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"In Russia there are plenty of good ballerinas and male dancers but their behaviour is extremely pointed, verging on unacceptable"
18 May 2015 On the last evening of the Paris Opera Ballet’s star Aurélie Dupont’s performing career tonight, I’ve unearthed two 2013 interviews given to Moscow’s Kommersant by her former teacher, the ‘iron lady’ principal of the Paris Opera Ballet School, Claude Bessy.
Dupont had a bristly relationship with Bessy, which her old teacher discusses with amazing frankness, describing the ballerina as a lazy, resentful child. Bessy also speaks specifically about some of the great stars of the Paris Ballet whom she taught, including Dupont, shy, hard-working Sylvie Guillem, congenial Nicolas le Riche, awkward Marie-Claude Pietragalla and unconfident Manuel Legris.
She also says Paris Opera Ballet director Brigitte Lefèvre was insistent that its dancers should not be more famous than she herself. And she supports Benjamin Millepied’s choice as Lefèvre’s successor - though she says it is essentially the PR factor of his being married to Natalie Portman that got him the job.
By the way, Bessy’s own career at Paris Opera Ballet was stellar. A muse of Serge Lifar in the 1950s, blonde and glamorous (see right), she was cast by Gene Kelly in his 1956 movie Invitation to the Dance - at the end of this piece you can see her dancing a pas de deux with Igor Youskevitch while eating a sandwich. Very cool.
Incidentally, Dupont’s farewell performance tonight was flmed by Culturebox for online transmission on 30 May, which possibly can be picked up in the UK.
Bessy: ‘Aurélie Dupont was brilliant but lazy’
The coming season 2013/14 will go down in the history of the Paris Opera Ballet as a season of major farewells. It marks the end of the regime of the strong, forceful Brigitte Lefèvre. For 20 years she kept its repertoire at its height, the box office in good shape, and ruled the troupe with a rod of iron.
In October next year she will be succeeded by Benjamin Millepied. The appointment of the young Frenchman who made his career in the US and never trained in the Paris school, was a bolt from the blue. Some see in him something like a new Nureyev, capable of shaking up the venerable institution to its benefit, while others think he’s a barbarian who will plunge the company into liberal artistic chaos.
Some of the company’s great performers too will retire, names that bear the glory of today’s French troupe - the stars Aurélie Dupont, Isabelle Ciaravola and Nicolas le Riche will bid farewell to the stage. All of them were students under CLAUDE BESSY, the former directrice of L’Ecole de Danse. Once she took them into the school, and now she herself is retired. She spoke about this change of managers and performers to Maria Sidelnikova.
KOMMERSANT: A whole generation of brilliant Paris ballet artists grew up under your eye. Did you know from the beginning that they would have such a great future?
BESSY: How could one be mistaken in Sylvie Guillem or Aurélie Dupont? These were perfectly formed girls with straight carriage, soft turned-out legs, with outstanding natural gifts. Obviously you had future stars in front of you. Working with children like these, and then to see them become stars on stage, this is a rare thing, a marvellous happiness and professional triumph.
Do you remember what they were like at school?
Guillem was a very serious student, she was reserved and shy, there were never any problems with her.
But I found common language even with Marie-Claude Pietragalla, although she was a complex character. In rehearsals, if something was not working, she would bang her fists on the door, and get very angry with herself. When this happened, at first you couldn’t get her to understand where the problem was. Then it would turn out that she could actually get it right.
Le Riche was always an attentive listener. He was a student of my husband Serge Golovine, and was a total delight. We’ve got his letters at home, where he thanks us for everything we taught him. Last year we were staging Phèdre on the Paris Opera stage, and were talking with Nicolas, and I was saying how are things. And he said he would be retiring next year. I was shocked! He really is not old.
You were strict with students. When Manuel Legris left the stage, he recalled that you gave him very bad marks. Is that true?
Yes, because he was so shy that he was always hiding behind the other students at the back of the queue. He did not want us to see him, and yet he had all the right gifts. It was awful. If you want to be an artist, you must be at the front, not behind. That’s all. So that’s why he got the bad marks.
Did your methods work?
Yes, he began to battle with himself to overcome this fear of his. It was hard for him to become an artist, to develop his self-confidence.
Today I find that hard to believe.
That's true. When you look at the dancing career he made, and how competently he is now running the Vienna Ballet, it’s hard to believe that this shy boy at the shool and Manuel Legris are one and the same person.
But not all your students remember their school years with pleasure. In an interview once, Aurélie Dupont complained about the teachers’ callousness, she said children should be handled better.
She is talking about herself. Because though she has brilliant gifts, she was always lazy and from the very first days she didn’t like the school that her mother had sent her to. During her whole six years Aurélie never lost a resentful expression on her face, not a shadow of a smile ever. All the teachers knew this grimace of hers.
She told everyone how she suffered. But I didn’t understand where her problem was: she was always first in class, always at the centre of attention, she danced leading roles in school productions. As soon as she joined the company, at once she was released, felt liberated, because suddenly she was free of the teachers who had made her work.
‘Russian behaviour verges on unacceptable’
You had to work with Russian artists and you know the French one very well. In what way are they similar and different?
By temperament, the French are far more relaxed than the Russians. Besides, our society today favours everything being levelled out so the main thing is to get by unnoticed, not to say thank God that you’re clever, beautiful or hard-working. The theatre hasn’t escaped this tendency unfortunately. The school has a lot of talented children, but they don’t have much character.
It’s a different problem in Russia: they’re all sure about their specialness, they all know better than you. In Russia there are plenty of good ballerinas and male dancers, but their behaviour is extremely pointed, it’s verging on unacceptable. In Russian theatres you find a spirit of jealousy and competition everywhere. Russian artists are individualistic people.
At the Paris Opera it’s easier - either dancers know what their place should be and recognise it for themselves, or they are not brave or independent enough to have such ambitions. But both the Russians and the French are very spoiled, you can’t get away from that.
The Russians worship ballet, it’s their passion, they make idols of the dancers. In France everything changed with the death of Serge Lifar, with the departure of my generation. I was one of the last ballerinas whom people knew about, and who was popular. Now no one knows the ballerinas. Try talking to people about former stars? No way! When I started dancing, any Parisian concierge knew Serge Lifar’s name. Today, if you ask people who the director of the Paris Opera Ballet is, no one can tell you.
‘If Millepied weren’t married to a Hollywood actress, he wouldn’t be at the Opera’
But now everyone knows who Benjamin Millepied is.
Of course, he’s married to a Hollywood star [Natalie Portman]. Brigitte Lefèvre has been at the helm for almost 20 years. She worked on new productions, brought in new choreographers, she enriched the repertoire. She gambled on creativity, she wanted to rejuvenate the face of classical ballet. And she did it, it was a huge task.
But Lefèvre never wanted the artists to have any fame, she wanted just the one big name, the one who directed it all, and people only to talk about her. It seems to me that Millepied will take a different approach, he’ll promote the dancers above all, do everything to get people talking about them.
So you took a positive view of his appointment?
Yes. First of all, because he is young. He is one of a new generation, he’s not been baked in the Paris Opera kitchen, he comes from a different mould. He doesn’t know all the internal mechanisms, and obviously it’s not going to be simple. But he is young and he can say decisively that he doesn’t like this, won’t do that.
Do you think that he has the character required?
Of course, because he wasn’t educated at the Opera school. During our six years we were always accustomed to saying “yes”. I remember when teachers punished me or various conflicts occurred, we all said, “Don’t argue, just agree with everything.” True, I didn’t exactly listen to that. But I think Millepied had a different upbringing. And if it came to choosing between compromise or not doing something, he will choose the latter. While Brigitte Lefèvre would craftily agree with a great deal in order to get what she wanted. She was a politician, a very clever woman. That’s just why she managed to stay in the job for so long. Maybe Millepied won’t last as long, but he might change things.
In the run-up to the choosing of Lefèvre’s successor, the French were constantly harking back to Nureyev’s era. Why such nostalgia?
So what did Nureyev do that was so new? He put all the old Petipa ballets? So what? Nureyev is a name that nowadays all and sundry invoke to make some money. Festivals, films, photographs, costumes… poor man, he’d be turning in his grave. But the public does need to be attracted somehow. It’s the same for Millepied. If he weren’t married to a Hollywood actress, he wouldn’t be at the Opera. It’s simple PR. So much the better, I’m not completely against it, as long as in the end people are talking about the Paris Opera Ballet.
IB: This next interview focuses on Bessy’s attitude to teaching, and she answers questions about her dismissal in 2004 amid accusations of cruelty to the children at the school.
She also reveals that only one of the Paris Opera Ballet stars who had been her students, Agnes Letestu, stood up for her in the controversy.
’If Paris’s dancers are not hired from the school, what is the school’s purpose?’
KOMMERSANT: How did you get the offer to become director of the school?
BESSY: I was asked to head it at the end of my dancing career in 1973. How surprised I was to see that everything was exactly as I left it in 1942 when I graduated, nothing whatever had changed. Everything was just as it had been in my childhood. I said, that couldn’t go on. For the first four years I looked at everything, learned about the organisation, the training systems and teaching conditions in ballet academies around the world. I observed how Golovkina’s school was working in Russia, I travelled to England, the States, Canada. There had to be reforms in the Paris school, and I changed everything. Of course it caused quite a bit of fuss.
What was your first priority?
At first I requested to change the school schedule. Before then the children had lessons in both the morning and after dinner. I always wanted to separate general academic classes and ballet classes, so that it was all in one half of the day and they didn’t have to run out of geography to ballet class. To get these changes agreed with the Department of Education and the relevant committees wasn’t easy. At the same time as this I was seeking to get a new building, separate from the theatre, for the school.
You also added some disciplines to the programme that hadn’t existed before.
Yes, we started lessons on mime, jazz, modern, choir, music and even the law, so that dancers would know how to arrange contracts. Today it’s impossible to limit yourself to classical ballet, you must be able to dance everything. After children graduated, they had to look for jobs and it wasn’t at all certain that they would land up in the Paris Opera. Besides, in France today, unfortunately, there are hardly any large ballet companies remaining and every year it’s harder for graduates to find employment. Which was why we had to give them as much support as possible so that they wouldn’t be left out, they could get work in the theatre and operetta and TV, not just in ballet.
‘If I want something I will fight to the last till I get it’
The reputation of the Paris school is very conservative, but you still managed to be one of the boldest reformers in its history. What was your secret?
It is a question of character. I am persistent, and if I want something, I fight for it to the last, in order to get it. It took me 10 years to get the school a building and all the necessary, proper conditions for study. I constantly insisted on meetings with ministers, officials, I made presentations, I wrote letters. During that time governments changed, the right came in, the left came in, the middle - all welcome, and every time I had to start again. I’d excplain that the school had to change, and it needed additional funding. And I suppose at some point, they just got fed-up with me, and they decided it would be simpler to give me what I asked.
Is it the case that during the whole story with the construction of the new building, you craftily began working through the ministers’ wives?
Yes, when I realised that the men would politely nod in response to my requests but didn’t do a thing to act, so I decided to try to work through their wives. I invited them to come and see the conditions the children were studying in, that we hadn’t got dressing rooms or showers, that in the schoolrooms under the glass attic you had this intolerable dry heat; that there wasn’t any air conditioning, nothing. It made it easier to start the conversation with a woman. She was also probably a mother, she’d think in a different way, like what if my children were studying here? I worked on that, and of course it helped a lot: the ministers did eventually budge.
Didn’t it occur to you, say, to accept officials’ children into the school?
No, I never did that. Of course, we did get letters, there were requests, but I never answered them. If you agree that kind of thing even once it’s all over. It is just not on.
How would you define the “Claude Bessy school”?
It is not my school, it’s the Paris Opera school. I simply gave it what I could. I made it much more open, I promoted it. We began to do yearly demonstrations and the Ecole de Danse shows on the Palais Garnier stage, which hadn’t happened before. The students could take part in real productions, they were prepared for performance, make-up, costume, wigs - all of which gives them the sense of the stage. And at the same time the audience got the chance to know the school a bit more in close-up. In my youth I danced all over the world, I was often filmed in Hollywood movies and in TV, and had newspaper coverage. PR, recognition, these are important, which is why everything I did in my career I did again with the school. .We produced films, books, albums about it.
The Paris Opera and, it follows, the school jealously guard their national identity. Do you think such exclusivity is healthy?
They’re quite right to do it. It’s not about exclusivity but about the French school, the balletic personality, and this special work - these are non-negotiable principles that need preserving at any price. If the dancers aren’t hired from the school, then what’s the purpose of the school? The school is the future of the company, it is the company’s face.
‘Everyone’s frightened today, and they automatically hold back’
Your students became the marvellous face of the Paris Opera Ballet - you had Nicolas Le Riche, Manuel Legris and Sylvie Guillem, and many others. What’s the new generation of petits rats like?
They can’t be compared, they are too different. My students not only had outstanding physical gifts and all the qualities necessary for a ballet performer, they were above all personalities. Today’s children are fine, capable, but they don’t have much character. And you can’t teach that.
But the school is a reflection of French society. Today everyone is frightened of everything: they’re frightened of the courts, the trade unions, and they automatically hold back. When students reach adulthood, they learn not to talk too much, not to do too much. The main thing is to be careful. Now in the school there’s a staff of masseurs, manual therapists, psychologists, nutritionists and God know what else. My students didn’t have any of that and they were always healthy, always ready for work. Now, anywhere somebody is a bit sick, the children at once have to stop their lessons because the doctor, who knows nothing at all about ballet, says so. All you hear is: I’m supposed to do this, I’m supposed to do that, everything’s covered from every angle. But besides rights there also have to be obligations. Where those are today I don’t know.
‘I was disappointed none of my students stood up for me’
All the students knew Madame Bessy wasn’t going to indulge anyone. However, in 2002 there was a great scandal when during an audit of the school unions accused you of being too severe with the children, of undermining them and psychological pressure. How did you leave the school?
I left with no pleasure, but with some relief. The final year was very hard because of the campaign against me, which was organised by one left-wing union which accused me of forcing children to work even if they were sick. That was not true, but they needed their scapegoat because the opera was having big problems with the unions.
What disappointed me most of all in the whole situation was the behaviour of my students, who were by then company artists: no one except Agnes Letestu stood up for me, no one rebutted all these accusations against me. Everyone preferred to keep quiet. In personal conversations, yes maybe, but in public, no.
What’s your assessment of how the school is doing today under Elisabeth Platel’s direction?
I have none at all, I’m not interested. My life in the school ended in 2004. Today I go in if I’m asked to put something on or give a lesson, I just do what I like. The teaching is no longer my affair. She is the director, and I hope she knows what she’s doing, and I hope she’s doing it well.
Claude Bessy: 'Aurélie was lazy, Sylvie was no problem'
Lunkina in Giselle (photo Reuters/Denis Balibouse)
Aged 80 at the time of the Moscow interviews, Bessy discusses the differences she finds between the ‘relaxed’ French and the ‘competitive, jealous’ Russian ballet world, where behaviour, she says, verges on unacceptable. She speaks of her character of leadership at the Paris school for 30 years, and answers direct questions about her dismissal amid accusations that she was cruel to the children in her charge. Here are the two interviews translated. They were carried out by Kommersant’s correspondent Maria Sidelnikova to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Paris Opera School by Louix XIV.