The Secret Passageway of Ballet Preljocaj's "La Fresque"

Mar 26, 2019

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Two dancers facing front, two dancers facing back with right legs extended and arms extended out Two dancers facing front, two dancers facing back with right legs extended and arms extended out
Photo by Jean-Claude Carbonne

Experiencing performance in Palace of Versailles added to magic

I've experienced many a magic moment in the theater during my career, but perhaps none quite so memorable as the night I saw La Fresque in the Palace of Versailles.

As a dance presenter, I'm often invited to performances far and wide, and I attend as many as I can. But I would have likely had to decline the invitation to see Ballet Preljocaj perform La Fresque at the Versailles Opera House, had it not been for the happy coincidence that my husband and I were planning to be on vacation in Paris on the very same dates.

The U.S. agent for the company would not be attending until the following week, but he promised to secure tickets for us for the opening night, when another U.S. presenter would also be attending. We were to meet a member of Ballet Preljocaj's tour management team for a glass of champagne before the show, and she would have our tickets in hand.

Now, I vaguely remember shuffling by the Opera House on a college tour of Versailles and its gardens, but I hadn't been fully aware of the active presenting program in this 721-seat, 18th-century jewel. Versailles residents come to theater, dance, and music performances here as nonchalantly as Minneapolitans might visit The Cowles or The State or Orpheum.

I was not so blasé about attending my first performance here, mapping the route from Paris in advance, purchasing the RER tickets, and planning the arrival to allow plenty of time for a wrong turn or two on the walk from the train station to the intimidating Palace entry gates. It was evening, so parking lots that were normally full of tour buses were empty, and we picked our way carefully across the cobblestones—possibly the same ones from the mid-1700s when the Palace was built. A quick bag check and farther walk to the North entrance brought us inside the massive structure, where we followed the happy sounds of clinking champagne glasses and the anticipatory murmur of audience voices.

When it came time to be seated, we were ushered up narrow, grey stone stairs and pointed toward a wooden doorway that led to a small room with yet another door. As we opened that, we found ourselves in what surely must have been Louis XVI's own private box, velvet chairs and all, dead center in the first ring with THE perfect view of the stage.

Feeling a bit conspicuous—remembering that the boxes are where you can SEE and BE SEEN—we tried to get settled quickly and quietly. Which of the six chairs should we sit in? Would any others be joining us? And if we moved a chair slightly closer to the front, would it be noisy? Indeed it would, for the theater is made entirely of wood—even those grand pillars that are painted to look like marble—and the acoustics are excellent.

These special seats in this extraordinary venue made us feel like we were in a different world and it was a feeling that only became stronger once the performance began. La Fresque was mesmerizing from start to finish. Unfolding like a collection of short stories, each scene has its own mood, defined by clear and specific movement as well as distinctive music and lighting. I have always admired Preljocaj's choreography, but watching La Fresque left me in awe of his mastery once again. It really feels as though he is working at the peak of his powers, with a company of dancers on his exact same wavelength.

The 80 minutes seemed to be over in a flash. Not wanting to break the spell, we waited for most of the audience to clear out, and then sought out the company representative to express our gratitude and to make sure that she kept Minneapolis in mind for the upcoming U.S. tour. Since she kindly offered us a ride back to the train station, we followed her back into the theater—now empty, but still, somehow, vibrating from the experience. Climbing directly up onto the stage and crossing behind the curtains to the backstage area, I thought, “Is this really happening? Am I on the stage of the Opera House at the Palace of Versailles?”

Suddenly, it got very dark as we reached a final curved stairway. She pushed open a door, and there we were, on a cobblestone street in Versailles, bathed in moonlight—much like the travelers expelled from the fantastic painting in La Fresque.

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