Dance Review

In Paris, Benjamin Millepied Rises to the Occasion

Benjamin Millepied’s new production of ‘‘Daphnis et Chloé’’ at the Opéra Bastille in Paris.
Credit...Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris

PARIS — A scenario: a young and unlikely outsider is picked to run one of the world’s great ballet companies. But before he takes over, and under the watchful and perhaps not entirely friendly eyes of the local press and the outgoing leadership, he must create a major work for the company he will run.

Perhaps just a little pressure then for Benjamin Millepied, the French-born, former New York City Ballet principal who will become the director of the Paris Opera Ballet on Nov. 1. His new “Daphnis et Chloé,” which opened on Saturday night at the Opéra Bastille, was commissioned by the Ballet’s current director, Brigitte Lefèvre, long before he was a contender for the position. Even if Mr. Millepied, who has created two previous works at the Opera, wasn’t the director-in-waiting, the task would not have been an easy one.

The ballet dates from the early years of the Ballets Russes, with a ravishing, ground-breaking score by Ravel, commissioned by Diaghilev. It was choreographed for Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina in 1912 by Michel Fokine, who had initially proposed the ballet to the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg as a vehicle for the reforms he wanted to effect in classical dance: the suppression of pantomime and distinct “numbers” in favor of a unified vision of music, dance and art.

A number of choreographers have tried the ballet since. With the exception of Frederick Ashton’s 1951 version, there have been few successes.

Against the odds, Mr. Millepied has one too. His “Daphnis et Chloé,” with décor by the French artist Daniel Buren, is that rarest of creatures: a new classical ballet that feels contemporary, not because it imposes a bit of extraneous modernity (some electronic music; a little talking), but because of the sensibilities of its creators. Ravel’s shimmering score, Mr. Buren’s restrained, color-infused geometric forms that hover over the stage, Madjid Hakimi’s poetic, opalescent lighting and Mr. Millepied’s pared-down, fluid choreography, beautifully danced, combine to produce a work that realizes Fokine’s century-old wishes.

The slim story of “Daphnis” is based on the writings of the 2nd-century Greek writer Longus, recounting the overcoming of obstacles set in the way of two young lovers. Their fidelity is tested and pirates abduct Chloé, who must be rescued by divine intervention before love and order can be restored.

Mr. Millepied and Mr. Buren have taken a nonliteral approach. There are no grottos and statues of nymphs, no explicit worship of the god Pan or re-enactment of his love for Syrinx. Neither is there overt allusion to the Grecian setting of the tale. A Greece of the imagination is nonetheless evoked by the lighting, which creates dawns, dusks and skies of glowing beauty, by the pale, simply draped dresses (by Holly Hynes), and by the starkness of the stage. It is empty of décor except for huge translucent shapes — a circle, a diamond, a rectangle, a square, each a different color — that float slowly up and down or across the space, evoking mood and musical coloration.

Each shape is bordered by black and white stripes, a signature motif for Mr. Buren, who uses these also for a striped front drop that creates a slightly ominous hallucinatory effect, colluding wonderfully with the wordless chorus of the music’s opening moments.

Credit...Agathe Poupeney/Opéra National de Paris

Mr. Millepied’s choreography — imaginative, musical, attentive to the gifts of his dancers — is perhaps the best work he has done yet. He has long demonstrated talent and potential, with admirable craftsmanship in his ensemble patterning and inventive partnering. But his work can often feel dry, theoretical. Here he finds a wonderful suspension between abstraction and narrative, in a physical language that is balletic but spare, with frieze-like compositional echoes of figures on Greek vases, and floor-skimming partnering that never feels showy or overly elaborated.

He also creates a distinctive kinetic personality for each of his principals, most remarkably in lyrical yet dynamic solos for Hervé Moreau as Daphnis. Mr. Moreau is a revelation here, particularly in a superb solo in which he first shows his love for Chloé. Demonstrating both extreme control in slow, adagio movement and quick, impetuous passion in a series of ever-widening jumps, Mr. Moreau’s beauty of line and musicality are fully to the fore.

He is also, throughout, an impeccable partner to Aurélie Dupont’s Chloé. Chaste, slightly cool, with exquisite phrasing that reveals far more about her character than her face does, Ms. Dupont is a nice foil to Mr. Moreau’s youthful ardor. So too is Eleonora Abbagnato’s knowing Lycénion, the seductress who tries to lure Daphnis away from Chloé. Their pas de deux, with its skater-like skimming turns, its liquid, slippery lifts and winding embraces, makes the most of the golden-haired Ms. Abbagnato’s clarity and articulation; every movement is etched upon the eye even as it disappears into the next.

Mr. Millepied also triumphs in his solo for Bryaxis, the pirate who captures Chloé, and in which the virtuosic François Alu almost steals the show with a display of pyrotechnics that never seems extraneous to the story.

The narrative is mostly handled with skill; the temptations of Daphnis and Chloé by Lycénion and Dorcon (Alessio Carbone, nicely wicked), the arrival of the pirates, the abduction of Chloé, all unfold inevitably. Mr. Millepied falters slightly at the rescue of Chloé, when the stage flares red (presumably a sign of Pan’s anger — happily no one with horns appears) and the lovers reunite rather anticlimactically at the back of the stage.

But the final scene, in which the ensemble, now dressed in bright gold, green, blue and orange, joyfully reunite, makes up for any lag in momentum. Mr. Millepied’s ability to create ever-shifting pattern — often echoing Mr. Buren’s geometries — is on dazzling display here, fully equal to the music’s intensifying dynamics and colors. At 55 minutes, this is a substantial work, a major moment in Mr. Millepied’s career, and a good augur for his directorship. Sighs of relief all around.

He won’t, however, be able to rest on his laurels when it comes to Balanchine. The opening ballet, “Palais de Cristal,” choreographed by Balanchine for the Paris Opera in 1947 (reworked a year later as “Symphony in C” for the New York City Ballet) and in gaudily ugly new costumes by Christian Lacroix, showed almost no understanding of the speed or contrasting dynamics of the choreography. (Honorable exceptions were Ludmila Pagliero, Nolwenn Daniel and Pierre-Arthur Raveau.) The best thing about it was listening to the orchestra, albeit at languid tempi, conducted by the Paris Opera’s musical director Philippe Jordan, who also led a fine choral and orchestral rendition of “Daphnis.”

Happily, “Daphnis” left a different memory of the dancers; musical, sparkling, fervent, the Paris Opera Ballet at its best.

Balanchine/Millepied. Paris Opera Ballet.Through June 8.