By Patricia Boccadoro
8 November 1997 -
There are certain privileged occasions when an audience knows that
what it sees is a magical moment to be treasured forever, because it
can never happen again. Such was the performance of Agnès
Letestu on 2 November as Odette in Swan Lake at the Palais
Garnier in her first appearance as an official étoile
of the French company.
Past performances have repeatedly
proved her outstanding qualities, but now she has gone beyond
technical perfection; it is simply there to serve her to interpret a
role. She adds those incandescent small touches which enable her to
become the character she is interpreting.
On Friday 31
October, Agnès Letestu, première danseuse of the Paris
Opera Ballet was finally nominated étoile, the highest
accolade for a dancer in France by Mr. Hughes Gall, director of the
two operas. This highly deserved promotion, announced backstage after
the ballet, has taken a long time and was becoming an issue in the
dance world. (See Culturekiosque feature of 22 May 1997 on
and José Martinez).
Agnès, now 26, and
born in the Paris suburb of Saint Maur, was seen as an exceptional
talent from the day she joined the local Conservatoire for a weekly
lesson. Her teacher, Mr.Bertin persuaded her to audition for the Opéra
school which she joined when she was 10.
enthralled from the very minute I saw a ballet on the television, "
she told me." I used to skip around in front of it. I just had to
I remember seeing Agnès dance for the first time when she was
only 15. The school's end of term production at the Salle Favart was
suddenly illuminated by the appearance of a girl as vulnerable and shy
as a graceful young foal. Technically perfect, it was less her tall
slenderness that made her stand out than her unmistakable star
quality. To observers, including myself, it seemed quite obvious that
time would carry her to the top of the company.
was the best pupil I had", Claude Bessy (director of the school)
told me later. "I chose her for Gourouli in The Two Pigeons
because she possessed the freshness and purity for the role as well as
the technique. She and José Martinez (now danseur étoile)
are the future of classical dance not only in France but throughout
First in her class, Letestu joined the Opéra
Ballet as quadrille in 1989, the last year of Rudolf Nureyev's
directorship. She was rapidly promoted coryphée then
sujet, and won both the Eurovision competition and the gold
medal at Varna (the most prestigious dance competition in Europe).
After her first important solo role as the Courtesan in
Balanchine's Prodigal Son, she was chosen by Roland Petit to
dance Le jeune homme et la mort and by William Forsythe who
cast her in the principal role of "In the middle". But the
turning point in her career came with the return of Rudolf Nureyev who
insisted that she be cast as Princess Gamzatti in his sumptuous new
production of The Bayadère.
"He was out
in the Opéra courtyard one day and crooked his finger to beckon
me over to ask me if I would dance Gamzatti for him," Agnès
recalled at a celebration dinner afterwards. "I couldn't believe
my ears because it was a role for an étoile and I would
get into trouble with the others. But how could I say no to Nureyev? I
was also supposed to be dancing in the corps de ballet of "Swan
Lake" somewhere else. Ill and weak as he was, he argued and
fought for me, an absolute nobody, and I danced Gamzatti. I owe
everything to him".
"I used to watch him on stage
all the time out of the corner of my eye," she continued. "I
remember what he used to say, how he wanted things done, and his
directions to everyone. I learnt how to dance Odette/Odile from
She was subsequently given the
opportunity to dance Swan Lake in Florence by Genia Polyakov
(director of the Opéra there), who had been Nureyev's assistant
in Paris. Just before his untimely death last year, Polyakov told me
quite simply that Letestu had been born to dance Swan Lake. He
described her interpretation of Odette as "sublime".
The following year, partnered by Martinez, she made her Paris debut
in the role and the young couple were rapturously acclaimed by the
public. Their performance was one of astonishing maturity.
Indescribably poignant as Odette, shining but never hard nor brittle
as Odile, Agnès almost revelled in the technical demands of the
Wayne Eagling, director of the Dutch National
Ballet, spoke of Letestu's extraordinary limpidity in Romeo and
Juliet at the Muziektheater of Amsterdam on January 1st. 1996.
"Agnès dances with unusual grace and softness"
he said." She is such a very special dancer, so natural yet so
beautiful. She has the unique gift of translating her emotions into
Since then, Letestu has displayed her
versatility in such works as Etudes (Lander), L'elu, in the
Rites of Spring (Nijinsky), Le Palais de Cristal, Apollo,
and Serenade (Balanchine). Frequently referred to as a
ballerina of the future, she adds something extra to what was danced
before. Her partner on and off stage, José Martinez is
convinced she would have been Balanchine's last muse. "He would
have written ballets just for her", he said. "But her
greatest quality", continued Martinez, "is her ability to
communicate her incredible enjoyment of dancing. She makes the person
watching share her happiness. You remember her exquisite feet, her
beautiful arms, but most of all her joy. When she dances there's no
place she'd rather be".
Intelligent and level-headed
with a quick sense of humour, Letestu commented that she had always
done her best. "The main difference now ", she said 'is the
way other people see me. My work has been recognised at the Opéra.
I was fortunate to dance roles normally given to the étoiles
before, but it was only for one or two performances. As an étoile,
I'll dance more; it's my life".