s history, dance companies today rarely risk staging these works. See them in Paris if you possibly can-the performance I attended was sold out.
The three best historic ballet revivals:
Miss Julie and Fall River Legend until 13 March; Notre-Dame de Paris (1965), 30 June-16 July. Paris Opéra Ballet, Palais Garnier. www.operadeparis.fr
Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (1946). Kings of the Dance, London Coliseum, 19-22 March. www.eno.org
Merce Cunningham’s Sounddance (1975). Rambert Dance Company, Sadler’s Wells, 20-24 May. www.sadlerswells.com
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