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National Ballet of Marseille celebrates its 50th year with a Paris programme

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

In the early 2000s, it moved away from classical technique altogether, with the contemporary dancemakers Frédéric Flamand and later Emio Greco & Pieter Scholten at the helm. In 2019, La(Horde), a young collective with a background in jumpstyle (an electronic dance-flavoured genre), was appointed to revive the company’s declining fortunes.

It has achieved a measure of success, as its current Paris season (at Théâtre de la Ville’s La Villette) demonstrates. The first of three programmes, a mixed bill devoted to the Portuguese choreographer Tânia Carvalho, was uneven but infused with a sense of company spirit. Given the dancers’ eclectic backgrounds, from ballet to hip-hop, this is no small feat, and Carvalho’s one creation for this group, One of Four Periods in Time (Ellipsis), used it to its advantage.

There is a studied weirdness to Carvalho’s style. Any sense of flow tends to be scuppered by mannered, frozen poses, complete with open mouths and dead eyes. There are a lot of them in the first part of One of Four Periods in Time (Ellipsis), which finds the 15-strong group in frilly dresses and red socks. Yet once Carvalho does away with the dresses, momentum builds. Lone figures perform abrupt jumps and arabesques, then, one by one, they join the group, shuffling towards us, their arms carving out neat geometric shapes.

The other two works were company premieres. In As If I Could Stay There Forever, a 10-minute solo, a woman in a black dress lets her arms do much of the talking. Alternatively hesitant and assured, they dart, swing and move as if attached to puppet strings. Oddly, it was performed by Carvalho herself, which seems to defeat the point of adding it to a company’s repertoire.

Xylographie, the second group piece, was first performed by the Lyon Opera Ballet. Its halted variations on dainty, birdlike ballet arms seem less convincing now, perhaps because it unwittingly highlights the National Ballet of Marseille’s complicated relationship to its classical past.

No tribute to Petit, who led it for a quarter of a century, appears to be planned and, in truth, the word “ballet” should be dropped from the company’s name. Much like the British company Rambert, which rebranded in line with its contemporary identity, the French ensemble should approach the next half-century as the Marseille Dance Company.

★★★☆☆

To May 22, theatredelaville-paris.com

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