The Paris Opera Ballet is idolized as one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world, yet for some reason—perhaps because I had never observed dancers who had nurtured such finesse—I was not expecting its dancers to move as beautifully as they did and to be as effervescent with magic as the story they told: Le songe d’une nuit d’été (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). They had me literally sitting on the edge of my seat (they and my insistence, as a twenty-something, upon purchasing a ticket for one of the least expensive and worst seats in the Opéra Bastille); they were enchanting, and I was enchanted.
Choreographed by Balanchine and set to music by Mendelssohn, the ballerinas’ dance was the apogee of whatever notions of feminine fragility captured America’s heart half a century ago. In the first act, Hermia jumped into the palladium of Lysander’s arms, both legs folded under her body like a caterpillar’s newly formed wings, still too immature to spread and resting just below its protective chrysalis. Upon his catching her, she descended into an arabesque—one leg pointed straight below her, the other straight behind—with languid elegance, as if she were suspended in water, and finally, Lysander assisting her in performing various extensions en pointe, she wrapped a single leg around his torso to give life and shape to a series of movements across the floor.
The quiescent power of the male dancers was most exhibited during one of Obéron’s solos—the dancer had leviathan thighs, pure muscle, which made me long for the idea of having lots of muscle, all for a purpose, and nothing else besides. It’s an idea that applies not only to the male dancers but to the ballerinas, too; for them to be able to lift themselves by a string from their center of gravity and to lift their legs so high above their swan’s necks into the air requires immense strength. Obéron masterfully executed quick coups-de-pied that ended in little extensions, all within the span of a few seconds and in the air.
The couple who opened the second act controlled the ballerina’s movements together. She trembled as she leaned on her partner for support as if at any moment she could deliquesce into him, but rather than making her seem unfit for her role, this made the things they made together all the more beautiful because it was obvious that they needed each other.
There was beauty also in the production of the ballet. I thought the fairies’ costumes strange, but a part of me liked them for their whimsicality. The three lead ballerinas’ wedding tutus were speckled with gold; the others’ were all white. The court costumes—blue dresses for the girls, billowing white shirts for the men—were charming. I quite liked one of the sets, pink blossoms protruding from the wings, and then there was the aesthetic of the choreography, not only that of the soloists’ and couples’ dances but that of the company, their formations as they wove in lines and formed semicircles in the backstage. The dances had a contrived softness to them, a worked-for illusion of sweetness that expressed physically what we all crave from love, much as people express their thoughts and feelings through language. It’s more difficult, in a way, to communicate through ballet, because there are no words, but the dance is itself a language that has us all sitting on the edge of our seats to watch unfold stories of love.