Jump to content
This Site Uses Cookies. If You Want to Disable Cookies, Please See Your Browser Documentation. ×

Violette Verdy at the Paris Opera


Recommended Posts

I recently bought a collection of Dance Magazine issues from 1978. The November 1978 issue contains an interview with Violette Verdy reflecting on her first season (1977-78) as Director of Dance at the Paris Opera.

Verdy's comments are interesting because some of the issues she faced are the same ones Benjamin Millepied faced 35 years late:.

D.M.: When you accepted this position, did you know the problems that were involved?

V.V.: Yes, but there is nothing like the reality of a situation to make you see how much of a problem it is, and they did not give me the means to make changes. Without making a real change in the situation, for instance, in the union and the union rules, without throwing out the dancers who are not very good any longer or who have a bad attitude, I had to deal with what was there without being able to really accomplish a change. So, I had to find a means of making the change.

D.M.: In what ways do you find that American companies differ from the Paris Opera Ballet?

V.V.:  We have a very stratified company at the Paris Opera, which makes it difficult to use dancers from one category in another. Also there are too many dancers. It is very hard to preserve a unity of spirit because of that, so I have not been able to act as freely as if I had gone into an American company. They are not unified because they do not have one permanent choreographer. They are dependent on different styles and choreographers which, in a way, makes them versatile but does not predispose them mentally to a foreign director.

I will post more highlights in successive days!

Edited by miliosr
Link to post

Thanks, Miliosr. It does seem like there's a big difference between how the POB defines "Artistic Director", and how North American companies, for example, define the position. But that's not so surprising given the age and traditions of the POB.

Link to post

More Violette Verdy:

D.M.: Is there a difference in the mentality:

V.V.: Yes. The Opera dancers are very knowledgeable and very demanding and, in a sense, more sophisticated in knowing about the theater and about quality, but they do not have enough occasion to lose themselves, to abandon themselves in creations so that they become selfless. They develop much more in terms of heroes and princesses. They develop a mythical idea of themselves as stars in the traditional star system which makes them more selfish in their approach to their work. They see art as helping them to be stars.

D.M.: What changes have you seen in one year?

V.V.: Some of them figured that I was weak and too nice and that it would be easy to overcome me and make me do things or obtain favors. I had to overcome that too. it still is going on because they are not sure how firmly I can step in and make a decision and show authority. They have been testing me and even setting traps for me so they could denounce me as weak or unknowledgeable. They are a very tough company - almost like a gang. [Note: My emphasis]

Link to post

Even more Violette Verdy:

D.M.: What were your goals when you came to Paris?

V.V.: I have tried to put young dancers in many roles before their time and it has been more or less successful. I have unearthed some of the older dancers that lately had been rather stigmatized and condemned and have forced them to appear in certain parts, in which some have really shone. I have had to fight a great deal of negativity from some of the principal dancers who have a mythical idea of themselves and are not very flexible about serving the art. I have not forced them to dance anything they don't want to and some have gone into hibernation rather than dance. For instance, they feel the Balanchine repertory does not make them shine enough as stars; but more as dancers! They feel naked as dancers rather than stars.

 

Link to post
On 8/24/2020 at 3:57 PM, miliosr said:

Even more Violette Verdy:

D.M.: What were your goals when you came to Paris?

V.V.: I have tried to put young dancers in many roles before their time and it has been more or less successful. I have unearthed some of the older dancers that lately had been rather stigmatized and condemned and have forced them to appear in certain parts, in which some have really shone. I have had to fight a great deal of negativity from some of the principal dancers who have a mythical idea of themselves and are not very flexible about serving the art. I have not forced them to dance anything they don't want to and some have gone into hibernation rather than dance. For instance, they feel the Balanchine repertory does not make them shine enough as stars; but more as dancers! They feel naked as dancers rather than stars.

 

Now THAT is a fascinating quote. It speaks volumes about the POB dance culture of that time.

Link to post

It says a thing or two about VV, too - about her vision and intellect - but it also reminds me of what Balanchine thought about "the POB dance culture" around the time he made Le Palais de Cristal (later called Symphony in C) for POB in 1947.  Maria Tallchief writes, "[Balanchine] paid no attention to the company's rules and its rigid hierarchies.  He never did anywhere.  Instead he made hierarchies of his own, and in Paris, rather than using corps de ballet dancers who he felt weren't up to his standard, he chose students from the Paris Opera Ballet School, "les petits rats," to dance in Serenade...  When they were chosen over dancers with seniority, many people were insulted and complained openly...

...

"After six months of Opera politics...  I think he'd had enough.

"'You know, Paris Opera Ballet is like fire in whorehouse,' he told me when we got back to [their hotel] one night.  I guess he meant it's best to leave with one's reputation intact, to get out when the going is good...  It was time to go home."

If I remember correctly, Verdy's tenure at POB was pretty brief, too, just three years, though it may not have been POB politics that lead her to leave.

Edited by Jack Reed
Link to post
Posted (edited)

And the last excerpted parts

D.M.: Are you planning to eliminate the yearly exams for the corps de ballet?

V.V.: Eventually, maybe, when we have made more changes in the house. Without them, at the moment, we wouldn't have the same competitive spirit and we wouldn't have any way to check on some of those dancers. Also, we will do what all big companies do, which is cut down on the number of categories. We would have corps de ballet, demi-soloist, soloist and principal dancers with everyone being rather interchangeable. [Note: And we all know how both of those objectives fared. Benjamin Millepied pushed for the same things -- eliminating the annual promotional exam, fostering more interchangeability -- 35 years later and failed.]

D.M.: What are the projects for this year [1978-79 season]?

V.V.: [Note: This was a long answer so I will only reproduce the final part.] Because of the reopening of the Opera Comique, which is a very good thing, I'm going to able to start a choreographer's workshop which will give me a chance to use my younger dancers who want to try some choreography in a place a little safer than the Opera.

 

Edited by miliosr
Link to post
2 hours ago, Jack Reed said:

If I remember correctly, Verdy's tenure at POB was pretty brief, too, just three years, though it may not have been POB politics that lead her to leave.

You've set up the chaser to this trip down memory lane . . . :)

In the following month's issue of Dance Magazine (December 1978), this news item appeared:

VIOLETTE VERDY WILL LEAVE PARIS OPERA IN JANUARY, 1980

Although it had not been officially announced at presstime, Violette Verdy's contract as the director of the Paris Opera Ballet reportedly will not be renewed when it expires in January, 1980. Her rumored successor is Rosella Hightower, who currently heads her own school in Cannes, to be assisted by Victor Rona. A press conference making the official announcement of the change was expected for November in Paris.

The staff of the Paris Opera is in a period of transition now, as director Rolf Leibermann will be replaced by Bernard LeFort in January 1980 when Leibermann's contract expires. This appointment was made approximately six months ago. LeFort, who is the director of the Aix-en-Provence festival, is already working at the Opera, scheduling performances for 1980.

So, Verdy's time at the helm amounted to about 2 1/2 years and even that is being generous as the last year+ of her tenure was as a lame duck.

 

Link to post
3 hours ago, miliosr said:

So, Verdy's time at the helm amounted to about 2 1/2 years and even that is being generous as the last year+ of her tenure was as a lame duck.

Even if she wasn't able to accomplish much during that last stretch (same with Millepied), just imagine how awful those last few months would be. 6 months would feel like 2 years.

Link to post
4 hours ago, miliosr said:

Benjamin Millepied pushed for the same things -- eliminating the annual promotional exam, fostering more interchangeability -- 35 years later and failed.

The dancers are obviously attached to that system. In theory, at least, it protects them from favoritism. Better to have your career trajectory in the hands of a jury, which includes peers and outsiders, than to be at the mercy of an all-powerful director.

Link to post
2 hours ago, volcanohunter said:

The dancers are obviously attached to that system. In theory, at least, it protects them from favoritism. Better to have your career trajectory in the hands of a jury, which includes peers and outsiders, than to be at the mercy of an all-powerful director.

The dancers don't know anything else - what can they compare with? It's what they know.
As Mathilde Froustey made clear in a number of interviews, review by peers was often remarkably unfair. Each dancer's peers are their direct competitors - that seems to limit any encouraging and supportive behavior in the dancers at POB. Froustey mentioned friends and a boyfriend voting against her promotion. And then A.D. Lefèvre would go back to casting Froustey in soloist roles - Lefèvre was supportive, but had only a single vote in the committee.

Link to post

And yet a certain number of slots are available each year, and except on rare occasions, they are filled. People do get promoted. 

Froustey consistently fared badly in the competitions and she was right to leave, because she couldn't see herself advancing. But most choose to stay.

And of course POB dancers can see what goes on at other companies. They don't exist in a hermetically sealed bubble. 

Edited by volcanohunter
Link to post
Posted (edited)
11 hours ago, pherank said:

As Mathilde Froustey made clear in a number of interviews, review by peers was often remarkably unfair. Each dancer's peers are their direct competitors - that seems to limit any encouraging and supportive behavior in the dancers at POB. Froustey mentioned friends and a boyfriend voting against her promotion. And then A.D. Lefèvre would go back to casting Froustey in soloist roles - Lefèvre was supportive, but had only a single vote in the committee.

 

11 hours ago, volcanohunter said:

And yet a certain number of slots are available each year, and except on rare occasions, they are filled. People do get promoted. 

Froustey consistently fared badly in the competitions and she was right to leave, because she couldn't see herself advancing. But most choose to stay.

And of course POB dancers can see what goes on at other companies. They don't exist in a hermetically sealed bubble. 

volcanohunter is correct. Froustey herself has admitted that she had a tendency to flounder on the day of the competition. There was nothing sinister about the results. If anything, friends and a boyfriend voting against her promotion speaks to the validity of the process: people were able to put personal feelings aside and vote on the merits. (Admittedly, this probably didn't do wonders for Froustey's relationship with her boyfriend.)

In addition, there are only ever a limited number of promotional slots available each year. Complicating this during Froustey's time at the company was the fact that 'Generation Nureyev' remained in place at the top for a very long time, which resulted in a 'Lost Generation' for whom there were limited promotional opportunities.

Finally, the competition jury is split in two -- half from the dancers' side and half from the management side. Presumably, Brigitte Lefevre had other potential votes for Froustey but not enough to overcome Froustey's own onstage struggles at the competition.

Edited by miliosr
Link to post
11 hours ago, miliosr said:

volcanohunter is correct. Froustey herself has admitted that she had a tendency to flounder on the day of the competition. There was nothing sinister about the results. If anything, friends and a boyfriend voting against her promotion speaks to the validity of the process: people were able to put personal feelings aside and vote on the merits. (Admittedly, this probably didn't do wonders for Froustey's relationship with her boyfriend.)

In addition, there are only ever a limited number of promotional slots available each year. Complicating this during Froustey's time at the company was the fact that 'Generation Nureyev' remained in place at the top for a very long time, which resulted in a 'Lost Generation' for whom there were limited promotional opportunities.

Finally, the competition jury is split in two -- half from the dancers' side and half from the management side. Presumably, Brigitte Lefevre had other potential votes for Froustey but not enough to overcome Froustey's own onstage struggles at the competition.

I've seen two of Froustey's concours performance films (presumably not meant for the public), and I agreed with this writer musings:

"Then a POB sujet (demi-soloist), Froustey, our 2014 April/May cover girl, recalled the experience to writer Laura Capelle, claiming, “I don’t dance well during the concours.”

We beg to differ. Taken out of the opulent ballroom scene with its glittering courtiers, Froustey’s Manon solo still shines. She captures the character’s seductive allure in the way she angles her shoulders and ripples her arms. Gliding across the stage, Froustey contrasts this luxurious upper body with crisp footwork. She appears both coy and confident, a skilled actress and a meticulous technician who dances as effortlessly as she smiles."

https://www.pointemagazine.com/mathilde-froustey-concours-2412869435.html

In Froustey's case, being held back for 8(?) years didn't make any real logical sense. But I wouldn't claim that it is the same experience for every dancer. I would just say that the POB promotion and role assignment process has real issues that should have been addressed years ago - you can feel otherwise.

Link to post

It can vary a great deal. Sylvie Guillem raced through the system: joined at 16, étoile at 19. At the other end, Isabelle Ciaravola reached première danseuse at 31 and étoile at 37. As I recall, Christophe Duquenne spent 13 years as a sujet before being promoted to premier danseur.

Link to post
1 hour ago, volcanohunter said:

It can vary a great deal. Sylvie Guillem raced through the system: joined at 16, étoile at 19. At the other end, Isabelle Ciaravola reached première danseuse at 31 and étoile at 37. As I recall, Christophe Duquenne spent 13 years as a sujet before being promoted to premier danseur.

I mentioned Froustey because her case is a very clear example of a flaw in the system:

a dancer that dances consistently to a high level on stage (which is where ballet actually counts, or should) can be held back from promotion time and again by the Concours. And an A.D. can do little to nothing about that, apparently. Froustey's personal insecurities don't figure into this as I see it. Psychological insecurity and harsh self-criticism are a major issue for most all dancers.

I'm reminded of the USA's Standardized Achievement Test - the schools end up teaching students to pass the test. That's what education consists of in the US - learning how to pass a standardized test. Now at the POB, dancers are not being trained (as I can see) to pass the Concours, although there's certainly lots of talk in the ranks about how to do it. And yet, that's the only way to get promoted. Imo, at least 75% of the weight of promotion should have to do with on stage behaviour and performance. Not a single performance before a committee without public audience.

 

Link to post

Theoretically, there is something a director can do about it, and that is promote a dancer directly to étoile, which is what Nureyev did with Manuel Legris (because I believe Legris made two unsuccessful attempts at the promotion to premier danseur, and Nureyev was tired of waiting), and what Lefèvre did with Mathieu Ganio (who probably would have won promotion to premier danseur on his first attempt at the end of that year).

And POB dancers have said that the fellow dancers and ballet masters on the panel, who know their dancing well, do take their prior knowledge of the competitors into account. (I mean, we could just as easily ask whether the standard audition process is the best way to hire dancers.)

It's an attempt to make the process fair and transparent, just like setting a uniform retirement age for everyone.

Quote

“We are a nation of competitions... The idea that excellence is recognized through an exam or competition is prevalent in every walk of French life. There are competitions to get into the grandes écoles, for administrative jobs, for architects, for civil servants. It’s very French. We have more confidence in a formal, official structure than in something that seems like an arbitrary decision.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/arts/dance/06concours.html

Link to post
8 minutes ago, volcanohunter said:

“We are a nation of competitions... The idea that excellence is recognized through an exam or competition is prevalent in every walk of French life. There are competitions to get into the grandes écoles, for administrative jobs, for architects, for civil servants. It’s very French. We have more confidence in a formal, official structure than in something that seems like an arbitrary decision.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/arts/dance/06concours.html

Nice quote. It does explain a lot about the general mentality at work.

Link to post
Posted (edited)
On 8/22/2020 at 10:24 PM, pherank said:

It does seem like there's a big difference between how the POB defines "Artistic Director", and how North American companies, for example, define the position. But that's not so surprising given the age and traditions of the POB.

I would go even further and say that there's a fundamental mismatch between the cultures of the New York City Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet as borne out by the unsuccessful directorships of those who have had a strong connection to the former:

John Taras - (1969 - March 1970)

Violette Verdy (1977 - January 1980)

Benjamin Millepied (2014-2016)

City Ballet-related directors arriving at the Paris Opera Ballet with grand plans to abolish the annual competitive exams, ignore the hierarchy and take control of the school invariably have their heads handed to them on a platter by the house.

 

 

Edited by miliosr
Link to post
23 hours ago, pherank said:

In Froustey's case, being held back for 8(?) years didn't make any real logical sense. But I wouldn't claim that it is the same experience for every dancer. I would just say that the POB promotion and role assignment process has real issues that should have been addressed years ago

Froustey is a prime example of the promotional system not working to perfection. Not being a good "test taker" worked against her at the moment of truth. Brigitte Lefevre had the power in her hands to override the juries and promote Froustey to premier status. But Lefevre must have thought that such a move would have been a bridge too far relative to the similar move she had made with Mathieu Ganio.

Ultimately, matters worked out for Froustey because she found the company that was ideal for her.

20 hours ago, volcanohunter said:

what Lefèvre did with Mathieu Ganio (who probably would have won promotion to premier danseur on his first attempt at the end of that year).

This move did not go without comment either. Not long after Ganio was promoted in rapid succession to premier danseur and then etoile, Jean-Guillaume Bart gave an interview in which, without citing Ganio by name, he said that he thought the position of etoile was rather "too easily won" these days.

Link to post
1 hour ago, miliosr said:

This move did not go without comment either. Not long after Ganio was promoted in rapid succession to premier danseur and then etoile, Jean-Guillaume Bart gave an interview in which, without citing Ganio by name, he said that he thought the position of etoile was rather "too easily won" these days.

Thank you for mentioning that interview.  Here is a link to it from 2006.  http://auguste.vestris.free.fr/Interviews/JGBartEnglish.html

Link to post

Promotion to étoile by leapfrogging a dancer over a rank is not a maneuver that can be used often. In Ganio's case it was possible because barring catastrophic injury, it was obvious that he would eventually become an étoile: quintessential POB prince material. I'm not sure the case for Froustey was as obvious. She acknowledged that she did not fit the image of the ideal POB ballerina.

Quote

And because I came from POB, everyone had Sylvie Guillem in mind. They were expecting me to be slim with beautiful feet, and really flexible with very good technique – the POB image. But I arrived, and I was just me with 2 pirouettes.

http://sessions.cloudandvictory.com/interview-mathilde-froustey-san-francisco-ballet/

The other element of Ganio's early promotion was the "heroic performance," which also factored into Pagliero's promotion. He learned a role against type (Basilio) in a very short space of time (two weeks) in order to partner a ballerina in need, for whom he really wasn't a sufficiently tall partner (Letestu's 177 cm to his 182 cm) and survived. He later admitted that going straight from corps to prince and skipping over the peasant pas, pas de trois and Bluebird stage was not easy.

I do wish there were a reliable way to match up dancers with their optimal company without the trial and error, frustration, lost years, lost talent and lost careers.

Link to post
16 hours ago, miliosr said:

I had forgotten it was the very first thing he said!

Indeed!  It must have been very fresh on his mind.  It was nice to get his personal perspective and his trajectory.

Link to post
On 8/29/2020 at 12:21 PM, ECat said:

Indeed!  It must have been very fresh on his mind.  It was nice to get his personal perspective and his trajectory.

Jean-Guillaume Bart talks a lot about technique in that interview. Here he is teaching company class at the Opera on World Ballet Day:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMGVMmZOJ3E

At the 39 minute mark, the class ends and Raymonda rehearsals begin.

Link to post
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

×
×
  • Create New...