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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 22 AUGUST 2011 — Amid a blaze of cascading white streamers and glittering stars and an avalanche of red petals and bouncing red and yellow balloons reflecting the colours of Spain, the popular danseur étoile José Martinez, treading carefully between the bouquets of white flowers hurled onto the stage by shrieking admirers, bowed his farewell to the Paris Opera Ballet. The whole Palais Garnier was on its feet as he strode up the central aisle to personally thank spectators, many of whom had travelled from the Iberian peninsula to witness this unique moment. He was visibly moved by the overwhelming and interminable ovations. At the prestigious French company, 42 years and six months marks the end of every dancer’s career no matter who they are. It is irrelevant that Martinez is an international star adored by audiences, one of the company’s greatest interpreters and a true danseur noble. There could have been nobody there who wanted him to leave.

José Martinez bids farewell to Paris public 
Photo: J.Benhamou

The remarkable performance of his ballet, Les Enfants du Paradis, premiered in 2008, which the dancer not only choreographed but danced himself for the first time, marked the end of the Spanish-born dancer’s stay in France. The evening continued, however, with a champagne buffet after the ballet in which he received not only a medal, that of Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, from the hands of artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre, but also the plush red chair from his dressing-room and the costume he wore in Le Tricorne, one of the roles he marked indelibly as his own, gifts rarely, if ever, offered.  "They turf me out of my dressing-room, but decorate me with a medal", the tall, elegant Spaniard commented laconically while sadly fingering the heavy, ornate decoration around his neck.

For underlying all these festivities which continued the rest of the night in a Spanish style disco set up in the sous-sol of the Opera Garnier, there was a certain melancholy, not only due to the sudden death of Roland Petit less than a week before. Indeed, Martinez has left his stamp on so many roles at the Paris Opera, and given his help and support to so many dancers, that his presence will be sorely missed, for while it may be true that no one is indispensible, particularly in a company brimming with talent, some are more indispensable than others.

Besides his unforgettable interpretation of Massine’s miller in Le Tricorne, who today can carry off the role of Don José in Roland Petit’s Carmen so brilliantly, a role created by Petit himself, or interpret a true, Spanish-style Basilio in Don Quixotte, whether with Letestu or with Diana Vishneva of the Mariinsky?  

José Martinez in Swan Lake at Paris Opera Ballet 
Photo: Anne Deniau

Nominated étoile in 1997, after his portrayal of James in La Sylphide, Martinez brought a new dimension to the role of a prince, particularly to Siegfried in Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake, to whom he gave an almost mystic, supernatural aura, totally in keeping with the music and the choreography, while early on in his career, he developed the interpretations of such ‘secondary’ roles as Paris in Romeo and Juliet, and Hilarion in Giselle. A perfectionist, he interpreted all his roles with intelligence and would spend hours in research, immersing himself both in the personality and period he was dancing.

Regarding contemporary work, he was chosen to create roles for Mats Eks and was in demand by such choreographers as Roland Petit, John Neumeier, and William Forsythe. Neither did he hesitate to take on comedy and character parts, however minor, donning pointe shoes for the stepmother in Nureyev’s Cinderella and relishing the role of the widow in Mats Ek’s nightmarish Maison de Bernada, the choreographer for whom he will return as guest artist next season in The Appartment.

Nosferatu by Jean-Claude Gallotta in 2001 could not have existed without Martinez. He himself, inspired by books, films and his own fertile imagination created the repellent, macabre creature when he discovered a long, black, dank and dirty wig. In contrast to his aristocratic princes, he was unrecognizable in the role to which he contributed both artistically and choreographically. No one else danced Nosferato. Will they ever?

His interest in choreography developed slowly, perhaps encouraged by this venture, and it is interesting to note that Martinez himself is the first to shrug off his choreographic skills. "I’m not really a choreographer", he once told me, "I just rehash what I’ve danced and what others have done. I’m contributing nothing original." But Mi Favorita, created the year after his adventure with Gallotta, followed by Delibes Suite, and Scaramouche, programmed for the opera school, as well as his full-length Les Enfants du Paradis are all highly professional, enjoyable ballets.

José Martinez as Baptiste in Les Enfants du Paradis
Photo: J.Benhamou

The Children of Paradise (Les Enfants du Paradis), based on Marcel Carné’s 1945 film, is a romantic fresco of the Paris of yesterday. Set amidst the magical world of travelling fairs and street traders, it tells the story of Baptiste the mime and Frédérick Lemaitre, an aspiring actor, who are both in love with the fascinating Garance, who marries… the Count.

Commissioned by Brigitte Lefèvre, the ballet was confusing on its first showing two years ago, particularly for those in the audience unfamiliar with the film. However, with the choreographer himself in the central role and with Agnès Letestu, the beautiful ballerina with whom he forged a perfect partnership, in the role of Garance, the ballet took on a pathos, beauty and sensuality not present in earlier performances.

Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in Les Enfants du Paradis
Photo: J.Benhamou

While the first part of the work follows the film, beginning with an intense and poetic moment where Baptiste/Martinez mimes the scene where Garance is wrongfully accused of theft, the second half is all dance and pure emotion. The most beautiful moments, however, were the pas de deux between Baptiste and Garance, in the grandeur of this couple who were meant to dance together.

The success of the work also lay in the boundless enthusiasm with which the ballet was danced by all the cast. In particular, Claire-Marie Osta was a passionate and touching Nathalie, the young girl in love with Baptiste who, as his wife years later, witnesses in horror the love of her husband for the ravishing Garance. Both Vincent Chaillot and Florian Magnenet were well-cast as Lacenaire, the pickpocket, and Frédérick respectively. Indeed, if Magnenet, who threw himself wholeheartedly into his role, continues to dance like this and perfects his technique, he could soon be the hero himself. An excellent performance was also given by Yann Saiz as the Count.

José Martinez decorated Commandeur des Arts et Lettres
of the French Republic
Photo: Patricia Boccadoro

Happily, the end of his career in Paris does not mean the end of his career in dance, for Martinez has the exciting challenge of a new position as Director of the National Ballet of Spain, a young company founded in 1978 by Antonio Gades, a post which  he officially takes up in September. Unofficially, he has already begun, as at the time of writing, he is actually auditioning some 282 dancers for his new troupe. He will not have an easy job, for not only have the dancers been directed by Nacho Duato for twenty years, focusing on contemporary pieces, but preparing the dancers for the 19th century classics at a time when Spain has little or no money to spend on culture will be a daunting task. However, there is not a role in the classical repertoire that he has not danced, which should stand him in good stead.

But before he throws himself into the fray, he will be taking a well-merited rest with his family in Carthagena.

José Martinez will return to the Paris Opera Ballet as guest artist in Cranko’s Onegin, December 2011 and in Mats Ek’s, Apartment, in March, 2012.

Headline image: José Martinez
Photo: Anne Deniau

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 British choreographer Wayne McGregor.

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