Ballet: Roland Petit’s Notre Dame de Paris

Notre Dame de Paris [1967/2013] 

I watched this 2013 Bolshoi Theatre-Teatro alla Scala production of Roland Petit’s 1967 ballet Notre Dame de Paris, based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. This is a magnificent ballet based on my all-time favourite classic book. Esmeralda is played by Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, who is currently a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet in London, and Roberto Bolle, a well-known Italian danseur, is Quasimodo. This avant-garde ballet fuses traditional ballet elements with modern dance techniques, and tells the story of a poor gypsy girl Esmeralda who becomes the object of ardent desire on part of three distinct men: strict priest Claude Frollo, hideous, but kind-hearted bell-ringer Quasimodo and handsome Captain Phoebus. Flamboyant, colourful costumes, designed by no other than Yves Saint Laurent, as well as music by film composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia [1962]) help turn this production into a real feast for the eyes (and ears!), as the ballet also deals in such themes as religious devotion, duty, romantic love and erotic longing.

Before Notre Dame de Paris, which first premiered in 1967 in Paris, Roland Petit had already made his name with such ballet productions as Le Jeune Homme et La Mort [1946] and Carmen [1949], and in Notre Dame, he showcases his biggest asset in developing choreography – the ability to seemingly fuse historical realism with a fantastical narrative. The First Act opens with the corps de ballet dressed in colourful attire executing almost acrobatic movements in their dance. They are in the role of the town folk gathered to celebrate the Feast of Fools. These same people will also later dance the eerie dance of beggars and cripples of the city as the story moves to the Court of Miracles, a slum district in Paris. For now, it is Quasimodo (Roberto Bolle), the ugly bell-ringer of Notre Dame, who is chosen as the King during the Feast of Fools. What is interesting is that Roberto Bolle is considered to be one of the handsomest principal danseurs currently performing in the world and, yet, he is performing the role of the hideous Quasimodo. The fact that this “royal-looking” dancer chose to play the role of Quasimodo has as many admirers as it does critics. Bolle has to execute the most challenging role too. He has to perform his movements, while also appear crippled and hunch-backed.

After the appearance of Frollo (Mick Zeni), who looks ghostly and foreboding, there shortly appears Esmeralda, and Osipova could hardly ever dreamed of a more effective entry for her character. Dressed in white to signify purity and innocence, Esmeralda comes suddenly into our view since she has been hidden by a crowd of admirers. Osipova begins one of the most memorable dances in the ballet, showing off Esmeralda’s charm, as well as her character’s playful, carefree nature. In the story, entranced by Esmeralda’s beauty all over again, Claude Frollo commands Quasimodo to kidnap the girl for him. However, white doing so, Captain Phoebus (Eris Nezha), dressed in white and blue, appears to rescue the girl, while Quasimodo is taken to custody.

The novel by Victor Hugo is based on contrasts – beauty vs. ugliness, knowledge vs. ignorance, goodness vs. evil, selflessness vs. avarice, selfless romantic love/devoted friendship vs. lascivious desires, and the ballet also tries to delve into these contrasts, with each character trying to convey a range of emotions through their actions and movements. One of the most interesting elements of this ballet is that, as in the book, each character in the ballet seems to be “controlled” by something (beyond their reach), some powerful emotion which tears them apart. This effect of being “controlled” by something is what each principal dancer conveys so convincingly during the performances. Esmeralda is “controlled” by her fear of Frollo and by love she feels for Phoebus, Frollo, in turn, is “controlled” by his irresistible passion for Esmeralda which makes him do terrible deeds, and, finally, Quasimodo – by the desire to be accepted, understood and loved for who he is. Thus, at the start of the play, Frollo is seemingly being “controlled” by Esmeralda’s tambourine, executing ‘dance-like” movements with his hands to the beat of the gypsy’s music. The climax is reached as the trio’s passions and desires collide.

The seduction of Esmeralda by Phoebus and her shy and then loving responses are given many scenes in the ballet. In fact, Notre Dame de Paris is very much eroticised and we see Phoebus surrounded by “loose women” at a tavern, clearly being an alpha male there, and then scenes of both imaginary and real foreplay involving Phoebus, Esmeralda and Frollo. In fact, Esmeralda seemingly sheds her clothing and dances in her underwear. The trio’s dance is another unforgettable piece, with Frollo being half in his imaginary world, half in reality, driven by jealousy and despair. This scene, of course, ends in a tragedy and Esmeralda is soon arrested. Later, Quasimodo and Esmeralda’s moving pas de deux highlights their curiosity and hidden fears about each other. They develop tender friendship, and their synchronised movements hint at all the things they have in common, such as being both victims of oppression.

Powerful solos, as well as group dances, are choreographed to perfection, and the music often signals the urgency of the drama unfolding, be it passions aroused by the gypsy or the danger Esmeralda or Quasimodo face at any given time. A cinematic score might have been exactly what this ballet required. The music sometimes imitates a cathedral choir or Esmeralda’s tambourine, but the march of soldiers is also memorable.

In sum, Notre Dame de Paris is a spellbinding, stylish production that combines medieval atmosphere, traditional ballet and modern dance elements.


7 thoughts on “Ballet: Roland Petit’s Notre Dame de Paris

  1. What a timely post! I am reading the book right now and enjoying it. The ballet sounds wonderful. This is the kind of story that lends itself beautifully to the performing arts. Thanks for your review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! You’re right, it does lend itself wonderfully to all kinds of artistic expression. Victor Hugo created both unforgettable characters and unforgettable scenes.


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