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Interview with Jean-Guillaume Bart
(Principal, Paris Opera Ballet)
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Translated from the original French, this interview with French principal dancer J.G. Bart was conducted at Paris by Pier-Paolo Gobbo on November 18th 2006. It first appeared in Italian on the Website balletto.net (December 2006), and is republished here with the kind permission of Messrs. Bart and Gobbo.
Q/ How do you see your responsibility as Étoile?
R/ With respect to our recent appointments here, the title of Étoile is, I fear, rather too easily won - one can be appointed with neither the profile, nor the maturity, that one would otherwise expect. For my part, having spent eight years in the corps de ballet, that allowed me both to watch other Étoiles on stage in the major roles, and grasp what the latter would involve when the time came, and to become fully-acquainted with the répertoire, from the tiniest roles to demi-soloist.
In The Sleeping Beauty, I was first a page, then I danced in the valse, then the polonaise and finally the ’Jewels’ pas de cinq. The journey enriches one to a degree, that when one finally reaches the top of the Opera hierarchy, one can act as example to others. I see the responsibility of an Étoile in this theatre, as, first and foremost, dancing the major roles, and although they may not always be all that very interesting, from a dramatic or psychological standpoint, I try to work out a concept that will flourish, so as to make those roles alive, and let that life reach out across the footlights.
Q/ You’ve said that working with Florence Clerc has been decisive - what does she represent in your artistic development?
R/ Florence Clerc has helped me to approach the technical side with equanimity, as well as the gratuitous difficulties that certain choreographers and maîtres de ballet often seem to enjoy - they want it harder and harder, more and more complicated, at the expense of artistic freedom and quality of movement. She’s helped me to gain legato, and has shewed me how to use the foot on the floor, and she’s helped me leave behind a kind of sad-sack, and overly rigorous, attitude. To be frank, for ever so long I was sort of "a teacher’s pet" kind of dancer, and she’s helped me to get away from the " studious child " approach, and allow something more mature, more human, to emerge, while remaining true to oneself.
I met Florence Clerc at a point in my career, where I was dancing roles like Jean de Brienne in Raymonda, roles that are both dreadfully technical, and fairly empty from an artistic standpoint. Every time I went down onto that stage, I suffered terribly from stage-fright, and she put me at my ease in the perilous exercise of Nureyev’s ballets. In classical dance, beyond the rigour, behind the difficulty of it all, one has got to find joy on stage and in one’s emotions, and I must acknowledge that it’s thanks to her, and to our great complicity, that I’ve been able to achieve it.
Q/ How is it that you’ve come to teach? What are your plans?
R/ Fairly early on, I began to take an interest in teaching, for several reasons. As a youth, I was injured several times, and so began to wonder about how I was dancing, and whether one need take everything the teachers tell as though it were the Word of God, or whether there might be things that I hadn’t understood, and that could be examined afresh.
And I was travelling a lot, and taking lessons here there and everywhere, in the USA, in England, in Russia, in Italy and so forth, and the experience raised questions, relative to the different ways we teach. So it was that here at the Opera, I began to organise " pirate " lessons, as a young man, because there were lessons being given that did not suit me, that were harmful, or that I felt were being taken too fast. I felt I absolutely had to give myself lessons. The class, I’ve believe, is critical, every time I feel that I’m learning, looking for something, on a quest.
As for my plans, I’ve reached an age where I’ve begun seriously to ponder what I shall do next. What I’d really like to do is to teach our corps de ballet here at the Opera, so that I can have time to do more choreography. Were I répétiteur, I’d have precious little free time. In any event, what I really love is the work involved in teaching, getting into the fundamentals of dancing.
Q/ What principles do you apply in building a class?
R/ I follow a perfectly standard outline, based, overall, on the classes given by Florence Clerc or Gilbert Mayer, although I’m closer to Florence, in that I am concerned to get quality in the plié, that must be supple, to avoid clogging up the muscles. Everything that goes into my classes, I’ve tested first on myself, so I can explain how to approach a movement, how to take it apart and really understand, after which, one’s much freer. I know the wherefore behind each exercise, rather than just gluing any old steps together.
If technical - or emotional - passages are to become harmonious, and less painful, another major issue is mastery of breathing.
I learnt that from the Three Act ballets: one can, more or less, get through a pas de deux virtually holding one’s breath the whole time, but three acts is another story - if one hasn’t a clue how how to breathe properly, one comes out the other end in a vegetative state! By learning to breathe naturally, one avoids cramping, torn or contracted muscles, etc. After so many injuries, I’ve decided to focus on a type of work - and on a type of result - that does not cause pain. I am utterly opposed to sadistic forms of exercise that cause pain for no good reason, which is why I beg to disagree with Nureyev on these principles. I prefer an exercise that may be simpler, but that can be performed comfortably. What I’m concerned with is learning how to spare oneself, when performing movements that do not necessarily require tension and energy.
Q/ You’ve said elsewhere that you prefer English pointe technique, pulled up out of the shoe, and straight up on the line of aplomb, to the Lifar-influenced French technique, where the ladies are encouraged to go over the vamp. Why?
R/ There are physiological reasons. Although it may look prettier to go over the vamp, the joints take a terrific beating, and the girls will find themselves riddled with osteo-arthritis at forty. What’s more, if they squash over the shoe to display a " big arch ", they aren’t really up on their leg, which means that the weight is not fully controlled. Patricia Ruanne explains that when she began to study pointe work, the children would stand at the barre en demi-pointe to work the strength in the phalanges, the toes; they were asked to find their aplomb through strength in the belly and in the back, given the importance of the torso and the scapulae. They’d work on controlling their weight in relation to the floor, while being told not to push forward over the arch, so as not to harm the joint.
Q/ What about the fashion for shifting the weight onto the forefoot, à la Balanchine?
R/ I would not go along with that. The line of aplomb should be deported back towards the heel, with the arm held before the torso, rather than allowing the weight to shift forward onto the forefoot, with the arm held behind the torso. The reason is physiological: I’ve suffered from awful problems with the foot and the back, and the only way out, was to shift the line of aplomb back to the heel, reaching out and up out from the nape of the neck, while attempting to get the greatest possible length in the lumbar spine.
In the USA, I’ve taken men’s classes where the barre was so impressive, and so fast, I couldn’t even follow the battement dégagés and all those tiny fast little steps, but the moment we went out into the centre, and had to really jump, the men were suffering, because they never put the heel down. They’d work on a hyper-tense leg, and very forward onto the metatarsals. Perhaps, just, it might give the women a certain lightness, but for male technique, there can be no doubt that we must get right into the ground to find the power to rise towards the sky, and if there isn’t that thrust from the heel, we’re stranded! No surprise to learn that 50% of the troupe’s men had Achilles-tendon issues, or stress fractures.
Q/ What about hyper extensions ?
R/ Again, No ! When we men see the women flailing about like a weather-vane, I think we might want to remember that we are there to serve the art form, not to imitate them. That is not what the classical ballet, which is an art form, is about.
Classical dance is sculpture in movement, its lines and poses taken from Greek art - look at Blasis’ Treatise. These lines and poses are precise, scientific, mathematical and geometric. I often discuss the Italian Renascence with my students: we pore over ancient art, the beauty of a simple gesture, and reflect upon the way the arms, the épaulement, the incline of the head, attracts light. When one sees Raphaël, Botticelli or Michelangelo, those are, clearly, the elements that speak to us.
Once the leg is raised up beyond a certain level, one loses, perforce, the aesthetics of it, the line, the relations between the head, the face, the sternum and the neck, the life that lives in the torso.
The moment the leg is picked up level with the head, all the magic of a role, the magic that lies in the glance exchanged with one’s partner, vanishes. To what purpose does one raise that leg at 180 or more degrees in The Sleeping Beauty, bearing in mind that Aurora is a sixteen year old girl! Glaringly out of place, and unrelated to the story. Nor is it right, physiologically: to the greatest extent possible, the hip has got to be held horizontal to the ground. But one sees Russian girls so mad about picking up the leg, that it’s beyond belief! And for the men, well, it’s unwanted, and not a very virile thing to do, either. When I see someone like Nicolaï Tsiskaridze doing that, for example, it strikes me as unwanted. In the classical ballet, we each of us have our role to play, and we each of us must respect it.
Q/ You attended the Cecchetti event at Paris, on October 16th and 17th 2006. What, in the Italian school, would you like to work on, relative to your own teaching?
R/ I was very intrigued by the Cecchetti method, although some aspects seem outmoded, such as the little tilt of the head to the side, without there being a necessary relation to an inner feeling, and I found the relation between the glance and the palm of the hand, a little flat. These head movements are, for the man, quite outmoded, just as one sees in some Ashton choreography, because they lend the dance a needless sweetness. On the other hand, all the fast little steps, and the enchaînements of pas d’école are devilishly hard. To do them right, you need a rock-solid technical background, and you’ve got to really know your body. There are small Cecchetti steps that I’ve noted down, and that have inspired me for my class work, but I wouldn’t give them as is: the reason, is that it would take too much time to explain, and I’ve observed that dancers find it harder and harder nowadays to memorise steps. So I try to give them simple steps, until they understand simple things in a perfectly self-evident way.
Q/ Elisabeth Platel has said that épaulement has gone lost in the French school, and that we must now get back to it. What do you think?
R/ Well, I can’t help but smile, because I’ve been hearing that for the past twenty years! Which is not to say that I wouldn’t agree: the épaulement is fundamental, since the torso is the actual agent of movement. I realised, in my own dancing, that if I concentrate on placing my torso and arms, the legs will automatically set themselves down in the right place. But the French School still believes that the agent of movement is the legs. As a result, we have to inject more force; this, in turn, rigidifies the upper body, and we tire ourselves out.
When Nureyev took over here, he made us concentrate on precise legwork, but I now believe that we didn’t fully grasp what he was trying to say, and as a result, we’ve forced ourselves to go down a number of tortuous and perfectly illogical paths.
In 1997, when Irina Kolpakova put up Les Sylphides at the Opera, I was most impressed, not only by the stress she laid on the épaulements, but also the inclining of the head, and where she focused the eye. At the Paris Opera School, we never discuss the eye, and later, the dancers don’t know where to look, nor do they know how to lend colour to their glance.
When I began to work with the students, I realised that they were not really aware of where the body was in space: I’m persuaded that staring into a looking-glass, day in and day out, leads one into error. glued to that two-, rather than three-dimensional image, we ignore the sensations in the body, nor can we use the épaulement. When I was a youngster, I had eye problems, and had to turn my back to the looking-glass, in order not to virtually fall straight through it. This helped me to listen to one’s body, to seek my balance differently, and suddenly, the perception of space alters too. This work on épaulement is absolutely critical, if we want the dance to have depth, and if we want it to live.
Q/ How do you work on creating new ballets ? What is your relation to music?
R/ Generally, when I’m called in to choreograph, I’ve got to be both teacher and répétiteur, owing to lack of means, and I’ve often worked with schools. Never do I have an assistant, so I’ve got to choreograph, and, also, know every role by heart, where to place everyone, and how to get there. Not easy. As for the technical requirements, they’re scaled down, because the dancers, or the students, will not necessarily be experienced enough to deal with everything. So I rein myself in!
But music is where I always start. Some may say I’m a " traditionalist ", because I’ve not reinvented the wheel here, but my view is that in classical dancing, we must invent combinations, and phrase those combinations. That is where I bring in something personal. Balanchine, whom I’ve admired enormously since I was a child, has been a great influence because an abstract ballet allows far more space to the dancer’s imagination. One needn’t tell a specific story: from one evening to the next one can live intensely within oneself, without the public knowing exactly what that may be, but they will sense it. It calls for a sensitivity both in the performer, and in the public.
Q/ You have generally preferred to work on abstraction. Would you like to work on a dramatic libretto?
R/ No such opportunities have arisen to date, as I’ve either worked with a small group, or with schools, whereas narrative ballets call for considerable means - costumes, décor, stage property, etc. But I’ve plans for several dramatic ballets, fairy tales like Perrault’s Peau d’Ane, and novels, such as Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman. I’d like to try to broaden the classical répertoire, because I just do not see myself doing the thousandth Swan Lake, Beauty or Nutcraker - been there, done that. I’d rather work on libretti that intrigue me. There is a project, with the Paris Opera, for an old Nineteenth Century French ballet, but it’s being delayed. It won’t be a reconstitution, I’m no Pierre Lacotte; I want to start from the libretto, but revise it, adapt it, and do away with the mime scenes, so that it will be updated.
Q/ You’re about to put up Le Corsaire in Russia.
R/ To my utter astonishment, the Ekaterinburg Theatre in the Urals contacted me and asked me to put up the Corsaire.
Ekaterinburg is one of the four federal theatres in Russia, and thus has considerable means. I was a little sceptical, there were so many difficulties, but then I thought, Yes, I really do want to do narrative ballet.
And when I was still at the School, and the Maryinskii Theatre came to Paris with the Corsaire in 1988, I loved it.
So I went back to the ballet’s origins, and realised that it had been bandied about, and thoroughly messed up, actually. And there I was, stirring the sauce myself ! I revised the libretto, though not straying too far afield from the Kirov version, which itself, was not authentic - it seems that the closest to the original is in fact ABT. But ABT has all the women heavily veiled when they are sold into slavery, and I didn’t find that credible for today. For the dramaturgy, I relied, a little, on the film Angélique Marquise des Anges. And for the music, I went back to the source, trying to use all of Adolphe Adam’s original orchestration, to the greatest extent possible. Giselle has a very pretty score, and I realised that what he’d done for the Corsaire wasn’t bad at all.
Over time it’s been padded out with extra orchestration, which has deformed the score and made it brass-bandish. I’ve tried to get away from all that Oompahpah, although I was asked to retain certain passages, notably four Petipa sections: the Pas d’Esclave in Act I, the Pas de trois in Act II with the slave, Medora and Conrad, the Trio des Odalisques and the Jardin Enchanté, the music for which is Delibes. Had I stuck to the original score, all the well known bits would have gone down the trap, so even on the musical front, I’ve had to stir my own sauce! I’ve worked very hard to get a lively mise en scène, while lending it an epic dimension, though it’s got to be comical too, with all those exotic elements. I’ve haven’t turned it all upside down, but just adjusted here and there, while respecting Petipa. Although how much is really left of his work here, I wonder …
Q/ You are one of the few classical choreographers around today. Does classical dance have a future?
R/ I cannot help but wonder.
First, it may not be quite fair to style myself a "choreographer", because I haven’t been tested in any work worthy of the name. For the time being, it’s all been a trial run. It’s heavy going, in France, for a classical choreographer: there are no openings, no requests come in, and when I write to someone with a proposal, the answer comes back: " er, maybe, wait and see … ".
I’ve written to the Culture Minister, who hasn’t replied. So indeed, I am preoccupied with the fate of classical dance here. Few means are placed at our disposal, and there are no credits forthcoming from people with power in the Ministry. The Paris Opera is still a privileged isle, which can’t be done away with overnight, but here in France, other than the Ballet du Capitole at Toulouse and the Ballet de l’Opéra at Bordeaux, the rest has vanished.
What’s happening at Marseilles is just awful - Roland Petit had set up a school intended to rival the Paris Opera, and today, I wonder what’s the point in keeping it open, since the troupe to which it’s attached, is too modern by half. It makes me angry. Fine, the prophet was ever without honour in his own land, and so on, but but every time I want to put up a piece of choreography, I’ve got to leave the country. Whether there be a future for the classical dance, I do not know, but what I do know, is that we must try to save it. This art form was born in France, it is an art of beauty that is rigorous and very demanding. These values have been frittered away, as we seek whatever seems quick and easy.
Choreography by Jean-Guillaume Bart
A la manière de, pas de deux, crée par Emilie Cozette et Jean-Guillaume Bart ;
Alla Fuga, ballet pour trois couples de danseurs sur une musique de Mendelssohn ;
Anais, pas de deux créé pour Clairemarie Osta et Jérémie Bélingard, musique de Poulenc, repris par Eleonora Abbagnato et Alessio Carbone ;
Bergamasques, pas de deux, musique de Fauré, crée par Eléonore Guérineau et Marc Moreau pour la Soirée Jeunes Danseurs 2006.
Diable à Quatre, ballet créé pour le Jeune Ballet de France et repris par l’Opéra de Paris, lors de la soirée Jeunes danseurs 2001, musique d’Adolphe Adam avec Nathalie Vandard, Aurélia Bellet, Severine Westermann, Ninon Raux, Pascal Aubin et Bruno Bouché ;
Drigo, pas de deux, pour Joan Boada et Fernanda Tavares du San Francisco Ballet ;
La Fille mal gardée, pas de deux sur la musique de Donizetti, rajoutée dans la version du Royal Ballet ;
Isoline, pas de deux, musique de Messager, avec Nolwenn Daniel et Jean-Guillaume Bart ;
Javotte, pas de deux créé pour Laura Hecquet et Josua Hoffalt lors des Soirées "Jeunes Danseurs" en 2003 ;
Péchés de Jeunesse, ballet sur une musique de Rossini créé pour l’Ecole de Danse du Ballet de l’Opéra National de Paris en 2000 et repris en 2002 ;
Quaternaire, ballet créé pour le Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de danse de Paris
Suite Caractéristique, ballet pour l’Ecole de l’English National Ballet, musique de Sibelius ;
Tzigane, pas de deux, musique de Ravel, avec Clairemarie Osta et Jérémie Bélingard.
November 18th 2006. Copyright Pier-Paolo Gobbo