Angelin Preljoçaj b. 1957
Siddharta (2010)
Duration: 109 minutes

Opéra Bastille, Paris
Luke Jennings
The Observer, Saturday 20 March 2010

Paris Opéra Ballet premieres are must-attend events in the city's cultural calendar, and tickets for Angelin Preljocaj's Siddharta had been sold out for weeks when the piece opened on Thursday. The son of Albanian immigrants, 53-year-old Preljocaj is one of France's most distinguished choreographers, with a quarter-century of challenging and often luxuriantly beautiful works to his name. His best-known creation, now something of a signature piece for the Paris Opéra Ballet, is Le Parc (1994), a sensuous promenade through 17th-century art, literature and erotic intrigue set to Mozart adagios.

Siddharta describes the spiritual journey of the Indian prince who would become the Buddha. At the ballet's opening we discover him at an opulent court celebration, where his father is urging him to assume his princely responsibilities. Unwilling to do so, Siddharta (Nicolas Le Riche) retires to the river to meditate. There he has a vision of his own spiritual awakening, in the form of a beautiful woman (Aurélie Dupont), surrounded by handmaidens.

Renouncing his former life, Siddharta dedicates himself to this vision, and he and his cousin Ananda (Stéphane Bullion) vow to live an ascetic existence. They weaken, however, and fall prey to two temptresses. Filled with remorse, the two men mortify themselves, and Siddharta is once again inspired by a vision of his ideal, who shimmers just out of reach. Finally, acknowledging that all earthly attachments are illusory, he achieves transcendence.

Those familiar with Swan Lake will note the many thematic echoes, and in its presentation of women as either agents of redemption or damnation – either white swans or black – this is as much a 19th as a 21st-century ballet. Preljocaj's choreography, however, has a wholly contemporary focus. His ensemble passages are unremarkable, and a cosmic disorder scene in which the forces of darkness wear black motorcycle helmets is just straight silly, but his duets for Le Riche and Dupont are mesmerisingly beautiful, as is the display of whirling, anguished athleticism in which Le Riche and Bullion express their morning-after remorse. Preljocaj's own long-term quest has been to harness the earthly, physical nature of dance to its metaphysical possibilities, and in these and similar passages he succeeds magisterially.

He is assisted both by Bruno Mantovani's measured, dramatic score, and by the ludic grandeur of Claude Léveque's sets. The seduction of the two pilgrims and the after-dance take place on the just-recognisable skeleton of a metro carriage, an unexpectedly apt metaphor for the long, dark night of the soul. Later, an entire house appears in the sky – a golden-lit homestead, as painted by the American artist Andrew Wyeth – which slowly revolves, revealing itself as almost, but not quite, depthless. Beneath it, meanwhile, Le Riche conducts a rapturous exploration of the driftingly immaterial Dupont. Siddharta is not a perfect ballet but it does contain perfect moments, and these make its occasional longueurs seem, well, illusory. Above all, it has the unquestioning confidence in the new that is such an uplifting characteristic of Parisian ballet, and there are standing ovations for Preljocaj and his collaborators before the audience streams out into the warm night air.