There’s a conundrum right at the heart of ballet, and it’s this: how to make the effort of dancing appear at once effortless and profoundly human. Last week at the Granada, Switzerland’s Ballet de Genève took a stab at the worthy task with a program of works by Benjamin Millepied, the former New York City Ballet principal dancer and rising choreographic star. The program consisted of “Amoveo” (2009) and two tributes to ballet history: “Le Spectre de la Rose” and “Les Sylphides” (both 2011).
It was 1911 when Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes premiered Michel Fokine’s “Le Spectre de la Rose” at the Monte Carlo Opera House. The dancers were Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinski; the designers, Leon Bakst and Jean Cocteau. A century later, only 30 seconds of film footage remain of the Ballet Russes onstage. What we know from the surge of critical and public response is that these dancers were exquisitely gifted, the choreography provocative and even shocking, the designs fresh and modern. Dance had never looked like this before.
Of course it’s impossible to re-create the excitement of those premieres, and it’s bold even to revisit them. Millepied’s “Le Spectre” is restaged for not two but four dancers, and though the three suitors pull off their courtship of the young dreamer with great aplomb and some pleasantly suggestive pelvic circles, it’s about as slick and predictable as it gets. Staged for 20 dancers, “Les Sylphides” is richer and more nuanced, thanks in part to the women’s full-skirted dresses that skim and float like flower petals on water, mauve and rose and peach and gold. Here, Millepied’s humor is pleasingly understated, and subtle surprises abound: A pile of bodies becomes a stairway for climbing; a musical refrain finds its match in a series of repeated tableaux, each time with more dancers rushing in to join the party.
Presented alongside these Ballet Russes homages, “Amoveo” felt out of place — an abstract meditation on love backed by a slow-moving film of geometric patterns and swept along on a Philip Glass score. It was almost enough just to marvel at the way these dancers negotiated the transitions from floor to air and back again.
There’s no question these are world-class dancers, and in Millepied’s hands, the women are lovely and lithe; the men, jaunty and impeccably controlled. Nothing’s missing, yet nothing shocks us awake. Like the young woman in “Le Spectre,” the viewer floats through these dances as if through a pleasant dream.