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The Paris Opéra Ballet Ten Years After Rudolf Nureyev
A Conversation With Brigitte Lefèvre


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 3 March 2003 - Administrateur géneral of the Paris Opera Ballet since September 1992, shortly before the opening night of Nureyev's now legendary Bayadére, Brigitte Lefèvre who was appointed Directrice de la Danse in 1995 considers herself to be one of the most fortunate people in the world. She's usually to be found observing performances at the two Paris operas, often both simultaneously, careering by taxi from one to the other, or watching a new troupe or work programmed at theatres in or around town. Dance is her life and she was only too pleased at the opportunity to talk about the French company and of the legacy left by Rudolf Nureyev.

"I have never forgotten the raw passion coupled with what I now recognise as rigorous schooling the first time I saw him dance", she told me in her office cum sitting-room on the top floor of the Palais Garnier." I was a pupil at the Opéra school and we were all carried away by his sheer vitality and tremendous energy after seeing him dance the third act of La Bayadère in rehearsal."

Emmanurl Thibault in La Bayadere
Emmanuel Thibault in La Bayadère
Photo: Icare

"It's that passion for dance and impeccable training that we strive to keep alive. He changed our whole approach to our profession", she continued. "And although we had Bourmeister's production of Petipa and Ivanov's "Swan Lake" and Rosella Hightower's Sleepng Beauty in the repertoire, Nureyev not only brought in his own wonderful new re-readings of these classics, but added Raymonda, Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, and La Bayadère, reinstating Petipa here. Cinderella was totally his own creation. His revised choreography is very challenging, but when the dancers can tackle that, they can dance anything. It's not simply the steps that must be kept, but a whole way of working. As has so often been said, Rudolf opened doors to something many dancers didn't know they possessed.

"His ballets and his very deep respect for the past must be passed on to the new generation of dancers, most of whom never worked with him. I hope to transmit his passion for perfection, and people like Clothilde Vayer and Laurent Hilaire are now working with the younger members of the company to instil the spirit of the particular ballet being re-staged. Isabelle Guérin returned to coach the dancers for the last Bayadère, and Elisabeth Platel is present to ensure that the intention of Rudolf's choreography is honoured."

""He was like a blazing comet, while I need time to think things out and do them slowly in my own way", she reflected. "But I'm certainly not the museum curator, and it's not a mausoleum here, because one of my aims is to keep moving forward , using his superb classical productions as a sort of jumping-off point to new creations. "

Emmanuel Thibault in Paquita
Emmanuel Thibault in Paquita
Photo: Icare

Without quoting names for fear of hurting those not mentioned, she spoke of the beautiful new generation of dancers, all very different physically and temperamentally, and of the necessity of the much criticised hierarchy in such a large company. She admitted that the system frequently gave her headaches, but with 154 dancers under her responsibility, there was no alternative. Compared to the pre-Nureyev years, more opportunities are being given to experienced members of the company lower down the ranks when they possess the necessary talent, as well as to the new, promising up-coming youngsters.

Dorothée Gilbert
Dorothée Gilbert
Photo: Icare

Now that the older generation of Nureyev's étoiles are moving on to coaching, directing and choreography, and much is written about the company's top international artists including dramatic ballerina Elisabeth Maurin, Nicolas Le Riche, Manuel Legris, and star couple, Agnès Letestu and José Martinez, who are the names to watch for? Amongst others....

Ethereal Emilie Hasboun at 17 years old, is the youngest and newest recruit to the company, a girl with something different who drew my attention in the Opera school. Dorothée Gilbert, a dark-haired, sunny 18 year-old, intensely musical who shows great promise, and who was recently promoted along with Mathieu Ganio, a leggy youngster surely destined to interpret Romeo or Albrecht. In the next category, Stephan Bullion, a young man who continues to develop slowly but surely, was promoted to the rank of Sujet.

Stephan Bullion in Le Lac
Stephan Bullion in Le Lac
Photo: Icare

Myriam Ould-Braham and Emilie Cozette, who both missed promotion this time round are already lovely classical ballerinas in the purest French style, and were chosen by film director, Dominique Delouche, to appear in his latest film, Violette and Mr. B., as was Laetitia Pujol, now the company's youngest étoile. Spectacular Emmanuel Thibault, one of the finest dancers of his generation in the world today was filmed in "Peretti, last of the Italians". Thibault is a crowd-pleaser, with a giant jump, possessing ballon, that rare Russian quality of appearing to hover in the air before a soft-sprung landing. Light, aerial, joyous, chosen by classical choreographers from Robbins to Neumeier andLacotte, he is a perfect example of French style and bravoura.

Hopefully, Hervé Moreau, again a Delouche favourite who distinguished himself in Swan Lake, is a prince-in -waiting, while magnificent Marie-Agnès Gillot is every contemporary choreographer's dream interpreter.

Myriam Ould-Braham
Myriam Ould-Braham
Photo: Icare

Comments that artists have to wait until 30 to become étoile, leave Lefèvre unperturbed but quick to insist that nomination to the rank of étoile is a consecration not a due. "By that time the dancer has interpreted most of the main roles anyway, which is what it is all about", she said, "and young dancers can work with the teachers, the ballet masters, and the choreographers. They also have the example of the étoiles, including guest artists such as Isabelle Guèrin, Sylvie Guillem, Svetlana Zakharova and Diana Vishneva. It's up to each of them to work and to give of themselves without hesitation." Words which recall those of Rudolf Nureyev to me many years ago; "I show them where the top is, and then they have to work for it."

Brigitte Lefèvre is not nostalgic. She has, she states, seen wonderful works in the past, but considers that remarkable things are also happening today with choreographers who have a different perspective, and projects for the company, now the gala tribute to Rudolf Nureyev is over, are very much focused on new creations both in the immediate future and under new director, Gérard Mortier, who will take over the post of General director when Hugh Gall leaves at the end of 2004.

Works by such controversial choreographers as Edouard Lock or the relatively unknown Japanese Saburo Teshigawara create a climate of anticipation as well as developing the public's way of looking at dance. "It's a very curious thing", commented Lefèvre, "that I frequently meet people who tell me that they enjoy a ballet now which they disliked at its creation several years ago. And more often than not, it's because their ideas have evolved rather than because of minor changes".

The same could be said of Nureyev's productions, for many of those who decried them at the time now acclaim them. His dark, melancholy Swan Lake which attracted so much written and verbal vitriol in 1984 is a perfect example. Moreover, the selfsame dancers who went on strike at the Opéra and frequently made his life a nightmare, are now those who sing his praises the loudest. So much the better.

"I'll live as long as my ballets are danced ", said he. So be it.

But on leaving Lefevre's office, a comfortable extension of the cramped quarters Rudolf Nureyev moved into twenty years ago, memories of my own took over, not of past conversations with him in Paris, but of the dancer I saw and adored at Covent Garden, from 1964 to 1969.

I recalled nights spent queuing for seats, curled up on the pavement outside the Royal Opera House. Skipping school, we would bring sleeping bags and thermos flasks, to leave next morning with fistfuls of tickets for his performances, tickets which were our passport to happiness, which we all clung onto with two hands. As a teenager, I fell in love with Nureyev; everyone did.

In those glorious years, he was the most phenomenal, charismatic dancer the world had ever seen. Comparisons with any Mikail Baryshnikov, Vladimir Vassiliev, or wonderful Edward Villela, are totally futile. Neither then nor since has a male dancer reached such heights of artistic fire coupled with heart-stopping, risk-taking technical feats. His was no vapid and anaemic prince, for with a sexy swagger he brought the great nineteenth century lovers back to life, giving credibility to every role I ever saw him dance . The moment he appeared one knew who he was for he became the role he danced.

In the first Swan Lake I saw, swan feathers dropped softly all around the instant he stepped on stage and slowly raised his arm. Were they there or did I dream them? He gave a meaning to each gesture. Magic was brought to Covent Garden.

What do I remember most?

Immediately, his defiant stalk around the stage before that build-up of power to launch into one of his tremendous leaps into the air, where he soared and hovered and stayed there, suspended in space. There was an almighty thrust high into the air and a soft, slow, arching curve. More great lion than panther. The height of his jump defied all gravity, and I know because I was there. Landing, he brushed the ground with the merest whisper.

From my third-row seat I see him still in The Corsaire, hurtling onto the stage, hair flying, silken trousers billowing out behind, bursting with romantic passion. His performance, full of grace, arrogance and humility remains unmatched. As Albrecht, the young aristocrat who meets Giselle and falls in love for the first time he was supreme. And it was Alexander Bland who wrote of Fonteyn and Nureyev, "the ballet's blend of lyricism, pathos and drama allowed them to deploy their special quality, the translation of classical movement into romantic emotion."

He was a very great classical dancer, and that at least has been recorded on film, but what has been inevitably lost, except in the minds of those who were present, is that aura of excitement and emotion which accompanied each performance. No documentary has yet recreated the tension and electrical atmosphere engendered by a Fonteyn and Nureyev performance, for to write of one without the other at that particular period in time isn't possible. The interpretative incandescence, fire and passion of that partnership was never to be re-created. He was lyrical, he was music made dance. No one swirled a cloak as he did, and nor has any dancer so dominated the stage when motionless. When he sat on his throne at the side of the stage, all eyes followed him; such was the magnetism of his presence.

Perhaps too, his wild haunting beauty. Not too tall, slender and small waisted, with floppy blonde hair, a cheeky but totally enchanting grin, an arrogant aquiline nose, and those clear, quicksilver eyes, which missed nothing. His whole face was so expressive that in performance his very features seemed to change into those of the person he was interpreting. Off-stage too, it was easy to guess what he was thinking.

As far as the man himself is concerned, in those early days he seemed shy and uncertain. At every meeting over the years he was unfailingly courteous, and I remember too his kindly nature, be it only a telephone call the day after a request and his readiness to help. An opinion not often come across when writing about this man who was so many different things to so many different people.

Related: A Birthday Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev

Hommage à Rudolf Noureev 17 mars 1938 - 6 janvier 1993

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times. Ms. Boccadoro is also the dance editor of

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