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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARiS, 8 MAY 2014 — Amidst an avalanche of glittering pink and golden petals floating down from above the stage and the deafening roars, cheers and unstoppable applause from an audience overwhelmed by the magnificence of the performance they had just seen, the official career of Agnès Letestu as a member of the Paris Opera Ballet came to an end last October. 

Partnered by Stéphane Bullion, Letestu, one of the most beautiful of all ballerinas to grace the stage of the Palais Garnier, gave her farewell performance in John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, created for the ballet of Stuttgart in 1978, which she first interpreted in Paris, in June, 2006. Again and again, spectators cheered frenetically as Letestu stepped over the roses and numerous bouquets strewn at her feet and came to the forefront of the stage, arms outstretched, to thank her audience. Looking terribly young and vulnerable, with eyes shining with tears from the thunderous reception and the fact that, at the peak of her form, no, she did not want her career with the company to end, she ushered on stage some of the people closest to her in her career to share in the accolade.

Agnès Letestu bids farewell to the Paris Opera Ballet
Photo: Julien Benhamou

There was Stéphane Bullion, his arms full of flowers, her partner in The Lady of the Camelias, both in the filmed version and on this momentous occasion, the dancer who gave her his heart in the ballet, and who was only too aware that he had lost his greatest and most beautiful partner. José Martinez, officially "retired" a few years before was there, almost hidden by an immense bouquet of white roses, the dancer with whom she had formed that rarity in dance, a true partnership. They embraced amid the resounding cries of the crowds. Ghislaine Thesmar, her coach, and French choreographer, Pierre Lacotte, whose works she has danced to perfection, were also bought on stage to share in the tribute.

The rule at the Paris Opera Ballet is that no matter how exceptional a dancer, and no matter how phenomenal one’s physical and artistic abilities may be, one is obliged by law to leave. Hence, after an outstanding career spanning almost thirty years, interpreting all the most important roles in the repertoire, the French company is now bereft of its brightest star.

Agnès Letestu in Kaguhayime 
Photo: Charles Duprat

Letestu, who was born in Paris to a closely knit and loving family, began dancing around the age of six after having seen a video of Nureyev and Fonteyn in Swan Lake.  After joining the Conservatoire of Saint Maur near her home, she was encouraged to apply to the Paris Opera School, where at the age of 15, she was chosen to dance the role of Gourouli in the ballet, The Two Pigeons.

"She was the best pupil I had, although a little shy and unsure of herself", Claude Bessy, director of the school, told me. "She had not only the technique and physique for the role, but also the freshness and purity", qualities the young ballerina was to keep throughout her career. She became a member of the company in 1987 at the age of 16 and two years later she was chosen to interpret the role of the siren, in Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, the same year that she won the Eurovision Dance Competition. The following year she carried off the gold medal at Varna, one of the world’s most prestigious dance competitions.

It was no surprise that although she was still only a member of the corps de ballet, Rudolf Nureyev defied the very rigid company hierarchy to choose her for the role of the princess Gamzatti in his 1992 production of La Bayadère. At the age of 21 she was not only technically brilliant and showed great intelligence, but also danced with unequalled grace and softness. She also possessed that undefinable quality of charisma, for even in the corps de ballet, her graceful silhouette was instantly recognisable. As a mere snowflake among many others in Nureyev’s 1989 production of The Nutcracker, one’s eyes were immediately drawn to her. Blessed with exquisite feet and a tall, supple, slender body, she excelled in both Balanchine and Robbins’ ballets, and, partnered by José Martinez, gave a sublime performance in Swan Lake at the Opera Bastille in 1993; it will always remain a puzzle as to why she had to wait another four years for her nomination to the rank of étoile, in a restaging of the same work.   

Agnès Letestu in La Bayadère
Photo Sebastien Mathé

Since then, she has danced practically all the main roles of the company’s repertoire, being chosen by and working not only with Rudolf Nureyev, but also, amongst others, Jerome Robbins, Pierre Lacotte, William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, John Neumeier, and more recently, Carolyn Carlson giving an unforgettable performance in Signes just two months before leaving the company.

However, au revoir does not necessarily signify adieu to the world of dance, and Letestu’s timetable is now even more tightly packed than before, with the added bonus that she can choose exactly what she wants to do and dance, and dance she will be doing in galas throughout the world. Apart from interpreting Marguerite in La Dame aux Camélias with the Paris Opera Ballet in Japan as a guest artist, partnered by Stéphane Bullion, she has already accepted an invitation to dance in Le Palais de Cristal, the first ballet Balanchine created for the Paris company, and which will be programmed at the Opera Bastille in May  next year. But equally exciting is the prospect of dancing in works that choreographers are creating for her, not least José Martinez, who has already choreographed several pas de deux that the two will be interpreting together, in Dallas on May 2nd, and later in Japan, where she is regarded as one of the greatest international stars of today.

Agnès Letestu  and Stéphane Bullion in The Lady of the Camelias
Photo: Julien Benhamou

Leaving the Opera will also give her more freedom to work on designing costumes, a dream she has carried since she was a small girl. Already she has created many attractive tutus and dresses for Martinez’ works, not least the 300 for Les Enfants du Paradis*, as well as the colourful and amusing outfits worn by the pupils of the Paris Opera School in the 2006 staging of Scaramouche, and several commissions are already awaiting, not least the prospect of designing costumes for a new production of Romeo and Juliet in Japan.

Meanwhile, she is coaching the younger dancers in the French company, both soloists and étoiles, for Rudolf Nureyev’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Two young dancers, Laura Hecquet and Audric Bezard scored a triumph in the ballet after working with her. Hecquet, a tall, lovely girl with a remarkable technique had always been hindered by a lack of pliancy but Letestu  transformed her. Bezard, a premier danseur dogged by mannerisms, had them swept away with grace and with charm, emerging as a handsome prince indeed.

Grace is a word which repeatedly turns up with regard to Agnès Letestu, not only in her dance, but in her whole way of being. In Marlene Ionesco’s excellent film, Agnès Letestu, L’Apogée d’Une Etoile *, the choreographer, William Forsythe commented, "She’s very gracious to everyone, to me and to her audience"., adding that she never gave less than a perfect interpretation in an impeccable performance.

Ionesco has succeeded in making a very beautiful film which captures the personality of the French star, both off-stage and on. She has filmed important extracts of all the ballets Letestu danced in the last two years, beginning with La Dame aux Camélias, and including Les Enfants du Paradis, filmed on the only occasion Letestu partnered Martinez on the evening of his farewell performance,as well as Cendrillon, Kaguyahime, Dances at a Gathering, The Prodigal Son, and Signes.  Lengthy pas de deux from her first Swan Lake and from Don Quixote precede interviews with the ballerina herself and her two most important partners, Martinez and Bullion.

Choreographers Kylian and Forsythe as well as Jean-Pierre Frolich, ballet master at New York City Ballet and the distinguished étoile and teacher, Ghislaine Thesmar, all comment on Letestu’s consummate charm and exceptional dramatic qualities, completing a remarkable portrait and record of the ballerina’s career.

* "Agnès Letestu, L’Apogée d’Une Etoile", a dance film retracing the career of Letestu, will be  available via Delange productions.

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

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Agnès Letestu and Angelin Preljocaj: "Le Songe de Médée" at the Palais Garnier

The Frye-ku Folio: 37, 38, 39 


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