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Ballerina Ludmila Pagliero talks about her journey to Paris Opera Ballet

South American danseuse Ludmila Pagliero, one of the few foreign dancers in the 345-year-old Paris Opera National Ballet will be dancing as Gazmatti in the classical ballet La Bayadere at Madinat Theatre this weekend.
Ludmila Pagliero. Sarah Dea / The National
Ludmila Pagliero. Sarah Dea / The National

For Ludmila Pagliero, luck and dedication go hand in hand.

Her penchant for risk-taking helped her succeed in becoming one of only a handful of foreign dancers admitted by the 345-year-old Paris Opera Ballet.

She built her reputation in the tightly run French company with hard work, competing each year to rise from corps de ballet to premier danseur.

Then luck dealt her a sweet hand in 2012 when she was cast at the last minute in the role of Gamzatti in the classical ballet La Bayadère, when all the other principal dancers fell ill. This gave her the ballet world’s top title: an étoile – the star dancer.

The 31-year-old from Argentina will reprise that performance during a gala production by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Madinat Theatre this weekend. The company will stage part of the 20th-century choreographer Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev’s version of La Bayadère, with costumes designed by the famous Italian designer, Franca Squarciapino.

“There were lots of moments in my life when I was in the right place at the right time,” says Pagliero. “I’d like to believe that my progression from dance school to where I am now – and hopefully where I want to reach – comes down to how dedicated I am, too. Both are important.”

Pagliero’s work ethic has earned her a reputation as one of the most dependable dancers in the company.

Three years ago, the artistic directors of La Bayadère found themselves faced with a crisis when all their principal dancers fell ill or were injured at the same time.

Pagliero, who hadn’t played the part of Gamzatti in two years, was asked to step in at very short notice. She was told the performance at the Opéra Bastille was going to be beamed live to cinemas around the world.

“All the six girls had a problem and were injured,” says Pagliero, who was a part of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering and Mats Ek’s Appartement at Palais Garnier at the time.

“They told me I’d have a week to rehearse for it,” she says. “The next day, the assistant director came to me and said that the girl who was to take the stage that night was sick as well, so I would have to go on that night itself.”

Though nervous, she says she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“I was given an hour to learn the steps and music and decide if I wanted to do it. I didn’t even have time for a stage rehearsal with the live orchestra.” But Pagliero says she lives for such challenges.

“Ballet is that way. You are always trying to do more pirouettes, trying to jump higher, trying to be better. You cannot walk away from a performance.”

But it is what happened after she danced that is etched in her memory.

“When the director of dance [Brigitte Lefevre] came on stage, I thought she was only there to address the cinema audience,” says Pagliero. “But then she introduced me and named me the étoile. It was all unexpected, me getting the role that way and then the title. I was elated.”

It’s an incredible tale, and yet Pagliero’s story isn’t one of love at first dance. As a child, she found classical ballet “boring” when her mother enrolled her for lessons at Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires.

“It’s funny, because nobody in my family knew about ballet” she says. “I was a child with all this energy and had to do something with it, so I joined ballet classes. I didn’t enjoy it and moved to learning jazz and other styles.

“As fate would have it, my teacher suggested classical lessons. The second time around, I found love in classical dance.”

Her first stage performance was at the age of 11 in a production of Hansel and Gretel in which “I wasn’t dancing but running from one end to another”.

She landed her first principal role at 16 in Sleeping Beauty for Teatro Municipal de Santiago in Chile. After further principal roles in theatres in South America, in 2003, Pagliero decided she should move to a country with a richer culture of ballet. She had a choice between the American Ballet Theatre and Paris Opera Ballet. She opted for the latter, despite being offered only a three-month contract.

“At first I wasn’t even sure they’d take me because here I was from South America, where there isn’t much of ballet,” she says. “And the Paris Opera enrols dancers directly from their own school – they don’t take in touring dancers. So my chances were slim.”

Her contract was extended until the end of the season and then each year she proved her virtuosity in internal competitions, slowly climbing the ranks.

“It’s not easy to reach the top here,” she says. “Unlike other companies, where you can arrive as a soloist or principal dancer, here you have to earn it fair and square.”

She has embraced the French style of ballet, but maintains a part of her South American flair on stage.

“I love the elegance and precise footwork of French ballet,” she says. “Sometimes I’m told I’m more French than the French. It’s an honour to be accepted by the company this way.

“I bring something different with my South American roots and personality on stage, which they like to see.”

• The Ballet Gala by Paris Opera Ballet at the Madinat Theatre in Souk Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai, is at 8pm on Thursday, 2.30pm and 8pm on Friday and 5.30pm on Saturday. Tickets, from Dh295, are available from www.madinatjumeirah.etixdubai.com

aahmed@thenational.ae

Updated: January 6, 2015 04:00 AM

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