by Patricia Boccadoro
22 May 1997 - The dance world here is bewildered. The critics, the teachers,
and the dancers, particularly the corps de ballet, of the Paris Opera do not
understand who or what is blocking the long-overdue nominations of premier
danseurs Agnès Letestu and José Martinez to the status of étoile,
the most coveted title in the dance world.
For over a decade, the Paris Opera Ballet has been universally recognised as
the finest classical company in the world, a pre-eminence which dates back to
1983 when Rudolf Nureyev became director and completely revitalised the French
troupe. Inspiring the dancers with his own passion, he transformed the level of
teaching, gave the company an exciting and imaginative new repertory and above
all nominated his étoiles at the age of 20 or 21, when they were
barely out of the corps de ballet.
Then as now, the company was divided into a hierarchy: étoiles,
premiers danseurs, sujets, coryphées and quadrilles.
The étoiles had risen through the company's strict ranking
system, their promotion depending on a competitive examination to the next grade
when places became available. Only étoiles were, and still are,
directly appointed by the General Administration on the recommendation of the
Nureyev broke through all that, blasting away the last traces of influence
and favouritism which Serge Lifar (director 1930 -1958) had done his utmost to
abolish. He rewarded talent and hard work with promotion, nurturing a new
generation of superbly gifted young dancers including Elisabeth Platel, Sylvie
Guillem, Laurent Hilaire and Manuel Legris - the stars of today. All were
nominated étoile by the age of 22.
The policy of Brigitte Lefèvre, artistic director since July 1995, is
to continue the project he began. Be that as it may, the question being asked in
Paris right now is why Letestu, 26 years old, and Martinez, 27, both winners -
like Baryshnikov, Makarova, Patrick Dupond and Sylvie Guillem - of the Varna
competition (the most prestigious in the world) in 1990 and 1992, remain
premiers danseurs, the accolade of étoile seemingly
beyond their reach.
Choreographer John Neumeier, whose ballet Sylvia closes an
exceptional seaon on 16 July, was particularly happy to discover the talented
Martinez, whom he chose to dance the three principal male roles of his ballet on
alternate evenings, either Endymion or the double role of L'Amour / Orion.
Martinez was first acclaimed for his performance in Le Tricorne in
1993, making his debut in Swan Lake the following year partnered by Agnès
Letestu - a couple both on and off stage. Letestu and Martinez, who had never
danced a full-length classic together in Paris, created that rarity in dance:
the beginnings of a true partnership.
The Paris-born Letestu has always said that she owed everything to Rudolf
Nureyev, who plucked her out of the corps de ballet to dance the role of
Princess Gamzatti in his 1992 production of La Bayadère,
believing that she should rapidly be nominated étoile. But after his
death, under the directorship of Patrick Dupond (1990-95), she was passed over
in favour of older, more experienced dancers who lack both her breathtaking
technique and unquestionable dramatic gifts.
She has been chosen not only by Nureyev for the classical works, but also,
like Martinez, by such contemporary choreographers as Roland Petit, Jerome
Robbins, Jean Grand-Maitre, William Forsythe, Daniel Larrieu and Mats Ek.
Letestu is one of the rare ballerinas who can dance Balanchine because she
allies the extensions of a dancer of today with the speed and precision of the
1930s, when many of his ballets were written. She is, in fact, a ballerina of
the future who combines an infallible technique with grace and softness, always
serene and unruffled on stage.
Invited to international galas with increasing frequency, dancing Swan
Lake in Florence, Romeo and Juliet in Amsterdam, Giselle in
Zagreb, all to standing ovations, and with a project to dance Nutcracker
in London, the charismatic couple of Letestu and Martinez are rapidly becoming
stars in every company except their own.
Josette Amiel, their teacher in the company who considers each of them
outstanding separately, says that together they are simply sublime. In an
interview she spoke of their quest for perfection: "they have the humility
inherent in all true artists, the technical brilliance and the intelligence",
qualities reiterated by Florence Clerc ( étoile 1977-1991). Clerc
coached them for The Sleeping Beauty last February when they were cast
to dance two out of twenty-seven performances. "I was amazed by their
individual gifts," she said. " They are the ideal interpreters of the
Paris Opera repertory, pure and radiant with a very special quality."
The Opera hierarchy being what it is, namely that the category of premier
danseur is rarely given the opportunity to dance main roles in the classics,
étoiles must be nominated young so they have time to forge their
own personalities. Nominated later, ravishing and graceful though they may be,
they often remain little more than soloists leading the corps de ballet and not
stars in their own right.
Several questionable nominations were made by Dupond at different levels in
the company, the consequences of which are all too evident today, notably in
Nureyev's own ballets which are not always danced as well as they were. The
problem with the French company is that the position of première
danseuse seems not to be considered an honour in itself but merely a
stepping stone to greater things. Dupond in his eagerness to reward dancers for
services rendered had at one moment nine female stars.
Brigitte Lefèvre, who complained that the Paris opera ballet had more
étoiles than premièrs danseurs, regards the position of étoile
as a consecration, which only increases speculation as to why one of the
most luminous and radiant couples in dance today is not recognised as such. The
director of the Paris Operas, Hughes Gall, remains mute on this topic despite a
written request for elucidation last February.
Clearly, these two dancers are in a sphere of their own and if art alone
were the only consideration their nomination would not only crown an
exceptional season of dance, but remove all hints of the power of influence
which has plagued the Paris Opera Ballet for so many years.