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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 27 JUNE 2012 — The first thing that comes to one’s notice in Josua Hoffalt’s dressing-room at the Palais Garnier is a large, attractive black and white poster drawing of Roland Petit, the grand ‘old’ man of French ballet, a choreographer the 27-year-old dancer admires immensely. "I would love to interpret so many of his works", the recently nominated étoile told me. "I feel very much at ease with his repertoire where there are some incredible roles for men, from Frollo and Quasimodo in Notre Dame de Paris, Don José in Carmen, the young man in Le Rendez-vous, and of course, the doomed hero of Le Jeune Homme et la mort, where there is that mixture of extreme despair followed by explosive movement. I like roles where there is a development, where the character moves on and where, as with Roland Petit, you can put something of your own into each situation."

For the last two years as premier danseur, Hoffalt has been dancing many main roles, from Ashton’s Colas  in La Fille mal Gardée,  Nureyev’s Romeo and the star actor in Cinderella, Frantz in Coppelia, to Djémil, a role created for him by Jean-Guillaume Bart in his recent creation, La Source. Finally, after a performance as Solor in La Bayadère, and following the proposition of artistic director, Brigitte Lefèvre, Nicolas Joel, general director, nominated him étoile on 7 March.

Josua Hoffalt as Solar in La Bayadère
Photo: Anne Deniau

Born and brought up on the outskirts of Marseilles, his grandmother sent him off to ballet school along with his two cousins when he was 8.

"I didn’t like it too much", he said, "but then they wanted to keep me there as they had so few boys, so they kept flattering me and telling me I was good." He shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "So, of course I stayed and eventually gave up gymnastics and tennis to concentrate on dance, entering a few competitions along the way. But it wasn’t until I was 13 and saw a documentary on Nicolas Le Riche that I began to take dance seriously. He fired my imagination; I wanted to become a dancer like him with that electrifying presence and his amazing qualities both as an actor and dancer! I wanted to be a danseur étoile too, although I scarcely understood what it meant at that age."  

Consequently he headed for Paris and gained entrance to the Opera school that same year, joining the company four years later, collecting a silver medal from Varna before he was 20. A favourite with the public, he was also awarded the Prix Carpeaux as well as the Prix du Public/Arop soon after.

So, since he was already dancing principal roles, and his talent was being recognized, what difference did his nomination to the rank of étoile really make?

"Well", he replied, this time with an even larger smile, "It’s a kid’s dream! It brings me enormous personal pleasure. But on a more practical level, I hope it opens doors to me on an international level. I’ve danced abroad in galas before, and quite honestly, short pas de deux out of context don’t interest me very much as they are so limiting artistically.  I would love, for instance, to be invited to dance Swan Lake at the "Bolshoi". And also, it should mean that I’m no longer programmed as a 4th or 5th cast, but get to dance certain premières, as Solor in La Bayadére.

One would think that the role of Solor would have a special place in his heart, but it is a role he dreamed of dancing mainly for the technical challenge it held, for its style and big, bravura dancing, and for the opportunity it gave for him to dance with Aurélie Dupont, a ballerina he reveres.

"Twenty or thirty years ago," he commented," I would never have been considered for the role of Solor. It was reserved for the great, strapping muscular dancers such as Irek Mukhamedov. I mean, look at me!"

Indeed, Josua Hoffalt is the antithesis of big, beefy and muscular. He is of medium height, tall, but not too tall, with a slender, elegant frame and arms of steel, hence his effortless lifts. He is a good-looking, attractive young man with a boyish, cheeky grin, and a beautiful, heart touching technique which in combination with his extraordinary grace and musicality makes his dancing a joy to watch.

"Solor’s story doesn’t carry weight with me", he continued, "I can’t get really involved with it and am greatly bothered by the music, particularly in the last act. There I am, in the depths of despair, and then, tumpety tum, ti tum, the score is festive; we are at a party with this joyful music, and yet this is an act of lamentation. "

"I identify far more with the role of Des Grieux in Manon, a character who grows and evolves. I dance that  with Aurélie Dupont, which couldn’t be better. She has such beautiful movements and depth of feeling as well as being so perfectly musical."

Aurélie Dupont and Josua Hoffalt in Manon
Photo: Anne Deniau

The words, music and musicality recur frequently in conversation with Hoffalt to whom music illuminates the movement. It is as essential to him as breathing, yet when he interpreted Processes of Intricacy, a work choreographed by Paris Opera dancer, Samuel Murez, last year, in which he partnered the newly nominated étoile, Ludmila Pagliero, it was danced in silence. Not really", he explained. "We listened to sounds, to our breathing, to the sounds our dance shoes made on the floor."

"Contemporary works are as essential to me as the classics", he commented, "and at the Paris Opera Ballet we are more than fortunate, for not only do we get to interpret the classics, but there are frequent creations which I adore, as well as works brought in from both French and foreign choreographers. Dancing in Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring changed my way of looking at dance completely. The complete abandon she demanded from us as well as the experience of dancing in the earth on stage was something I shall never forget."

"On a personal level, I need to interpret different styles as there is a constant exchange. What I learn in traditional ballets is applied to contemporary and vice versa, and I think Baryshnikov is the outstanding example of that. He has worked with so many different people over his long career."

Josua Hoffal in Onegin
Photo: Michel Lidvac

MacMillan, Ashton, Mats Ek, John Cranko, Kylian, Forsythe, Nacho Duato and Wayne McGregor are all choreographers whose names cropped up. He said that he found working with McGregor, who would not be his first choice as a choreographer, an experience because of the speed of the movements. "It was like an exercise of mathematics on stage", was his wry comment.

Cherkaoui was a choreographer he hoped to work with next season, and having seen the pieces created by the brilliant Anglo-Indian choreographer, Akram Khan, he added that he hoped he would come to the opera one day.

"Rudolf Nureyev gave so much to this company. He brought us all his magnificent classics, and paved the way for our contemporary repertoire", Hoffalt continued. "But now it’s twenty or more years on and time to make a break in a certain sense. Today there is a new, young generation of dancers, with Mathieu Ganio, Mathias Heymann, and Stéphane Bullion and a different, wide ranging repertoire. We’re looking for something else. We have the wonderful teaching of people like Laurent Hilaire, directly formed by Nureyev himself, who is transmitting all he learned, and building alongside that, it’s now our responsibility to try to bring about another golden age. I hope we can." 

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. She last wrote on the choreographers Jerome Robbins and Mats Ek

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