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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 26 MAY 2009 - Manuel Legris is the last of Rudolf Nureyev's impressive rota of étoiles , many of whom became top international stars. Now aged forty-four, he is still a member of the company, albeit as a guest, but when he leaves Paris next year to take over the Ballet of Vienna, his departure will signal the end of an era and the beginning of the next.

For the Paris Opera Ballet has gifted dancers at every level of its hierarchy. Stéphane Bullion, now 28, and actually holding the rank of premier dancer, is one of them.

Stéphane Bullion in Ivan the Terrible
Photo: Icare

The first time I noticed Stéphane Bullion was in the Paris Opera school's annual show, as the Red Knight in Lifar's Le Chevalier et la Damoiselle, in 1996. At only sixteen years old, there was something manly about him even then that differentiated him from the other boys. It was perhaps the beautiful, natural way he held his arms together with his special way of moving. And then, complete with cowboy hat and a grin on his face, he left his mark as he partnered Alice Renavand in Western Symphony. It was obvious that this was a young man to be followed.

Nothing, he told me, when I met him between classes at the Palais Garnier, destined him to be a dancer, although he came from a home in Lyon where the arts, music, painting, and books, were very much in evidence.

"We were more a family of sportsmen, skiing, bike-riding, hiking, and competing in triathlon", he told me, "and my father was a marble mason. He sculpted marble and painted. I was in fact, encouraged to take up dance by my mother, who was a psychologist, and who had already proposed lessons to my two elder brothers who would have nothing to do with it," he smiled. "But I was attracted by the idea and found dance lessons fun. I still do."

Pushed to apply to the Paris Opera School at 13, he began to take his studies a little more seriously although he had not yet seen a ballet. But then he said, he saw videos of Baryshnikov, Vassiliev and Nureyev, and began to realize he could dance for a living.

"Up until then, dancing had simply been a pastime or hobby", he said. "After all, at fourteen, it's hard to really envisage the future, and dancing, then as today, was just a source of enjoyment. Class at the opera is sheer pleasure, the more so now as there is the added excitement of research."

Stéphane Bullion in Wuthering Heights
Photo: Anne Deniau

While one of his earliest roles, as Nijinski's faun in L'Aprés-midi d'un Faune, a solo normally reserved for older, more mature dancers came at the age of 19, two years after joining the company, the turning point in his brief career came when he was given the title role in Grigorovitch's Ivan the Terrible, at the age of 23. But that, he said, was the result of a whole stream of events.

"When Mathilde Froustey won the gold medal at Varna", he explained, "Igor Grigorovitch saw her and wanted her to dance Anastasia when his ballet was staged in Paris. Because she was so young and only held the rank of quadrille, she wouldn't normally have partnered an étoile, and as I had already understudied the role, I was asked to interpret Ivan. I was lucky and it was one of the most exciting experiences of my life. It was just a bit hard when I had to go into hospital for an operation the following day to have a cancerous tumour removed. And then the following year, maybe two, were a little tough with all the chemotherapy treatments."

However, the magnificence of his performance in the Russian work, which brought out his force and strength and the singular beauty of his jumps, revealing the muscularity and power of the choreography as well as his remarkable dramatic gifts brought him to the attention of the public and he was awarded the A.R.O.P. prize the same year. "One thing I do remember from this period", he told me, "was standing alone on the empty stage after I took up my career again. I had the absolute certitude that this was my place. That this was where I wanted to be."

"So much hangs by a thread", he continued, "and you don't magically become a dancer by yourself. During my school years I worked a lot with Lucien Duthoit, and now I work a lot with Clothilde Vayer and Ghislaine Thesmar. Laurent Hilaire also helped a lot when I studied the role of Abderam in Raymonda. And during my two years of medical treatment, I had unfailing support from Brigitte Lefèvre."

Stéphane Bullion in Raymonda
Photo: Julien Benhamou

"It was also Brigitte who brought me to the attention of John Neumeier, suggesting I take over the role of Armand, partnering Agnès Letestu in the filmed version of his Dame aux Camélias, when Hervé Moreau was injured. Of course I was worried as I'd never partnered her before nor interpreted the role, but John put me immediately at ease when we went to work with him in Hamburg. All he said was, "Armand is not a prince". I never thought I had the profile of a prince as, up until then, I tended to be cast as the "villain" in roles like Rothbart or Hilarion."

Stéphane then spoke of how fortunate he felt to have been given this opportunity to work with Agnès Letestu, albeit at the expense of an injured dancer. He spoke of her great generosity and intelligence, and of the way she encouraged him to move forward, all the while respecting his own style of dance.

"And moreover", he continued, "dancing with her then opened the way for me to partner her as Jean de Brienne in Raymonda, a role I never imagined I'd dance. And while de Brienne isn't exactly a prince, but more a heroic crusader, it made me realize that after all, the mentality of a prince is in the head and one should not have a fixed idea of how roles should be danced. .I'm beginning to see that I can approach nineteenth century princes differently."

The idea that Stéphane Bullion is not a prince is bizarre. He is exactly the image of the fairytale prince in every young girl's dream, and his very appearance in a classical ballet such as Sleeping Beauty would be enough to make anyone jump out of bed and run after him! He is tall, dark and handsome with a mop of unruly curling hair. With his powerful broad shoulders, trim waist, and virile, masculine aura, he is enough to make any girl, never mind a princess fall headlong in love with. In addition, he is technically and dramatically, one of the finest dancers in the company.

Stéphane Bullion in La Dame aux Camélias
Photo: Sebastien Mathe

His very many qualities have led him to be chosen by many visiting choreographers and those he has greatly enjoyed working with include Kylian, Mats Ek and Angelin Preljocaj, all of whom he considers most exceptional. "There's nothing showy in their work; everything is very real. I counted myself very lucky to be included in the cast of La maison de Bernada, which is an outstanding work."

But the young French dancer is also always ready to participate in creations from his friends and colleagues. I have been to many off-beat places, including a theatre near Roissy airport, and Bullion has been there, interpreting works by Mallory Gaudion, by Samuel Murez and by Nicolas Paul. Even when asked at the last moment he has readily given his time, energy and artistry to perform their works, even in front of a handful of spectators. On one occasion, he worked with Paul until almost midnight to perfect a work.

Bullion is a dancer of multiple talents, a rarity in any company. He doesn't copy steps but puts his own meaning into them, filling the whole of the stage even in abstract pieces. His dancing is strong, fresh and clear, and he's impressive to watch, whether in contemporary or classical. As a prince, peasant or poet, as the villain or hero, his powerful, muscular frame has an ability to adapt and interpret almost any choreography with which he is confronted.

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. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for and last reviewed performances of choreography by Serge Lifar, Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart.

Title image: Stéphane Bullion
©2009 Opéra national de Paris
Photo courtesy of Opéra national de Paris

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