x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

No holds barred: behind the scenes with the Paris Opera Ballet in Dubai

Having celebrated its 300th anniversary last year, the Paris Opera Ballet is the oldest ballet company in the world – and also one of the best. Selina Denman was given the rare opportunity to go behind the scenes to speak to its dancers and instructors, and meet the people on a mission to bring more high-quality ballet performances to the UAE.

Swan song: Germain Louvet rehearses for his role in the pas de trois from Swan Lake, ahead of the Paris Opera Ballet’s first official performance in the UAE. Sarah Dea / The National
Swan song: Germain Louvet rehearses for his role in the pas de trois from Swan Lake, ahead of the Paris Opera Ballet’s first official performance in the UAE. Sarah Dea / The National

Karl Paquette collapses in a heap, stage left. The 37-year-old dancer – one of the Paris Opera Ballet’s best – has just completed a gruelling run-through of George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, “an eight-minute display of ballet bravura and technique”, and is catching his breath. His dance partner, the premiere danseuse Valentine Colasante, stands a little way away, chest heaving, hands on thighs, as their instructor, or “balletmaster”, Laurent Novis talks them through their performance.

I’m sitting in the darkened, near-deserted auditorium of Dubai’s Madinat Theatre, where 10 soloists from the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the leading ballet companies in the world, have come to rehearse ahead of their first official performance in the UAE. The morning started with a warm-up; five male and five female dancers gathered around two makeshift barres in the centre of the stage, running through the staples – perfectly executed pliés, tendus, frappés, relevés, developpés. It’s a decidedly casual affair; instead of the trademark tutus, tiaras and tights, it’s tatty T-shirts, torn tracksuit bottoms, oversized leg-warmers and Ugg-like warm-up booties, but the signature grace and fluidity of these athletes is unmistakable. If I am expecting haughtiness or a frisson of competitiveness from these star performers, I’m to be disappointed. It’s all good-natured banter as they run through their steps – though how anyone can giggle while extending their leg at a 160-degree angle remains something of a mystery.

Many of the individuals on the stage in front of me have been dancing since they were four or five years old. Most are French and have come up through the Paris Opera Ballet ranks, spending up to seven years undergoing rigorous training at the all-immersive Paris Opera Ballet School, braving pain, injury and fierce competition in their bid for a much-coveted spot in the corps of the oldest ballet company in the world.

Formed in 1713 by Louis XIV, the Paris Opera Ballet celebrated its 300th anniversary last year. It’s one of the best ballet companies in the world and though it’s the oldest, in terms of longevity, it’s also, paradoxically, one of the youngest, in terms of the average age of its dancers (25). All dancers are required to retire at the age of 42, whether or not they want to.

So what differentiates a great dancer from a good one, I ask Novis, who was himself a celebrated member of the ballet company before becoming a teacher there? “Technique, precision, physique and musicality are the main ingredients needed to produce a great ballet dancer,” he says. “But these elements alone are not enough; endurance, sustaining one’s health, stage presence and the capacity to cope with pressure are what make someone great.”

Paquette is, by all accounts, one the greats. He joined the Paris Opera Ballet School at the age of 10, was admitted to the corps at 17 and has spent the last 20 years rising steadily through the company’s rigidly hierarchical ranks. In 2009, after an impeccable performance of The Nutcracker, he was named “étoile”, the highest order of dancer at the company, a much-coveted and lifelong honour that can only be bestowed by the director of the opera.

He talks me through his average week. “We usually have a class every day, which begins at 10am. Then we have rehearsals from 12 to 7pm. If we perform in the evening, we stop rehearsals at 4pm to give ourselves time to prepare. We are supposed to have one or two days off during the week; it depends on the schedule, but we often dance on Saturdays and Sundays.”

Paquette attributes his success to remarkable teachers. “I had the chance to have Max Bozzoni as a teacher and Claude Bessy as Paris Opera Ballet School director. They gave me a true love for ballet. They taught me how hard ballet could be, but with passion it was so much easier. Today, I still love dancing and that is what allows me to perform so much all over the world. Without passion, dancing ballet is too hard.”

There’s a break as the ballerinas stop to put on their pointes. They pull out carrier bags filled with cotton wool, which they proceed to delicately wrap around their toes before slipping their feet into the notoriously unforgiving satin shoes. Then it’s into the leaps – giant, gravity-defying jumps that take the breath away, figuratively, in my case, and literally, in the case of the dancers – before rehearsals begin in earnest. Paquette, Hannah O’Neill and Germain Louvet take to the stage for a run-through of the pas de trois from Swan Lake, in which the black swan, aided by the evil sorcerer, Rothbart, seduces the unwitting prince. Novis sits behind me in the auditorium, issuing instructions when things are done wrong – ironing out unsteady lifts and misplaced elbows – and offering hearty cries of “voila” when they are done right.

Sweat, frustration, laboured breathing and ballerinas limping off stage; this is not ballet as I know it. But that somehow makes it all the more mesmerising – a reminder of the sheer physicality of this most demanding of art forms; a rare insight into the tenacity and athleticism of these dancers, which can sometimes be overshadowed by the dazzling lights, fixed smiles and glittering costumes of a performance.

“Paris Opera Ballet dancers are trained in a very specific way and they dance in a very specific style. It is a very intensive training programme,” Joseph Fowler, theatre and entertainment manager at Madinat Jumeirah, points out. “The dancers are exactly what you would expect the French to be – elegant and streamlined, refined and elongated. This level of dance has never been seen in the UAE before.” As a former member of the Royal Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet himself, he should know.

Ballet is not without its fans in the UAE – the few performances that do take place each year are, for the most part, sell-out successes. “Ballet is very popular,” confirms Fowler, who headed up DUCTAC before joining the Madinat Theatre. “It has no boundaries, no language barrier. The language that is used is universal, the music is beautiful and it is a very family friendly art form. Everybody, at some stage, has seen The Nutcracker, or knows the music from Swan Lake, even if they don’t know that it’s from Swan Lake.

“Also, a lot of the expats here come from parts of the world where theatre is a very accepted thing. Ballet is something that I would like to see more of and is definitely high on my agenda.”

And yet, apart from a few token performances of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker around Christmas time, UAE residents are treated to very few high-quality ballet performances. Fowler attributes this, in part, to a lack of appropriate venues; anyone who saw the Royal Moscow Ballet perform Swan Lake at the World Trade Centre last year or has bemoaned the absence of an orchestra at any other ballet recital would probably be in agreement. “Ballet needs to be performed in a theatre,” Fowler insists.

News that Emaar plans to build a multi-million-dirham, 2,000-seat opera house in Downtown Dubai may radically change things – although the state-of-the-art facility isn’t due for completion until 2015. But once that is ready, says Fowler, there’s no reason why the UAE couldn’t even establish its own national ballet company. “It’s a wonderful way for a country to fly its flag – touring the world, dancing. It’s an incredibly powerful tool and it unites people, culturally.”

Reiko M-Cheong, the woman responsible for bringing the Paris Opera Ballet to our shores, has long lamented the lack of high-quality ballet performances in the Emirates. Founder of the Dubai Dance Academy, M-Cheong was herself a professional dancer; at the age of 19, she won the National Ballet performance title in her native Japan, which enabled her to study dance in France.

It was here that her love affair with the Paris Opera Ballet began. “For me, it is the best ballet company in the world,” says the former ballerina. “The dancers are so fluent and elegant.”

M-Cheong spent 15 years working with the Paris Opera Ballet, organising performances and workshops across Asia, before bringing the company to Dubai for four performances in mid-January. “I decided that it was time to introduce a higher level of dance in the UAE. People want to watch ballet, so why not bring them high quality dancers to watch? People need to start understanding the difference.”

For the company’s first performance in the UAE, M-Cheong opted for a gala – a series of excerpts from a number of different ballets – rather than one, full-length performance. It was an inspired mix – excerpts from classics such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet and Don Quixote were interspersed with bold, contemporary pieces, such as the unashamedly evocative Adagietto by the Argentinian choreographer Oscar Araiz, performed for the first time in Dubai with heart-wrenching tenderness and synchronicity by the dancers Sabrina Mallem and Alexis Renaud, and William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, a robust, high-energy pas de deux set against a crescendo of 1980s-style electro-beats.

“We wanted to make it broad,” M-Cheong explains. “Because that’s how the Paris Opera Ballet is; it’s not stuck in the 19th century, like some ballet companies. And it takes a lot of skill to perform such a variety of styles.”

The gala, both during rehearsal and when I watch the actual performance a few nights later, does indeed turn out to be a breathtaking display of the versatility of the Paris Opera Ballet – and in its seamless merging of the classic and the contemporary, is a reminder of why this company has managed to remain relevant and accessible for three centuries.

“I think that ballets such as Giselle, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker will continue to flourish and remain relevant. They are based on strong stories with beautiful scores; they are timeless masterpieces,” says Novis when I ask whether there are still misconceptions surrounding the world of ballet and whether it still has a tendency to be viewed as outdated and elitist. “Like Hamlet or Phaedra in theatre, they will cross centuries, being revisited and reinterpreted by generations to come. We must preserve such classics and demand that they are performed at a high level if we want to keep the magic alive. At the Paris Opera, there is a programme for teenagers who can watch both rehearsals and classes. These teenagers are given the opportunity to meet and interview not only the dancers but also the costume designers, lighting crew and stage managers. They are introduced to all elements of production. We must open the doors and go outside to embrace our audiences, especially in big opera houses, which are often very intimidating.”

Their Dubai debut over, the Paris Opera Ballet dancers fly off to perform on more familiar stages. I ask Paquette, via email, to reflect on his Middle East outing. “It was a wonderful experience,” he enthuses. “We had a very warm welcome from the people and the audience. I hope we can come again and show a new project.”

Given the steely determination behind M-Cheong’s petite frame and dancer’s posture, I feel like that’s almost a given.

sdenman@thenational.ae