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The Paris Opera Ballet Gala as Never Seen Before

Hannah O’Neill in The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude by William Forsythe. Photo by Julien Benhamou. Courtesy OnP

I have experienced the delight of entering the grandiose Palais Garnier, the opera house of Paris (1875), for a handful of opening ballet and opera galas. The evening’s excitement begins at home. I recall, as if it were yesterday, dressing in a red velvet gown by Lebanese couture house Maison Rabih Kayrouz, or, a sheer cape by Syrian designer Nabil El-Nayal painted with words from Queen Elizabeth 1’s great Tilbury Speech. The Paris Ballet Opera gala, organized each year with l’Arop (the friends of the opera) is the undisputed cultural highlight of the French capital. It is supported by Rolex, the maison Chanel, the French ministry of culture bien sur, and numerous beneficiaries from around the world. After the gala, I’ve dined in the great marble halls of the opera house with the remarkable Al Rushaid sisters from Saudi Arabia and also Jean-Claude Meyer, vice-chairman international of Rothschild & Cie. After witnessing the beauty of the ballet, presided by artistic director Aurélie Dupont, I have marveled at the couture, the high jewelry, but also the diversity, as rising stars like Kiddy Smile mingled with the likes of Marisa Berenson. Through the niche world of high fashion, I have been a privileged guest at many a spectacular occasion, but the Paris Ballet Gala has always been a personal highlight.

Paris Opera Ballet

Défilé du Ballet. Photo by Julien Benhamou. Courtesy OnP

Last night, I watched the Gala through my computer screen. Ahead of the soirée, the doorbell rang with a gourmet dinner for two, prepared by chefs Céline Pham, Manon Fleury, and Jessica and Robert Comagnon of Le Rigmarole, Paris. Nothing could have prepared me to see the grand défilé unfurl as I have never seen it before. The entire company, from the school of dance’s petits rats to the ballet’s étoiles, descended from the depths of the gilded foyer de la danse to the edge of the stage in pristine tutus, tights, glittering tiaras, and surgical masks.

The newest étoile, Paul Marque for The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude by William Forsythe. Photo by Julien Benhamou. Courtesy OnP

Valentine Colasante and Hugo Marchand in the Grand Pas classique by Victor Gsovsky. Costumes by Chanel. Photo by Julien Benhamou. Courtesy OnP

It should not have come as such a surprise. In France, everyone has been masked in public—an obligatory social gesture—for months. And yet, it is something else altogether to watch dancers who dedicate their lives to training their bodies to plié, fouetté, and pirouette with such exactitude, also bind their expression. They did so out of service—service to an international public watching through a computer screen. Every chair under the Chagall-painted ceiling of the opera was empty; and regardless, every female dancer fell to one knee, to curtsy. Every male dancer dropped his head, then shoulders and torso, to offer his reverence to a public—“somewhere, out there.” One felt the lump in one’s throat rise at such a display of respect for craft, at such a graceful and connected symbol of the human spirit.

Ludmila Pagliero and Mathieu Ganio for In the Night 1st pas de deux by Jerome Robbins. Photo by Julien Benhamou. Courtesy OnP

Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet for In the Night 2e pas de deux by Jerome Robbins. Photo by Julien Benhamou. Courtesy OnP

If, in our couture, seated in the opera, our eyes drank in the beauty, behind our screens, in our leggings and pajamas, we were prompted to consider our own contribution to society. Life is like a fairytale—whose side are we on?

Watch the opening gala for the 2021 dance season, sponsored by Rolex and maison Chanel, from January 30th here.

The program features the Défilé du ballet de l’opéra national de Paris with music by Hector Berlioz; The Grand pas classique by Victor Gsovsky, music by Daniel-François E. Auber and costumes by Chanel; In the night by Jerome Robbins, music by Frédéric Chopin; The Vertiginous thrill of exactitude by William Forsythe, music by Franz Schubert.

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