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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 2 NOVEMBER 2009 — The season opened at the Paris Opera Ballet with the 1998 version of Giselle by Eugène Polyakov and Patrice Bart, a huge success then as it was at its creation in Paris in 1841. Bart and Polyakov, who had adapted the original choreography of Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa seven years before, restaged it with the ravishing costumes and scenery designed in 1924 by Alexandre Benois, painter for the Ballets Russes.

The ballet tells the story of how Giselle, a pretty young village girl, falls in love with Albrecht, a young nobleman who has been courting her disguised as a peasant. Dreaming of marriage, Giselle suffers the horrible shock of discovering that Albrecht is already betrothed to another. His deception, adding to the fact that she suffers from a weak heart, costs her her life. In the second act, which takes place in the Kingdom of the Wilis, the ghosts of young girls who died of a broken heart before their wedding, Albrecht, condemned to dance to his death, is saved by the love of Giselle.

Mathias Heymann in Giselle
Photo: Julien Benhamo 

The work, up until recently reserved for the most senior étoiles, is one of the jewels of the repertoire of the French company. The departure of Manuel Legris earlier this year saw the end of the reign of Rudolf Nureyev’s great stars, giving place to a new generation of exciting young dancers who have been taking on the central roles. In October, Mathias Heymann, nominated étoile in April at the age of 21, gave his second performance as Albrecht, partnering the vivacious Dorothée Gilbert, herself nominated étoile two years previously at the age of 24.

These two youngsters looked the part, being the age for their roles, and convinced the moment they arrived on stage. They were both technically brilliant. Presuming him to be a peasant like herself, Gilbert, at first demure, is besotted with Heymann, a sheltered aristocratic boy encountering real love for the first time, and neither can think of anything but each other. Their dancing was natural, spontaneous and moving, while at the end of act 2, Heymann’s dancing touched on the technically incredible. He danced as possessed, inhabiting his role, and endangering his own life in a desperate attempt to be with Giselle.  

Giselle is very special to me", the new étoile told me after rehearsals at the Palais Garnier for Balanchine’s Rubies.  Speaking in excellent, attractively accented English, he explained that it was after he had seen the video of Baryshnikov with Noella Pontois, filmed when the former came to dance Albrecht at the Palais Garnier in 1978, that he knew he wanted to become a dancer.

Mathias Heymann in Giselle
Photo: Julien Benhamo

"I remember my feelings on first seeing the ballet and I want to recreate the same emotion with my dancing. Many interpretations are possible, and I wanted the one which suited me best. I gave a lot of thought to all the details in it, wondering how it must feel, for example, if someone burst in on me while I was kissing my girlfriend, as Hilarion did in Act 1. I wanted everything to be real. I was head over heels in love with Dorothée. I didn’t know how to flirt, and being so carried away, I never gave a thought to the consequences of my actions. I was sick of my life and my arranged marriage to the Prince of Courlande’s daughter, an ‘older’ woman I didn’t even like, and then I met this absolutely ravishing young girl and could think of nothing else."

"I let myself be swept along by the beauty of the music", Heymann continued. "And, as far as was possible, I didn’t give a thought to the choreography, concentrating on what Albrecht was feeling in the situation he found himself in; I’d never felt anything like that before." But afterwards," he said, "it took me one or two days to find some joy again, to rid myself from the dreadful sense of loss, even though love triumphs and my life became meaningful for having loved Giselle.  After all, I was responsible for that lovely girl’s death; I deceived her and it was my fault, not Hilarion’s.  I didn’t know she was ill, and was overcome with guilt when I was caught out."

Mathias Heymann was born in Marseilles on October 1st, 1987, but he did not have a typically French childhood, for shortly after his birth, his father, a maths teacher, accepted a teaching post in Africa. However, his Moroccan-born mother, from whom he inherited his dark good looks, was an oriental dancer and he started dance because she was giving lessons and he adored dancing with her.  From a very early age, Mathias danced to African rhythms, music he still adores, and a fact which goes towards explaining his extraordinary musicality. 

"My parents worried because I danced all the time", he recalled, "they thought I was overdoing it, but there’s so much life in African music." But a shock came when he returned to France for his schooling, alleviated only by his dance classes in Marseilles with Veronique Sottile, a former dancer with the Ballet of Geneva and with Roland Petit whose teaching he enjoyed enormously.

Mathias Heymann as Lensky in Onégine
Photo: Sebasten Mathé

"She took me to dance competitions, and it was after I was awarded a scholarship at the American Youth Grand Prix, which enabled me to take a course in Miami, that I gained entrance to the Paris Opera Ballet School when I was 14."

From then on, everything proved excessively easy for the gifted boy whose dance is characterised by high, light, effortless jumps allied with precise, impeccable schooling. At the age of 16, he interpreted Daphnis in the school’s production of Daphnis and Chloe, entering the company as quadrille shortly before his seventeenth birthday. And then, as promotion inside the company is by means of a yearly competition in which dancers compete for vacancies in the higher ranks, he won his place as coryphée at 18, at 19 he was awarded a position as subject, while at 20 he gained a post of premier dancer, collecting both the A.R.O.P. prize and the Carpeaux prize along the way. Excellent performances as Basilio in Don Quixotte, Colas in La Fille mal Gardée, and as Lucien d’Hervilly in Paquita, as well as a superb performance in McGregor’s Genus, paved the way for his popular nomination to the post of étoile after the première of Onegin last April, when he interpreted the poet, Lenski. He was just 21 years old, the same age as Rudolf Nureyev when he first danced Albrecht on the stage of the Maryinsky Theatre with Kolpakova.

Heymann looks at me in consternation when I mention Nureyev. "I don’t come up to his heel", he exclaimed. "I never saw him dance, never met him, but I have seen all his videos, many times, and he is my role model as are Vassiliev and Baryshnikov.

"They are the three most outstanding dancers of all. They were truly exceptional artists and great examples to dancers today, and all three of them are my references even though I have only seen them on video. However, I did see a performance of The Dying Swan at Covent Garden, where the interpretation by Uliana Lopatkina has marked me for life. "

 "Here at the opera I have always loved Elisabeth Maurin and Manuel Legris has always been there with help and encouragement, particularly during the injuries I sustained over the period when I was dancing so much, yet still growing physically. I also owe much to Laurent Hilaire who worked with me for "Giselle".

"But when I dance", he says", "I want to be myself. I’m happy dancing and each dancer has something different to give. It’s the most incredible metier and what I always wanted to do. Now, many things become open to me as an étoile. I’m going where I have to go, with no fixed direction except that I’m very excited at the thought of dancing Balanchine’s Rubies, Fokine’s Spectre de la Rose, and with prospects of dancing the main roles in Nureyev’s Nutcracker  at Christmas and his version of  Bayadère next May." 

So what does he do when he’s not dancing? "I go to the Crazy Horse!" he laughed." I’m a great fan of the founder, Alain Bernardin, who was nuts about women and modern art. I love all the girls there, and I think Dita von Teese is just fantastic!!! I even love the "Horse guards" number, and when you look closely(?), the girls are all different, and it is such a wonderful and aesthetic way of presenting women’s bodies, all of which are as perfect as they can be. It’s a great place to go."

Well, with 15 shows per week, and a changing rota of girls, including the infamous Dita von Teese, we obviously didn’t see the same performance, nor, perhaps, drink the same amount of champagne…….

Patricia Boccadoro is the dance editor for

Related Culturekiosque Dance Archives 

Philippe Decouflé at the "Crazy Horse"

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