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Paris Opera Ballet performs at Chicago’s Harris Theater beginning June 26



When: ‘Giselle’ (Tuesday-Thursday); ‘Epic French Masterpieces’ (Friday-Sunday)

Where: Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph

Tickets: $55-$125

Info: (312) 334-7777; www.HarrisTheater

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Updated: July 25, 2012 6:08AM

First, a quick pirouette through history: Although ballet is believed to have begun in the courts of the Italian Renaissance, credit for what we now think of as the art of classical ballet must really go to King Louis XIV of France (“The Sun King”).

An enthusiastic dancer and performer himself, in 1661 he founded the Academie Royale de Danse (Royal Dance Academy) and charged it with establishing standards for the art of dance and the certification of dance teachers. Later, he appointed composer and dancer Jean-Baptiste Lully to the post of director of the Academie Royale de Musique (the Paris Opera), and out of this grew the Paris Opera Ballet, the company that now can lay claim to being the world’s first professional ballet company.

So, history alone is a crucial reason why the visit this week by the Paris Opera Ballet to Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance has generated so much anticipation and excitement. The massive company’s engagement here (the first in many decades) also will serve as the kickoff for a rare U.S. tour that subsequently will make stops in Washington, D.C., and New York.

At a press conference for the event held several months ago in New York, Antonin Baudry, Cultural Counselor of the French Embassy in the United States, observed: “This tour is a historic event for Franco-American relations. The Paris Opera Ballet is a symbol of France — one that combines tradition and modernity. And while the company has a long history, it has a very young, rigorously trained group of dancers with an average age of just 25.”

Michael Tiknis, executive director of the Harris Theater, playfully noted: “Chicago has a mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who studied dance and is committed to promoting dance in our city, so I can truly say, ‘We have the greatest dancing mayor in the world.’ ” The audience laughed appreciatively and Nigel Redden, director of the Lincoln Center Festival, the company’s presenter in New York, had to admit he could not make a similar boast about Mayor Bloomberg.

Finally, the microphone passed to Brigitte Lefevre, who began her career as a dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet (“My student years were filled with enormous pressure and solitude,” she confessed); since 1995 she has held the title of director of the company. A no-nonsense redhead (mother of five, with a grandchild on the way) whose wit and authority over the company is deftly captured in Frederick Wiseman’s wonderfully “inside” 2009 documentary, “La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet” (recommended viewing before you see the company), Lefevre confessed she had not previously known about “Chicago’s dancing mayor.”

But she was very clear about why she chose the two programs being presented in Chicago, with live accompaniment by the Grant Park Orchestra. They include “Giselle” (Tuesday through Thursday), the full-length romantic story ballet created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1841, and a far more audacious repertory program of three works, all set to the music of French composers, arriving under the umbrella title “Epic French Masterpieces” (Friday through Sunday).

First up on that mixed bill is “Suite en Blanc,” Serge Lifar’s neoclassical ballet of 1943, set to the music of Eduoard Lalo. The Ukrainian-born Lifar, a contemporary of George Balanchine, was one of the greatest male dancers of the mid-20th century, and was involved with the Paris Opera Ballet as a dancer, choreographer and ballet master from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Next up will be “L’Ar­le­si­enne” by Roland Petit, who grew up in the Paris Opera Ballet, and is a choreographer known for his modernist theatrical bent and inventiveness, as well as his work for both French and American films. This 1974 ballet, based on Daudet’s tragic love story, features a Van Gogh landscape for its backdrop and music by Bizet.

Finally, there is Maurice Bejart’s “Bolero,” a thrillingly ritualistic, sexually charged interpretation of the familiar Ravel score, created in 1979. It features a male dancer atop a table who might be seen as “melody,” with an ever-expanding ensemble gradually gathering around him to suggest “rhythm.” Bejart, ever a bold and controversial choreographer, created particularly strong work for male dancers.

“For me, ‘Giselle’ epitomizes the French style — a style that must be seen rather than defined in words,” said Lefevre. “It will be danced by a number of different ‘etoiles’ [the term for principal or “star” dancers], all representing what this ballet is. All these dancers have worked their way up through the school and the corps de ballet. Of course the true star of the Paris Opera Ballet is the company itself.”

The three masterpieces of 20th century dance that comprise the mixed bill showcase the work of three very different choreographers with equally various French roots. It is choreography that Lefevre says her company is “determined to keep alive.”

That company, which consists of 154 dancers (of which about 85 will be traveling, along with technicians, a conductor and other personnel), is marked by an intense uniformity of training and style. About 96 percent of the dancers are of French origin.

In Paris, the company gives 155 performances each year, working at two theaters: the resplendent Palais Garnier dating from 1875 (famous as the site of the rehearsal studios where Edgard Degas painted his Impressionist masterpieces of the little “ballet rats,” as well as the backdrop for The Phantom of the Opera), and the Bastille Opera House, which opened in 1989.

“With two buildings, 12 different programs in a season, and rehearsals of new and old works, there isn’t much time left for touring,” said Lefevre, whose company attracts nearly 300,000 people per year in Paris. “But we’ve traveled to Japan, Singapore and Sydney, Australia.”

Touring also is expensive, with this U.S. undertaking budgeted at about 3 million euros (about $3.8 million). Tiknis, who puts the Chicago cost at close to $1.7 million, hopes to be able to plow back about $100,000 (from the gala and other receipts) into the Harris’ general operating budget.

“I think this whole tour comes under the Daniel Burnham-like heading of ‘Make no small plans,’ ” said Tiknis.

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