Nicolas Le Riche is billed to dance his final performance with the Paris Opera on Wednesday 9 July, and much excitement has been generated by the company's announcement that it will be streaming his farewell gala, live, on its website.
The gala itself is no surprise – Le Riche has for years been regarded as Paris's leading male star, and his departure was always going to be commemorated in style. More unexpected, though, is the worldwide streaming of the event, for Le Riche is far from being the most jet-setting or self-promoting of stars. In Britain, we've had only occasional sightings of him, as guest partner to Sylvie Guillem or more recently with Tamara Rojo when he partnered her in ENB's performances of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort.
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But even if you have had limited experience of Le Riche's talent, you only have to see it once to appreciate its rarity. He's a dancer who eludes easy definition, combining the finesse of a Paris schooling with a physical heft and pungency. He brings the scent of danger to his performances, but also an exceptional clarity of dramatic and musical detail. Above all he's a superb partner, and this interview for the Ballet Bag site gives a flavour of the intensity and care he brings to his first encounters with a new role or a new ballerina.
"It makes me think of – if you excuse the analogy – a boxing match. First we circle each other, looking, discovering and then we engage, trying to understand how the other person works ... to understand not only my partner's approach to the character, but also the physical expression: how she moves, how fast, how her feet touch the ground. I am very attentive to all these sensations, these details, because it's a very delicate process. It's also very human: two people trying to connect through their differences, not trying to change the other, but trying to anticipate the other's actions and learn how to respond. Here I often think of Fred Astaire, the way he connected with his partners was magical," says Le Riche.
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He's referring here to his partnership with Rojo in Jeune Homme and while there's no online footage of their partnership, this clip of Le Riche and Sylvie Guillem in John Neumeier's La Dame aux Camelias hints at the depth of his connection not only with his ballerina but with the music and character he's inhabiting. Guillem will also be dancing with Le Riche in the Paris gala, an additional reason why so many fans have been disappointed not to see the event live and why so many will be watching it online.
But if it's very smart of Paris to stream Le Riche's final performance, shouldn't audiences expect to see more of their favourite dancers' farewell shows, whether they are special galas or not?
Dance careers are short, especially in ballet, and because so many dancers have to stop at the point where their knowledge and artistry are still at a peak, their retirement can be a difficult and very emotional transition for them, and for everyone else. It's the reason why final performances figure so large in the dance community: what can seem on the surface to be no more than a luvvie effusion of flowers, kisses and sentiment is also a theatre of collective gratitude and grieving that fits perfectly with the ephemeral nature of the art form.
Countries like Russia do these tribute performances very well, while British ballet companies tend to make less of a fuss when their leading dancers depart (and contemporary dancers get almost no public recognition at all when they leave the stage). But it was striking how many tuned in to watch the poignancy of Darcey Bussell's last performance with the Royal Ballet when it was screened on national TV (of which there's just a tearful glimmer in this footage).
Now, with the all the improved resources of the internet, British fans would equally have relished the chance to see Daria KlimentovÁ's final show when she retired from English National Ballet in June. YouTube offers only Klimentova's curtain call, and the unself-conscious sweetness of the moment – at about 3.30 minutes – when Vadim Muntagirov, her longtime partner, who gave her the last and best five years of her career, fell to his knees to kiss the hem of her skirt.
Since Carlos Acosta has given two years' notice of his plans to move on to a career beyond ballet, it shouldn't be beyond the wit of someone to broadcast or live stream his last performance with the Royal Ballet. Dance fans have historically been masters of an irksomely competitive nostalgia, a you-should-have-been-there-that-night brand of one-upmanship. These days, the internet makes it possible for everyone else to be there, too.