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Odette / Odile and Agnès Letestu


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 11 November 2002 - It was Evgeny Polyakov, ballet master during Rudolf Nureyev's reign at the Paris Opéra who first proclaimed that Agnès Letestu was born to dance Swan Lake.

"I invited her to dance the work in Florence a couple of years ago because I had every faith in her, "he said. "She has the technique, the personal beauty, and the intelligence for the role, but in addition, her movements are of indescribable grace. Now, she is remarkable, but in a few years time, she will be sublime", he insisted over coffee in a Paris bar in the autumn of 1996. Six years later, in a series of stunningly evocative performances at the Opéra Bastille, his prophetic words have proved true. The performance I saw on 22 October was the most beautiful I have ever seen.

Even at the time, it was not difficult to agree with Polyakov's premature judgement. Letestu, tall and slender, with an aristocratic yet vulnerable beauty wears the crown of the Swan Princess as if by rights. Neither clichéd nor stereotyped, she is a pure, classical ballerina who can supremely interpret the romantic purity of Odette as well as the sensual virtuosity necessary for Odile, the magician's daughter.

"I made the absolutely wonderful discovery of Swan Lake in Florence when Evgueny Polyakov, who had temporarily returned to his post of artistic director there, invited me to interpret the complete ballet which was very close to Nureyev's version", Agnès Letestu told me in her dressing-room at the Palais Garnier. "He guided me constantly, spending hours showing me his fabulous collection of books and photographs of Anna Pavlova, immortalised in Fokine's Dying Swan. He'd point out the line of her neck, the poise of her head, or a soft, but perfect arabesque", she said. "Pavlova had studied wild swans; she kept some in the garden of her house near London".

Agnès Letestu and José Martinez  in Swan Lake
Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in Swan Lake
Photo: Jacques Moatti

The invitation to Italy was invaluable preparation for her Paris premiere which she subsequently danced with José Martinez at the Opéra Bastille in December 1994. "On that occasion", she recalled, "we had watched and re-watched the film of Nureyev and Fonteyn with the Ballet of Vienna, absorbing everything we could. That 1966 film had always been special to me because it was after having seen it on the television that I wanted to dance. And although I'd seen all the étoiles at the Paris Opéra dance Odette/Odile, Margot Fonteyn was my point of reference. Even though dance has evolved since then, and we were physically so very different, the emotion and ideas remain unchanged.Swan Lake will always be unique for me too, because it was after a performance of it in October 1997 that I was made an étoile."

It wasn't until Agnès Letestu began working with Ghislaine Thesmar, the French étoile who danced Swan Lake with Nureyev in Paris ,that she began to go further with her conception of the role. "I'm tall, and I thought it was about time I used it to my advantage", she said. "Although Odette is a human being, she's nevertheless been transformed into a swan and I wanted to get as close as I could to the real nature of the wild bird. Swans are splendid creatures. They are not frail, fluttering things, and neither am I! They move a lot of air, and splash down heavily when they land; I've watched them and my interpretation has become more physical and animal. With Ghislaine, I no longer see myself as a victim about to be sacrificed. What became important was to show the woman imprisoned under the swan's great wings.

"I want to bring out the wild creature in Act II, and the princess in Act III. But even in Act III, I want to remain plausible while I'm dancing Odile disguised as Odette, which is difficult as the movements are different, so I dance like the Swan Princess in front of Siegfried, and am nasty, with showier dancing when his back is turned. It's important to remember that Odile isn't a swan at all, even though she's erroneously referred to as the black swan. She's a seductive woman who is very sure of herself. It's an interpretation which doesn't please everyone, but the interpretation must move with the times, or dance would stagnate."

Agnès Letestu and Laurent Hilaire in Black Swan pas de deux
Agnès Letestu and Laurent Hilaire in Black Swan pas de deux
Photo: Icare/Moattis

"Agnès has found the interpretation which suits her, which is what Rudolf Nureyev wanted with each ballerina", her coach, Ghislaine Thesmar, told me. "Before, she was very lovely, but she was like a little girl in a fairy-story. She's a profound and sensitive person, so it has been very interesting to watch what I can only call a process of maturity. Artistically, she has grown, and has now the courage to impose her own vision of the role."

"I didn't decide how she should dance Odette/Odile," she continued," it came from her. A coach cannot transform a dancer, but only help work out what is best. She showed me the path, telling me how she herself would react if she'd been a lively, fun-loving princess transformed into a supernatural being by a monster. She reacted to the situation as though it had been a rape; she's under shock when she finds herself a prisoner in the guise of a swan. The woman herself is a real princess in her mind, and she comes to terms with the tragedy with dignity, going so far as to implore the prince to love her and only her, to break the spell. She is so desperate in her plea for true love."

Ghislaine Thesmar commented on the fact that what makes Letestu so exciting to watch is that she changes her interpretation to suit each partner, whether with José Martinez, where she is all elegance and refinement, with Laurent Hilaire, who had the experience to guide her several years ago, or with Nicolas Le Riche, with whom she seems more liberated and dramatic. Although they did not get to dance together at the Opéra Bastille recently, Thesmar told me that in rehearsal, her femininity in contrast to his joie de vivre, almost macho side, promises fireworks in the future.

Of Danila Korsuntsev, with whom she danced Swan Lake at the Kirov/Mariinski theatre in Saint-Petersbourg, a consecration for any ballerina, Letestu herself has only praise. "Maybe I surprised by my coolness and serenity, which is what Nureyev wanted from us in Paris, but I loved dancing with Danila. He's only twenty-four, but already a wonderful dancer, tall and supportive in every way. I worked with Chenchikova, who is a superb teacher, and it was an amazing experience to dance in the very theatre where the ballet was created. "

Agnès Letestu as Odette  in  Swan Lake
Agnès Letestu as Odette in Swan Lake
Photo: Jacques Moatti

And now? Letestu, having touched the heights, intends to continue working on her role. "I'm working on my arms, she smiled, "I'm determined to discover a way to move more air when I rise from the lake!"

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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