Auguste Vestris


14 novembre 2010, huitième soirée : Gustave Ricaux

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In the same section

Gustave Ricaux
Gustave Ricaux
Gustave Ricaux
Ricaux, mon maître
Ricaux, my Master
Ricaux e la Scuola Italiana
Ricaux et l’Ecole italienne
Ricaux and the Italian School
Gustave Ricaux
Gustave Ricaux
Gustave Ricaux
Perché Ricaux a Roma?
Souvenirs de Gustave Ricaux
A recollection of Gustave Ricaux
Ricordi di Gustave Ricaux

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A recollection of Gustave Ricaux
by Jean Babilée

14 November 2010

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Paris, 15th October 2010

Shortly before my thirteenth birthday – actually, I must have been about twelve-and-a-half – I took my first dancing lesson. It was with Gustave Ricaux. Until that day, I’d no idea of what dancing was about, except on skates! Out there on the ice, a grand jeté would drift on endlessly, and how marvellous that was! Whereas on the boards, the jeté stopped!

So Ricaux was my first teacher, and the only teacher I ever had at the Opera, because at the time, he alone taught the men.

We’d take class with him every day before rehearsing. Afterwards, with Roland Petit, we’d go up to Cité Pigalle to work with Ricaux again. I had a trick to rest my calves after the class: sliding down the stairwell-balustrade on my back. Now imagine this: three or four years ago, I went to visit someone at Cité Pigalle, and on leaving the flat, I found myself back-to-the-balustrade on automatic pilot! The body never forgets!

Dancing requires great strength, and Ricaux gave every one of us that strength.

Straightforward and serious Ricaux was. But overjoyed at his pupils’ every progress! One day, I must have been about 14, we were performing a simple enchaînement and out of the blue, it just took off – there I was, at one with the music, weightless. “Now you’ve got it! Now you’re dancing!” Ricaux exclaimed.

During class, he held a light bamboo reed with which he would beat time.

Sometimes, when we’d get up to tomfoolery, he’d descend on us and tap our calves with the reed. But he didn’t frighten us! Because he was goodness itself.

Ricaux played the piano, and he played well. One day, the pianist was late for class. He just sat down and played for the barre.

His barre lasted from fifteen to twenty minutes. So short and so efficient it was, that I’ve kept to it throughout my life. After the barre, we’d repeat some of the exercises in the middle - dégagés, ronds de jambe... Then ports de bras and finally, adages. This was followed by petite batterie, big jumps with valses and finally, entrechat-six. The class ended with grands battements moving downstage and upstage.

What was it that made Ricaux so great a teacher? I would say his simplicity, his energy, and his power. He was a teacher of men, and one had to be a man to truly benefit from his class. He certainly did not look upon us as wilting violets. All his pupils acquired great strength. For example, every single day we’d perform manèges of pas de bourrée/jeté, right and left. Once we’d got through the year, we were good at it! As for entrechats, I do believe I ended up doing entrechat-onze. It was a joy! If it’s not a joy, don’t bother dancing!

Ricaux certainly worked us hard, but the atmosphere was buoyant! I became very attached to him, because he was a man of integrity, and never played Teacher’s Pet.

Aveline, not Ricaux, used to rehearse us in our roles.

At the time, the Opera teemed with the oddest of 19th Century characters, like Léo Staats, who was mad as a hatter. One fine day, only very shortly after I had entered the School, he shouted “You! Over here! New boy? Show me an entrechat-six!” I stammered “Sir, I wouldn’t know how ...” And Staats bellowed: “At your age, whippersnapper, I could beat entrechat-six in boots and spurs!”

After Ricaux, I spent many years studying with Alexandre Volinine, who taught me épaulement, and refinement. What a man! He plunged me head over heels into poetry. By then, Volinine was quite elderly, seventy at least, but the way he showed the steps threw all the doors and windows open!

Later too, I studied with Viktor Gsovski, who was utterly passionate about the work, an artist to the tips of his fingers. Each and every day he would invent new adages, each and every one more beautiful than the next. Sometimes tears would spring to his eyes as he taught them. I loved his barre, the fantastic atmosphere in class, and he was a fascinating human being as well. When it came to dancing, we were definitely on the same thrilling wavelength! Once I performed an enchaînement for him downstairs in the courtyard, with jetés, and in his heavy Russian accent, he burst out with enthusiasm, “Yew, Eye LOV”!

What helped me so greatly, is that at each stage of my development, I came across the very teacher with whom “it clicked”. I draw the conclusion that better not stand still too long on one spot – unless one prefers stagnation!

Interviewed by K.L. Kanter

Born in 1923, Jean Babilée studied with Gustave Ricaux at the Opera School between 1936 and 1940. Danseur-étoile with the Ballets des Champs-Élysées from 1945 to 1950, he danced with the Paris Opera from 1952 to 1955, before taking off for an international career. Here are lines written to celebrate Babilée in 1997, by a former colleague in the ballet, the film star Leslie Caron:

“When Jean Babilée bounded on stage, one saw not a human being, but something feline (...) The joy one felt at seeing a body so utterly at ease in its true element, the air, knocked one back in astonishment. He had found the secret of how to carry a gesture through to the fingertips whilst at rest. Swift as light, he could stop short faster than the winds shifting (...). The soaring beauty of the gestures he traced upon the air drew the eye like a magnet. The shape of his body he could alter at will, radiant as the Angel Gabriel - only to crack the shell of such perfection, and melt craftily away into the crumpled body of a hunchback. We dancers bowed to his indisputable superiority. Like Mozart, his place was amongst men of genius, whilst we the lesser mortals, knelt at his feet.”

Cf. the full text by Leslie Caron here: