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
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
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
"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
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
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
Culturekiosque.com and last reviewed
performances of choreography by
Serge Lifar, Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart.
Title image: Stéphane Bullion
Opéra national de Paris
Photo courtesy of Opéra national de Paris