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Emmanuel Thibault

Interview by Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 11 January 1999 - From where we sat in the Entracte, the coffee bar adopted by so many of the Paris Opéra dancers, we could see the massive walls of the majestic Palais Garnier across the busy road. The shadow of Rudolf Nureyev's "Palace of Dance" was a constant reminder of Emmanuel Thibault's avowed ambition to dance, work, and learn, searching for that perfection which he knows will always remain just out of reach.

While the middle-aged waitress twinkled around us with our tray of tea, twenty-three year old Thibault admitted that he was actually refused at the first dance school he went to near his home in Gagny.
Emmanuel Thibault

Photo : Icare / Moatti

"I went at five years old, quite decided I wanted to be a dancer, but they sent me away, telling me that the men had to carry the girls and I was much too tiny ! But after lessons with Max Bozzoni, one of the most renowned teachers in France (étoile of the Paris Opéra 1947), I went to the Opéra school instead."

Entering the company in record time, having zipped through his classes, the young dancer began attracting attention when he won the silver medal in the International Competition of Paris, classical section, at barely sixteen, together with an invitation from Vinogradov to dance La Sylphide at the Kirov in Saint Petersburg. He was subsequently chosen to represent France in the Eurovision Dance Competition in Helsinki, where he impressed Jorma Uotinen, President of the jury, as well as countless spectators, including myself.

It was after watching him win, with his high, effortless jumps, and soft, graceful landings that I realised that he was potentially one of the most gifted artists of his generation, a realisation confirmed when he carried off a silver medal at Varna two years later, dancing Presto, a solo created for him by Uotinen, to music by Sibelius. No gold medals were awarded that year, possibly because of financial reasons, Mr Andre Philippe Hersin, founder of " Saisons de la Danse " told me, for if anyone deserved one, he did.

So, apart from an impeccable technique, just what makes Emmanuel Thibault different from the other dancers of his age? A warm, spontaneous smile, intense brown eyes, and a natural humility coupled with a charisma that must knock the socks off most women journalists. Not least, where other dancers jump, Thibault soars and hovers, touching ground with the lightness of a feather.

On stage, your eyes are drawn to his lithe, supple body for he possesses that strange magic of movement which makes an audience draw towards him even when he's not centre stage.

After Varna, Thibault was rapidly promoted and is frequently given small but interesting roles, but he is still " sujet ", not yet out of the corps de ballet, not quite soloist, and he must wait until there is a post of " premier danseur " available, following the result of the annual competition at the Opéra.

One of his favourite roles is that of the Faun in Jerome Robbins' Four Seasons,( created in 1979), restaged for the French company in 1996. " I was very lucky in that Robbins seemed to like me immediately. He knew who I was because he'd seen me in a competition ", Thibault explained, " and had come to congratulate me, and to say that he hoped I'd dance his works ".

" I was rehearsing as a replacement for the Faun in Four Seasons, when Jean-Pierre Frolich, the American choreographer's assistant told me Robbins absolutely wanted me to dance. I remember feeling so happy that I didn't sleep all night. It was not only because it was a wonderful role, which I interpreted almost as a character out of a Tex Avery cartoon, but because he trusted in me. When I met him in the theatre on the evening I didn't dance he exclaimed, "What ! It isn't you tonight." His disappointment was the highest compliment I've ever been paid, and maybe the turning-point in my career, for he gave me the confidence I'd been lacking.

" I was very fortunate to work with Robbins, for it's something that's marked me for life. He was an exceptionally generous person for whom I had the greatest admiration. He knew exactly what he wanted, and how to go about getting it ". " I'm never happier than when I'm dancing Robbins or Balanchine ", he continued, " even when you're not a soloist, you really dance in works like Capriccio and Allegro Brilliante.

But Emmanuel Thibault is dancing more and more solo roles. Recent successes include the pas de deux in act 1 (La Sylphide), the pas de deux from Napoli, for he seems to excel in Bournonville's choreography, the peasant pas de deux (Giselle), and more importantly, Le Spectre de la Rose, acclaimed by the public. He is currently scoring a personal triumph as the Golden Idol in La Bayadère.

Although Thibault was there when Nureyev created The Bayadère, a lingering regret is that, joining the company after Rudolf Nureyev's departure as artistic director, he never had the opportunity to work with the great Russian dancer, director and choreographer.

"My closest contact with him was when he asked me for advice", Thibault confided. "It was in La Dansomanie (a reconstruction of a work by Pierre Gardel by Ivo Cramér). I was nine or ten, a pupil in the school, and I'd been chosen to dance Nureyev's son in the ballet. We hadn't had time to rehearse the third act together, which I'd prepared with Georges Piletta, so fifteen minutes before the curtain rose when I was panicking as to what he would do, he came to ask me to show him what the ending was, and teach him the steps ! It was really very funny".

" All my contacts with him were fun ; the first time we met, I had to climb on his shoulders and I remember being so careful to get everything right. But then when I climbed down, I knocked off his little woolly bonnet, but all he did was roar with laughter ".

Thibault's teacher now is Noella Pontois (étoile of the Paris company 1968), with whom he has worked exclusively for the last seven years. They share a perfect professional partnership as well as a love for gardening, travel, and music, for Emmanuel Thibault is also an accomplished cellist. Playing an instrument as well as going to concerts, exhibitions, the theatre and cinema contributes to his artistic development.

" My passion in life is dance, but it's also important to have a life outside the Opéra ", said the young dancer. " It enables me to give more on stage, and to dance each performance as though it was unique. I use my technique as an instrument ; sometimes it's very hard, but the audience mustn't see that. After all, they don't come to see a dancer who's suffering or in pain....unless it's part of the story ", he laughed. " You must always give an impression of lightness, ease, and mastery. And my joy of being onstage obliterates all physical difficulties. I've rehearsed so much that my steps become almost automatic, leaving my spirit totally free to concentrate on the music and emotion".

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