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Paris Opera Ballet's Annual "Competition":

Where the best dancer never, ever, wins!

by Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 7 March 2001 - For several years now, Emmanuel Thibault has dazzled public and critics, both on stage and in the yearly contest for promotion to the rank of Premier Danseur.

Already in 1998, because of his superlative style and grace, he was noticed by many dance specialists, but although there was a post available, no appointment was made, possibly because Thibault was, and looked, very young

The following year, he was quite simply fabulous in The Four Seasons, choreography by Jerome Robbins, who had chosen him to create this work at the Opera, but under strain, stumbled during the imposed variation from La Bayadère, a role which didn't suit his shy, elfin charm. The post was given to Benjamin Pech who didn't slip.

Emmanuel Thibault in the Blue Bird

Emmanuel Thibault in The Blue Bird
Photo: Moatti

Up until this point, one could find reasons why the promotion had not been made, but last year after a flawless performance, Thibault was ranked first by all the critics. And it was not surprising for almost alone of all the opera dancers, étoiles included, he possesses this extraordinary ''ballon", that elusive quality of appearing to hover in the air when he jumps. The eminent French specialist René Sirven only recently compared Thibault to Nijinsky because of his high, effortless leaps and soft, silent landings. ( In the recent re-staging of Paquita, Thibault triumphed as soloist in the pas de trois danced by Nijinsky in 1907). He was in a sphere of his own. Yet no promotion was made. Why?

Was Monsieur Thibault being punished for some secret vice we don't know about, like smoking on the sly in the lavatory? Or does he play cards in his dressing-room?

Emmanuel Thibault in The Four Seasons

Emmanuel Thibault in The Four Seasons
Photo: Moatti

Two posts of Premier Danseur were available this time round, and the performance in February, sublime, of Emmanuel Thibault left no doubts at all that one of them was his. In the imposed variation, surprisingly again from La Bayadère, he soared through the air in a superb demonstration of what dance is all about. No wonder the public love him. This time, he had nothing to lose, for rumours had gone out months ago that even should he dance like Nureyev, Vasiliev and Baryshnikov rolled into one, he was not to be promoted. And so he was not . Star for the day, but not the winner.

The jury, led by Mr. Hugues R. Gall, director of the Paris National Opera, and composed of Brigitte Lefèvre, director of Dance, Patrice Bart, ballet master, eight members of the company, and Elisabetta Terabust,* ranked him third. First and second place, and consequently, the promotions to Premier Danseur went to Jeremy Bélingard, also a crowd-pleaser, and the tall, pleasant looking Karl Paquette, certainly a bittersweet victory for the latter.

What is happening at the Paris Opera ballet where dance alone should be king? There was a time when this competition gave every dancer their chance. Is it now being turned into a beauty competition where only those resembling a stereotyped story-book image of a prince can pass? Or must dancers grovel at the feet of a bunch of civil servants and beg ? This wilful and systematic blockage of such a unique artist as Thibault puts not only the whole concept of a "competition" into question, but strikes a blow at the very foundations of the company.

Emmanuel Thibault as The Golden Idol from La Bayadère

Emmanuel Thibault as The Golden Idol, La Bayadère
Photo: Moatti

After this frankly shocking result, I asked jury member Nicolas Le Riche to explain what had happened, and who had voted for whom. "There is a rule of secrecy", he said, "and I am not allowed to reply to that question. All I can tell you is that it is very hard to be on the jury and obliged to choose. It's as if you had to vote for the best composer between Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Mozart, and Emmanuel Thibault was Mozart".

It would have been more correct to have commented that what we saw then, was Mozart in a sea of Salieris.

Fortunately, the women were given a fair deal, and a place of Première Danseuse was awarded to the very lovely Eleonora Abbagnato.

*Elisabetta Terabust was director of La Scala Ballet, 1993 - 96, and is actually in charge of the Florence Opera School.

Related articles: An Interview with Emmanuel Thibault

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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