Inside The Paris Opera Ballet’s Opening Gala With Chanel

Arriving at the Palais Garnier is an almost ecclesiastical experience on any given day, but especially so on the night of the opening gala for the Opera National de Paris’ dance season. On Friday, guest ascended the grand marble staircase, a piece of theater in itself, which along with its 30 meter – high vault, was dressed in a cascade of satin ribbons identical to the ones used to tie ballet shoes – scenography designed by the Opera Ballet’s patron Chanel.

The return to live dance performance after 18 months of interruptions due to the pandemic added to the air anticipation in the auditorium as the audience took their seats under the Marc Chagall – painted ceiling. Just two nights earlier, the newly appointed musical director.

Gustavo Dudamel inaugurated his first season at the Palais Garnier by taking the audience – French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte among them – on a journey through over a century of opera, from Georges Bizet’s Carmen to John Adams’ Doctor Atomic.

As the director of dance Aurelie Dupon told me later in the evening, the atmosphere backstage was a combination of excitement and nervousness. ‘Film has been a great way for the public to see our performances’, she says. ‘But dancers are born to be on stage with a live audience. If you don’t have the reaction, if you don’t have the orchestra, if you don’t have the lights, it’s not the same. And when it ends, you will never see that exact same performance again’.

Dressed in Chanel jewelry and a black cotton gilet and matching trousers from the spring 2021 collection, Dupont welcomed guests to the gala from the stage alongside director general Alexander Neef and introduced the evening’s program. Staying true to tradition, the opening act was the defile du ballet, a procession bringing together all of the company’s dancers, from the school’s pupils to the etoiles. The prima ballerinas wore tutus, corsets, and tiaras that were made in collaboration between Chanel, the Opera’s ateliers, and the embroiders Lasage; continuing the couture house’s long affiliation with dance, which began in 1920 when Gabrielle Chanel helped Serge Diaghilev revive The Rite of Spring (1913).

Two contemporary works commissioned by Dupont followed. The first was Brise – lames (Breakwater) by Damien Jalet, who recently premiered his latest work Planet [wandered] at the Theatre National de Chaillot. During France’s second lockdown, the Belgian – French choreographer realized this complex sequence of fluid, interlacing movements for nine dancers inspired by the crests and throughs of the ocean. Brise – lames, as Jalet wrote in the program is ‘a metaphor for the resilience, force, and vulnerability of the front line’.

The Second works, Clouds Inside by Tess Voelker, made an uplifting halftime performance. A 24-years – old, the American choreographer is something of a supernova in the dance world, and through this tender and playful duet, she wanted to reflect the sense of nostalgia for childhood naivety with the soundtrack, Cello Song by British singer – songwriter Nick Drake evoked.

Having entered the Paris Opera‘s repertoire in 1952, the late Danish choreographer Harald Lander’s Etudes once again made a return to the stage. In this effervescent one – act ballet, dancers ritualistically rehearse simple movements such as plies and tendus until they are equipped to take flight and launch themselves into more elaborate jetes and sautes. By closely examining these buildings blocks of classical ballet, Lander sought to demonstrate both the technical and physical prowess as well as the passion and dedication it takes to be a ballet dancer.

Once the curtain fell, guests of Chanel, Rolex (the Paris Opera’s partner), and the Opera itself were invited to a dinner in the Belle Epoque grandeur of the Grand Foyer. Photographers Inez & Vinoodh; designers Virginie Viard, Haider Ackermann, Isabel Marant, Pierre Hardy, and Ludovic de Saint Sernin; actors Golshifteh Farahani, Fatou N’Diaye and Marine Vacth, and burlesque dancer and model Dita Von Teese were among the 750 who attended. A menu curated by the restaurant guide Le Fooding brought together some of the boldest names in modern French cuisine, including Manon Fleury, Celine Pham, Hessica Yang, and Robert Compagnon. While floral arrangements courtesy of Eric Chauvin incorporated seasonal blooms such as hydrangeas, calla lilies, lisianthus, dahlias, and roses.

As the evening drew to a close, it marked the beginning of a new season of dance, at which point I asked Dupont what she was most excited about for the year ahead. New work by Israeli choreographer Hofesh Shechter (14 March – 13 April 2022), a ballet adaptation of the Stendhal novel Le Rouge et Le Noir by French choreographer Pierre Lacotte (15 October – 4 November), and an evening inspired by Russia’s contributions to dance (29 November 2021 – 2 January 2022) were among the productions she highlighted.

‘Historically, the repertoire of the Paris Opera Ballet has been very classical’, Dupont concludes. ‘But as we saw tonight, the company has the talent to do everything – both classical and contemporary’.