Swellboy on… a performance-art premiere

A jewellery-house-backed ballet with an avant-garde choreographer, Hollywood star and top couturier in attendance: it could only be Paris

Image: Brijesh Patel

I know so little about contemporary dance that I do not, countrary to the old truism, even know what I like. Therefore it was with a mind so wide open that you could have driven a truck through it that I turned up at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris for the world premiere of Reflections, a work by Benjamin Millepied, performed by his recently founded company LA Dance Project.

Of course, it was not for my ignorance of matters contemporary and terpsichorean that I was asked along, but rather because my friend Nicolas Bos, who runs Van Cleef & Arpels, had asked me. Nicolas is a cultured guy, and over the past few years he has been involving Van Cleef in the arts. Besides, the brand has a history when it comes to dance. It was while sheltering from the rain underneath the awnings outside Van Cleef & Arpels in New York that the amazing George Balanchine (who, as master of the Ballets Russes, cranked out nine ballets for Diaghilev between 1924 and 1929, before going on to co-found the New York City Ballet) was inspired by the window displays to create the ballet Jewels – apparently one of the earliest, if not the first, of the abstract ballets. And a little while ago I helped Nicolas a bit with his Bals de Légende collection of high jewellery, writing a book about the history of costume balls in the 20th century.  

There is something fascinating about experiencing the first night of a piece of performance art. To be among the very first people to see a piece that may well live on for generations, if not centuries, is quite special. While I cannot pretend to have understood it entirely, I was able to force myself to stop looking for meaning and relax into the work itself – which, to my pleasant surprise, I found myself enjoying.

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Millepied was, rather bravely I thought, there himself, and during each of the two entr’actes was unfailingly good natured with the crowd of admirers who pressed around asking for a photograph with him and questioning him as to what it all meant. I thought was rather nice that his friends turned out to support him, among them a delightful chap called Alber Elbaz, next to whom I was seated. He is the head honcho at Lanvin and he could not have been more charming with the women who ran up to him during each interval to ask for his photograph and, for all I know, to ask him what his clothes meant.

I’m aware that it is my Francophilia getting the better of me, but I cannot help thinking that only Paris could have provided the cultural microclimate necessary to propagate this situation. A century-old jewellery house was putting on a ballet created by an avant-garde choreographer married to a Hollywood star (Mrs Millepied, née Portman, turned up in vertiginous heels and Dior) before an audience including at least one of the very top couturiers (there may have been more, but I had eyes only for Mr Elbaz). If nothing else, it was nice to see an audience of women in evening dress and jewels rather than the semi-vagrant look that seems to be de rigueur when attending a theatrical or balletic entertainment in London.

It was also the first time that I had visited the Théâtre du Châtelet, and I was impressed by the posters from past productions that adorned the walls. The Trésors du Rajah, for instance, featured a man in knee breeches and a wig fighting a lion with a rapier. I don’t know how long this show ran, but it must have been a hell of a drain on the number of Asiatic lions. Even more intriguing was the poster for the theatrical production of Germinal, which, if I recall, featured five acts and 12 tableaux (or was it 12 acts and five tableaux?). Anyway, I could not help wondering how the director of this piece was able to recreate the drama of the novel, not least the business of lowering horses down mineshafts…

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Still, you never know: given the success of War Horse, it might make a very popular revival, and in light of the equine overtones, maybe Hermès could sponsor it.

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