Neoclassical ballet

The Ballet National de Marseille celebrates its 50th anniversary with a Parisian program

Some birthdays are harder to celebrate than others. The National Ballet of Marseille turns 50 this year, but since its early years under neoclassical choreographer Roland Petit, its history has been somewhat erratic.

In the early 2000s, he moved completely away from classical technique, led by contemporary dancers Frédéric Flamand then Emio Greco & Pieter Scholten. In 2019, La(Horde), a young collective from jumpstyle (a genre with an electronic dance flavor), was appointed to revive the company’s declining fortunes.

It has met with some success, as evidenced by its current Parisian season (at La Villette du Théâtre de la Ville). The first of the three programs, a mixed program dedicated to the Portuguese choreographer Tânia Carvalho, was uneven but imbued with a spirit of companionship. Given the dancers’ eclectic backgrounds, from ballet to hip-hop, this is no small feat, and Carvalho’s only creation for this group, One of four time periods (ellipsis)used it to his advantage.

‘Xylography’ by Tânia Carvalho © Thierry Hauswald

There’s a studied quirkiness to Carvalho’s style. Any sense of flow tends to be sabotaged by mannered, frozen poses, with open mouths and dead eyes. There are many in the first part of One of the four periods in time (ellipse), who finds the group of 15 people in frilly dresses and red socks. Yet once Carvalho does away with the dresses, the momentum builds. Lone figures perform jerks and arabesques, then, one by one, they join the group, dragging themselves towards us, their arms sculpting neat geometric shapes.

The other two works were company premieres. In Like I could stay there forever, a 10-minute solo, a woman in a black dress lets a large part of her arms do the talking. Alternately hesitant and assured, they leap, sway and move as if attached to the strings of a puppet. Curiously, it was performed by Carvalho herself, which seems to defeat the point of adding it to a company’s repertoire.

Xylography, the second group piece, was created by the Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon. Its interrupted variations on delicate bird-like ballet arms seem less convincing now, perhaps because they unwittingly highlight the Ballet National de Marseille’s complicated relationship with its classical past.

No tribute to Petit, who directed it for a quarter of a century, seems planned and, indeed, the word “ballet” should be dropped from the company’s name. Like the British company Rambert, renamed in keeping with its contemporary identity, the French ensemble should approach the next half-century under the name of Marseille Dance Company.


As of May 22,