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Dance Films: The Transmission of a Legacy

An Afternoon with French film director, Dominique Delouche

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 9 July 2002—Dominique Delouche specialises in filming ballet. After beginning his career in the cinema in France, he went to Italy where he became the assistant of Federico Fellini in the 1950's, but after his return five years later, he began making a remarkable series of dance films. Le Spectre de la Danse, filmed with Nina Vyroubova, the Russian- French dancer and teacher was the first of about ten films which will finally be available on cassette from the end of July . Each is a small jewel in its own right.

An attentive balletomane since the age of ten, Delouche witnessed many great European ballerinas at the height of their career, and what interests him is the transmission of roles from one generation to the next, going back to the nineteenth century and even earlier. He considers that ballet, when filmed ,often loses the emotional impact of a live performance, and consequently his films are documentaries showing dance stars handing over the fruits of their experience to younger artists. He believes that an understanding of the traditional nineteenth century works can never be acquired from a book, as the technique and style can only be passed on by étoiles who had themselves inherited the role.

At his theatrical family home in Paris, he told me that his love of ballet went back to his early childhood during the war, when his parents took him to the Opéra.

"I must have been nine or ten when I first saw Serge Lifar's Suite en Blanc, he said, "and the contrast with the outside world of the German occupation was beyond belief. After the oppression and blackness I lived with, here was a magical, mystical world where the dancers seemed like angels floating above the ground. I never imagined anything so beautiful existed."

"An early film I made was Une Etoile pour l'Exemple, chosen for the 1987 Cannes Film Festival, in which Yvette Chauviré, the most famous French dancer of her time, coaches Paris Opéra ballerina, Dominique Khalfouni. I wanted to show the life and art of Chauviré, prima ballerina assoluta, but not only in performance. My aim was to show her transmitting her roles in the great classics. "

Une Etoile pour l'Exemple
Yvette Chauviré and Dominique Khalfouni

In 1988 he made Katia and Volodia, a captivating short film, (75min), in which Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vassiliev, the most prestigious couple from the Bolshoi Ballet were filmed both in Paris and Moscow. Delouche not only obtained access to precious Russian documents, but also amused himself filming the dancers skimming through the snow on the way to their country datcha.

"I was introduced to them by Irene Lidova*, "he said, "and despite the difficulties at the time, she convinced them to work with me and I was able to film Maximova both dancing herself and teaching Elisabeth Maurin, of the Paris Opéra. Not only do I have a personal weakness for Maurin, Tchaikovsky's little princess, but she's also the last of a line of dancers who don't exist anymore. She's the style of the petite French ballerina you find in Degas' paintings, slight, shy and fragile, born to dance such roles as Coppelia."

Paris Opéra dancer Eric Vu An, an ardent admirer of Vassiliev was also in the film, and there is a sequence of the great Russian star passing on The Corsaire to him.

By this time, the French television channel, Arte became interested in Delouche and invited him to work with Monique Loudières, a young French dancer. Comme les Oiseaux shows her face to face with some of the greatest contemporary creators including Jiri Kylian and Jerome Robbins , who worked on In the Night with her. Delouche also shows Yvette Chauviré teaching Loudières the role of the Shadow in Lifar's Les Mirages which she herself had learned directly from the choreographer. Consistent with the goal he had set himself, each film deals with the same subject seen from a different viewpoint.

The Cahiers retrouvés de Nina Vyroubova relied heavily on the unique archive material she possessed, and although this film was predominantly autobiographical, the lyrical Russian-French dancer and teacher was filmed teaching her favourite roles from Phédre, and La Somnambule.

"I was also particularly pleased here to have the participation, however briefly, of Rudolf Nureyev", Delouche told me. "Clad in a white wig**, he appears in a short extract from The Sleeping Beauty, partnering Vyroubova in 1962. It is one of my greatest regrets that neither of us could be in the same place at the same time for me to have made a full-length film of him."

Nureyev with Nina Vyroubova
Nureyev with Nina Vyroubova 1962
Delouche collection

"I have admired Serge Peretti since I was very young", continued the director, "so I was very eager to make my next film, Serge Peretti, le Dernier Italien, 1997, even though he was ninety-two, and was to die only two months after the documentary was completed. Against criticism that he was too old to make the film I can only say that it was truly a case of better late than never. I was overwhelmed by his charm; he was very nineteenth century.

"He was a superb danseur noble, the first to be given the title of étoile, who became a brilliant pedagogue, and with the aid of Jean-Yves Lormeau,*** the student closest to him, I was able to film him cracking anecdotes, and passing on his art to the young members of the Paris Opéra Ballet, including Emmanuel Thibault.

Delouche: Serge Peretti, le Dernier Italien
Delouche: Serge Peretti, Le dernier Italien

"I wanted Emmanuel in my film because he is an outstanding dancer. He belongs to the old school, to the time of Vestris. His style is refined and elegant, the personification of what it means to be a French dancer. Moreover, he can jump! His elevation is remarkable, coupled with an extraordinary jeux de jambes. Neat, light and precise. He's an amazing dancer who most certainly does not have the status he merits within the company."

"My film on Maia Plissetskaia, Maia, 2000, was different, for she's not interested in the next generation, but my film career would not be complete without including her interpretation of Swan Lake. To watch her is a lesson in itself."

"More recently, Violette and Mister B. 2001, was a wonderful experience, and not only because I gave pride of place to the neo-classics. Violette is Violette Verdy, the French ballerina who became Balanchine's muse. In this film, an exhilarating masterclass, she passes on the roles created for her by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins while she was at New York City Ballet, and which she remembers down to the smallest detail, and describes in her own inimitable way. It was a joy to make because she's so quick, so witty and alive . She's an extraordinary woman, brimming with enthusiasm. Trés artiste!"

Violette Verdy, Victor Malakhov and Margaret Illmann
Violette Verdy (left) with Victor Malakhov and Margaret Illmann

Effectively, Verdy, in vibrant attractive outfits sparkles, talking incessantly but informatively and missing nothing . Comments are made on the musical content of the score while coaching lovely Elisabeth Maurin in Emeralds, from Balanchine's Jewels.

Delouche also had the excellent idea to invite the three great Paris ballerinas to take a class with Verdy, and thus filmed Isabelle Guèrin, magnificent in a solo from Dances at a Gathering, Monique Loudières, and Elisabeth Platel partnered by Nicolas Le Riche in a pas de deux from In the Night, an invaluable document for posterity. All are at the height of their form. "And all forced into early retirement because of an out-dated rule", added the director. "Exceptions should be made with artists of such stature".

"I was also fortunate to have the participation of Lucia Lacarra, one of the most beautiful stars of all, who came with her partner Cyril Pierre to interpret Balanchine's Liebeslieder Waltzer. Vladimir Malakhov, another great favourite of mine danced another Balanchine work, the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux with Margaret Illmann."

That, Dominique Delouche told me, was to have been the last of his films, but the possibility of working with Alicia Markova, the first of the important English ballerinas, arose.

"She was over ninety", he said, "but over to Paris she came, bright and sprightly, evoking her life with The Ballets Russes, to give lessons, not to the étoiles this time, but to some charming youngsters from the Opéra including Emilie Cozette, Myriam Ould-Braham, and Laeticia Pujol****. Elisabeth Platel, prior to taking over the Paris Opéra School, kindly acted as the link between generations, and gave me the opportunity to film her dancing part of Les Sylphides.

Dominique Delouche's films have been shown at cinemas in the centre of Paris and provide invaluable insight for anyone interested in classical dance or the Paris Opéra company. They might not be everyone's idea of a Saturday night's outing, but for dancers or anyone connected with the dance world, they are a positive treasure-trove of schooling, comment and correction; a transmission of the legacy of dance.

*Irene Lidova, Russian- French dance critic and personality

**Nureyev subsequently declared that he had felt like a Christmas tree in the outfit he was asked to wear.

***Jean-Yves Lormeau, danseur étoile of the Paris Opéra Ballet, now teacher at the Opéra school

****Pujol has since been nominated étoile.

The video cassettes , distributed by Imagidanse, will be available at the Opéra Bastille and the Palais Garnier.

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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