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Interviews

a conversation with Agnès Letestu
Summer 2002
by Marc Haegeman
© 2002

Paris, January 4, 2002

Agnès Letestu is one of the eye-catching ballerinas of the Paris Opera Ballet of today. Allying superb schooling with striking physical qualities, resisting by mentality and spirit as much as by talent any obvious categorization, and revelling in the multitude of choreographic styles adopted by the Paris Opera Ballet, Agnès Letestu may well be the embodiment of French classical dance at the beginning of the 21st century. Although an étoile from the post-Nureyev era, her career took off while he was still around – after all, it was an ailing Nureyev who gave Letestu’s career a major push by picking her out of the corps de ballet to dance Gamzatti in his La Bayadère in 1992.

Agnès Letestu, trained at the Ecole de Danse de l’Opéra, working mainly with Max Bozzoni and Josette Amiel. She joined the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987, and when still in the corps became a laureate in the 1989 Eurovision Competition for Young Dancers, winning gold at Varna the following year. At the issue of her performance of Nureyev’s Swan Lake on October 31, 1997, she was nominated étoile. With the Paris Opera Agnès Letestu has danced the great Nureyev classics (Don Quixote, Swan Lake, Raymonda, Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet), as well as works by Balanchine, Robbins, Petit, Béjart, Forsythe, Kylian, Ek. She created ballets by Petit, Larrieu, Lambert, Montalvo, Forsythe, and Kylian. Agnès Letestu is a frequent guest star at the most prestigious dance events around the world.

DANCEVIEW: Agnès Letestu, how did your dancing career begin?

AGNES LETESTU: It was my own choice. I remember how impressed I was when I saw a ballet on TV: Swan Lake, the old video with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev. It had me dreaming and I knew I wanted to dance myself. My parents noticed how I was moving to music in our living-room and enrolled me in a dancing school. That’s how it all started. You might say, I had it in me and I realized what the possibilities were. In any case, I wasn’t forced in it by my mother or anything [laughing].

I was lucky. In our local Conservatoire - I was born in Saint-Maur, near Paris - my teacher M. Bertin noticed me and advised to present myself at the Ecole de danse de l’Opéra. I was accepted, I did a normal course, 4 years at school. At the age of 16 I joined the company in the corps de ballet. It all went quite normal and quick in a way.

DV: Which moments in your career do you cherish most?

LETESTU: I have fond memories of my days at the School. Then, joining the corps de ballet was surely a great moment for me, as well as the competitions, especially those outside of the company. I participated in the Eurovision Competition for Young Dancers, which is broadcasted and that really became a greeting card for the international stage. The following year I also successfully took part in the Varna Competition.

With these competitions I acquired a reputation abroad and as a result I received several invitations. I was still in the corps de ballet at that time and rather impatiently waiting to dance solo roles and pas de deux. These invitations were just what I needed, because they allowed me to do what I really wanted to, instead of lingering on unhappily in the corps.

I was rather ambitious. As we all know, in the Opera you have the hierarchy and the annual examinations. It all takes time, but for me it didn’t go as quick as I wanted. In fact, dancing in the corps de ballet after you graduate from school is almost like a step backwards, because you possess enormous possibilities, yet you aren’t able to use them in the daily corps work. At some point you even begin to fear you are going to lose all what you have learned, your technique, the variations, the pas de deux, everything you studied at school. The only way to keep it up is to take part in competitions or to dance abroad.

Then there was Nureyev, who gave me my first Gamzatti. I was still in the corps de ballet, but this gave me an enormous push. For him it wasn’t easy to put me forward for this role normally assigned to an étoile. (He was no longer director at that point.) As there were many étoiles who wanted to dance the role, it made a bit of a splash.

I was one of the very last he pushed, actually, and I am grateful for that. If he hadn’t done this my career would have progressed a lot slower. I didn’t have many roles at that point and it was him who noticed me as the Queen of the Dryads. The following year I was promoted to première danseuse and a few more years later étoile.

DV: Etoile of the Paris Opera Ballet – What does this title mean to you?

LETESTU: The nomination is a great moment, no question about it. But, on the other hand, by then I had already danced many soloist roles. People had confidence in me and I was invited abroad. When I was nominated étoile they were surprised to find out I wasn’t an étoile yet. For them it wasn’t important. After all they had seen me dance and had invited me on the strength of that, not because I had (or in this case didn’t have yet) the title of étoile of the Paris Opera. There is often a confusion abroad. When I mentioned “première danseuse” in my CV, it was translated as “principal dancer”.

Of course I wanted this title, because it implies certain privileges. As an étoile you don’t need to say “thank you” to anybody – As an étoile you are entitled to a principal role, as a première danseuse it’s often a present when you obtain that role. And since I wanted to dance principal roles, I needed to be étoile [laughing]. But it wasn’t the title which counted for me. That I can place “danseuse-étoile” under my name now, is not so important, but rather that it entitles me to dance the roles I want.

DV: But there is still a difference between a première danseuse and an étoile, I would say?

LETESTU: I think an étoile brings something extra, personality, an aura. Yet we have to admit that all the première danseuses in this House are wonderful dancers. A première danseuse can dance everything as well, but there is a slight difference. When an étoile is nominated it is because he or she gives that little bit extra, it can be something rare, that little bit of magic that not everybody has - often it’s hard to explain what exactly.

On the other hand this doesn’t imply that an étoile is good in every role either. It’s not because you are nominated étoile that you can dance every role in the repertoire. I can’t see myself in Coppélia, for instance. Being an étoile is also having the intelligence to pick out your roles. It’s the ability to question certain roles, not necessarily refuse, but at least discuss and propose. It can be a matter of emploi, it doesn’t suit my body, my height, my character, my abilities. What happens in your head, that makes a difference too.

The initial selection is so severe it guarantees a high level all around, but what makes the difference is up here: reflection, approach. After all, we aren’t dancers for only eight hours per day. When you leave your dressing-room and the Opera, you don’t forget everything. It’s not like a nine-to-five job. To prepare a role takes all of your time. You have to take initiatives, do some research, think about the role you have to dance, try to identify with the character, the historical surroundings of a certain ballet, a peasant girl doesn’t behave like a princess, and so on. We aren’t just well paid functionaries. There has to be a personal investment. The awareness that the moment you walk on stage, you are responsible for the performance. You aren’t merely there to please the ballet master, the director or the choreographer.

It’s the willingness to go beyond where they ask you to go, to do more than what is required. That’s what makes the difference. Oh, one can make a career by merely doing one’s job well, sure, but I don’t think that’s very enriching. It’s taking initiatives, wanting to dance elsewhere, wanting to work with a certain choreographer and making proposals. It’s not us who decide, of course, but we can do the first steps by showing interest. It doesn’t always work out, sometimes the choreographer doesn’t want to work with you, but we need to give our preferences.

DV: Doesn’t this increase the competition between the étoiles?

LETESTU: Well, it seems that in the end we don’t have the same preferences. Really, it works out rather well in this generation. We are different and go well together. There can only be a competition with yourself, not with your fellow-étoiles.

DV: You mentioned emploi. How is it regarded nowadays at the Paris Opera?

It’s true that everybody always wants to dance everything. Or at least that’s often what’s being said. But on the other hand, I often hear colleagues say: “I don’t want to dance this, or that, because it doesn’t suit me, and so on…”

Still, Brigitte Lefèvre gives us the chance to express ourselves in roles that aren’t necessarily ours. Sometimes she concludes it doesn’t work, but sometimes she wants to give it a try. If Brigitte Lefèvre wouldn’t have had confidence in me, I would never have danced Romeo and Juliet or Giselle, because I do not correspond to the required type, the little, brown-haired girl. Based uniquely on a traditional set of values, I wouldn’t even have to think about having a shot at these roles. Personally, I wanted to dance them and I expressed my wishes in that direction. I didn’t dance them immediately, it only happened some seasons later. “Yes, maybe you’ll do it, but right now I think you aren’t ready yet and there are others who are better suited for the roles.” But one day, she gave me my chance. I’m not saying it was a complete success. But at least I was able to try. Was it good or bad? - That’s a matter of opinion. Some will say it wasn’t a success, others will praise me for it. I wanted to do it and it was an experience. I’m happy to have done it, and would want to do it again now. Moreover, I can live with the thought that some people prefer someone else in the role, somebody who is more conform to the image they have. That’s fine, yet I think it’s a good point to cast against type, because sometimes it reveals unexpected aspects. I am tall, so when I am dancing Giselle, I need to do an extra effort to remain credible in the role: I am as tall as my mother and so on. And it’s not because I wanted to dance this role that I can be simply Agnès Letestu in Giselle. I still need to be Giselle. That’s crucial, and I made a point of honour of this: to forget myself and to become the character, living in this specific time and social context. Do I succeed, or not? I don’t know, but at least I’m trying. I don’t even think of trying to be that little, frail girl I can never be, but at least I try to react according to the situation.

DV: So what exactly do you do?

LETESTU: I sometimes try to propose small adaptations. Speaking about acting, I don’t think I need to do over again what has been done before. I try to imagine, even if it doesn’t correspond with my personality, how I would live and react under the given circumstances.

While preparing Giselle I watched films and was much impressed by Carla Fracci’s performance. That’s really a modern interpretation. Alessandra Ferri inspired me a lot as well. Sometimes it results in slightly different accents. For example, with the pantomime. At one point Giselle explains to Bathilde that she spins. But who can understand this nowadays? (When my little nephew of ten watches this ballet, he doesn’t have a clue what Giselle is doing.) So I make the gesture of knitting instead. And there are plenty of things like that. In the mad scene after I picked the imagined daisy, I go and sit on the bench again, because that’s where I was the first time with the flowers.

I discussed this with Patrice Bart, the ballet master responsible for the choreography, and he agreed, although I could see some raised eyebrows amongst the repetiteurs, because it isn’t strictly according to the book. However, it’s not a question of changing the choreography, but a few changes to make a bit more dramatic sense.

I also found inspiration in watching films about autistic patients. That helped me to construct and make sense of what happens during Giselle’s mad scene. I agree that reality overtakes aesthetics at that point, I lose my manner of danseuse a little, but it’s all these tiny details that make it more credible for me. In the end it doesn’t change that much, you know. Surely not the steps, but what matters interpretation, pantomime and theatricality, I try to achieve something that is more adapted to my persona and more credible for people of today. I want to be closer to the audience in a way. It helps to bridge the gap between audience and performer, because the public can recognize itself in it. If the public doesn’t understand anything of what you are doing, it’s no use.

I had already done Giselle in Cuba and Italy before I danced it at the Paris Opera. I had then prepared the role with Florence Clerc. She arrived at the first rehearsal and told me: “Listen, I saw Giselle 2,000 times or more. I will help you with the role, but I warn you, don’t start anything conventional, or I’m off. I’ve seen it far too many times and for Giselle we need to find something new.” [laughing] She really asked that. Funnily enough, what she actually showed me was the traditional reading, which she had always danced herself here at the Opera. But gradually when I proposed something different, she approved and kept on encouraging me. Ghislaine Thesmar was exactly the same. These ballerinas who had danced the ballet many times at the Opera, in the traditional way, really needn’t much to be convinced to change what I had in mind and pretty soon they were pushing me in another direction. I hasten to add, I didn’t revolutionize the ballet, you know! [laughing].

And likewise for Juliet. I don’t correspond to the traditional image of the small, tiny girl, but it’s not written anywhere that Juliet has to be like that. After I saw the Zeffireli movie, I realized that Juliet is not a victim. On the contrary, she’s a tough character, who revolts against social conventions and family pressure. In the opening scene, in the nursery, I appeared this long tall girl, taller than all my friends, but then again, it was the same in real life: when I was little, I was much taller than my buddies as well. It didn’t bother me. And once after that, you have an adolescent discovering her first love and the drama increases. So, here too, I tried to impose my view a bit. My Juliet isn’t tiny at all. And this goes rather well with Nureyev’s choreography for this ballet. Nureyev wanted his Juliet to be a bit boyish, not unlike Romeo in fact.

Even if there are ballets which I would never attempt, like Coppelia or La Fille mal gardée, I am convinced that you can make something worthwhile of roles for which you are not necessarily made for at first sight.

DV: Is being so tall as you are a serious problem?

LETESTU: For certain ballets. Not for Swan Lake, Raymonda, or La Bayadère, but for others perhaps, yes. Again, mainly because I don’t correspond to the stereotype image people have of a certain role. Being tall was more a problem when I was in the corps and I towered above all the other girls. I was always in the front line which is scrutinized continually. And as I found out, people are afraid of tall dancers. With whom will she dance, which partner will suit her? But that was only for the first two years, afterwards it wasn’t such a big deal anymore. Just maybe when a certain choreographer required girls of exactly the same height, I was rejected. But as a soloist, it didn’t bother me anymore and we have many tall male dancers in the company.

On the other hand there was a tendency in the beginning to cast me in femme fatale roles. My first ballet while I was still coryphée was The Prodigal Son, followed by Le jeune homme et la mort, then Gamzatti, Myrtha,…. [laughing]. And if after all these strong-character roles you ask to dance Giselle…. Well, that’s really hard! Nobody believes you can pull that off. It’s like a comedy actor suddenly wanting to be cast in a tragic role. In those cases, I really had to fight and prove that I was able to dance something else.

DV: You have a preference for story ballets?

LETESTU: At this moment I am mostly attracted by story ballets, like Giselle, Romeo and Juliet. I would love to dance Manon. So far it never happened as there are only a handful of performances each run, and usually the girls who have done it before are cast first. And again, I don’t fit the stereotypical image of Manon yet. Onegin from Cranko and Kameliendame from Neumeier are on my wish list as well.

Still, what regards the plotless ballets, I adore dancing Balanchine for the taste of virtuosity and the technique, or Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. I love contemporary works and that is why I feel so good in this company. It’s great that we are able to change from the classics to dance Ek, Kylian or Forsythe.

I enjoyed working with Mats Ek. He is so kind that you want to please him. It’s a gift. What he asks seems important and real. He knows how to give every dancer the feeling that his role in the ballet is essential. He gives everyone, whether you are the soloist or the one in the back row, the same importance and achieves a cohesion in his ballets. And everyone is convinced of his place and role. There is a direct human contact with him, even if he only comes for two days himself. It’s a great way of working, because as a dancer you are willing to give everything. Kylian works a bit in the same way.

DV: Isn’t that a gift of all good choreographers?

LETESTU: Not everybody works the same way. There are choreographers who try to achieve their goal by creating a tension and who try to humiliate. But others value the personal contact and know exactly how to make everyone feel important as creative artists.

Recently, we had Scheherazade with Blanca Li. For me it was an interesting experience as well. Li doesn’t have a particular style, because she always works with a certain type of dancers – she worked with flamenco dancers, with rappers, and she creates a kind of mixture. I didn’t find any signature in her work. She arrived here with all her previous experiences, also as a gymnast, as a modern dancer (she worked in Martha Graham style), moreover introduced pointe shoes for Scheherazade, and again created a kind of mixture of flamenco on pointe, which opened new doors. It was basically a collaboration, because I proposed certain steps and so on. OK, the result is worth what it is, but personally, I learned a lot, mostly acrobatic things which I never imagined I would attempt one day. For example I learned how to fall on my knees without hurting them.

DV: Isn’t this variety of choreographies in the Paris Opera repertoire harmful to the identity of style in the company?

LETESTU: No, I don’t think it is. It’s not a restrictive process, on the contrary, it allows us to open up. Nureyev was very influential here on the repertoire and the choreography, and moreover he invited repetiteurs from all around, which proved an enrichment for us. We adopted everything we found to be suitable. We made an amalgam of what we thought was the best for us.

It’s true that the French School used to be more distinctive, with an emphasis on the petite batterie, yet now I think it’s a bit of everything. Now we do everything, classical, contemporary, and because of the current cultural interchange it all gets mixed. The roots remain discernible, but there is an enrichment with elements from other schools.

A similar thing happens with the Russians. Their style is becoming more and more encompassing as well. They travel all the time, they continuously undergo external influences, even if the Russian soul continues to command their épaulement, their port de bras and so on, which is anchored in their culture.

A dancer of today receives first of all a classical training, but the input of contemporary dance is becoming more important, which is a positive thing, because when you see the repertoire of this company, the dancer needs to be extremely versatile and prepared to do various styles. Especially when you see that the Paris Opera invites people like Scozzi, Bausch, Forsythe, Kylian, Ek, and we have Nureyev’s choreographies. We have to be able to do it all, and we love to do it. We are ready for it. We have lessons of contemporary dance, in Martha Graham’s manner, including a multitude of styles. It provides a very solid base. But afterwards it’s a personal gift. The choreographer selects the dancer on the strength of his quality of movement, of his individual possibilities. We find out that the more we work with choreographers, the richer we become, the more we have to offer, and the more diverse we become.

DV: How do you find your way in all these different choreographies?

LETESTU: If it is a choreographer who never worked at the Opera, he comes for a certain amount of time, sometimes several months, so that we are able to adapt his style. If there is a possibility to take lessons, we can do it. He tries to make us understand his style.

Basically there are two types of choreographers. Those who want to impose their style, and those who want to cooperate with the dancers and cultivate their possibilities. It’s true that the first time we approach a style like Mats Ek’s, we aren’t necessarily ready for it - meaning we aren’t able to dance Mats Ek like his own company, but we have the possibilities, the qualities, especially the willpower to do it and every revival brings us closer to his goal. There are always people who will tell you that it’s not the same as in the choreographer’s own troupe, but I think we bring something new to it. And since we dance different choreographers, when they create specifically for us, we can really speak about an exchange. They can use our base to their own advantage. It’s a fact that choreographers like to exchange between them, in order not to turn in circles, but to expand their possibilities.

I don’t think it will make us lose our identity, because it’s firmly based in our culture. Yet we try to take the best out of everywhere.

DV: How would you rate Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet?

LETESTU: He gave us all his ballets, plus this whole tradition and manner of working of his. His choreographies are extremely hard. It’s funny but all the difficult steps he introduced in his ballets and which looked impossible to do at the time, have eventually been assimilated by the dancers who now perform them with a kind of naturalness. They remain difficult of course, but we have them in our legs. When we arrive in a gala with a pas de deux from Nureyev, everybody is declaring us mad, because they are tough like hell. At the time his variation for the Black Swan was considered an insurmountable nightmare, but nowadays the girls have digested it, seeing and doing it over and over again.

Eventually, Nureyev succeeded in imprinting a manner of dancing that is linear, pure. For instance in his Swan Lake, the lines are extended, constantly en arabesque and not en attitude, in order not to shorten the lines. It’s not easy, your back hurts, but it’s a superb effect.

Everything he tried to apply concerning rigorousness of style was not accepted at the time, because it was considered stiff and hard, but now everybody is comfortable with it.

In my view we can still work with this heritage for several years to come, since the dancers and ballet masters who grew up with him are still transmitting his approach and his vision. Which is a good thing. I can’t think of that many troupes in the world that are willing to make an effort to continue with such hard choreographies [laughing]. We will continue to dance Nureyev.

Personally I have known him very little. When he was director I was still in the corps de ballet. One day stopping a class, he came up and said to me: “You! Repeat that step alone!” I was scared stiff, but he was pleased.

When he came back to stage his Don Quixote, I danced the Queen of the Dryads. Then he took some interest in me, he worked a bit with me, which made me happy because he didn’t disapprove. Afterwards I danced Gamzatti. So I didn’t know him that well, but I saw him working with the soloists when I was in the corps.

DV: Whom do you consider your examples?

LETESTU: I have several. I have always admired Sylvie Guillem a lot. In my view she got it all - physically and technically, she is perfect. She gives everything she has when she is on stage. Unlike what has been said about her for a long time, she works very hard on her characters. What concerns the drama and the theatricality it’s always intelligent, everything she does has been well considered and there is absolutely nothing superfluous. I know there are many people who consider her cold, but I really admire her work, especially as an actress.

DV: You don’t disagree with her technical prowess?

LETESTU: No, it’s a natural thing for her, it’s like she breathes. On the other hand, the young generation of Russian dancers goes a lot further and is much more extravagant than her.

DV: You had an example here recently with the Maryinsky star Svetlana Zakharova who guested in La Bayadère.

Yes, in her case it’s pushed to the limit, she exaggerates, everything is distorted with her. In Sylvie Guillem’s case it’s natural. And it’s not done to provoke. It’s a natural continuation, an extension of her whole being. After all, why not lift your leg higher, if you can create a beautiful line with it and can do so without falling over? It was Margot Fonteyn who once said that if she had been able to lift her legs as high as Sylvie Guillem, she would have done it herself. But this is really not the essential thing about Sylvie Guillem. For me, Sylvie Guillem is in the first place her interpretations and the way she identifies with her roles.

Other examples for me are Carla Fracci and Alessandra Ferri. Also Ana Laguna, because she has such a strong personality. As for the men: Baryshnikov, not only for the awesome dancer he used to be, but also for what he accomplished in the contemporary field in his later days. I like the Cuban dancers of today. Here in Paris, even if I consider myself too close to judge, I admire Manuel Legris for his technique, Laurent Hilaire for his characters, Nicolas Le Riche also for his interpretations. And I don’t want to say anything about José Martinez because I share my life with him [smiling].

DV: You often dance with José Martinez, but why are famous partnerships so rare nowadays?

LETESTU: They don’t try to make couples anymore like they used to. I was almost going to say it’s more a marketplace where one takes what is available [laughing]. There are more étoiles now, more performances, and everybody is distributed as they come. Everybody dances a bit everything and with everybody now. On the other hand it isn’t disagreeable to be able to change partners. Personally, I felt quite happy to dance with different partners. In the old days it was more limited and everybody had his limited amount of roles. Ghislaine Thesmar told me she used to have her roles and would never touch the others. I don’t know if I would be much happier if I had to limit myself to a certain type of ballets. We want to taste of everything and there is less of a specialisation. Imagine that my partner gets injured for several months, I wouldn’t be able to dance myself then. There are more performances and we need to be interchangeable. But I agree that dancing repeatedly with the same partner brings out special qualities.

DV: It’s still a long way to go for you, but how do you feel about having to leave the Opera at 40?

LETESTU: Dance evolves so quickly that you have to face the fact that at a certain age you need to quit and leave the stage for the younger dancers. Artistically of course, you attain a maximum of maturity, but physically it’s another matter. It’s a fact that all these dancers who were in good shape their whole career, once at 40 can no longer do it anymore, physically. They get injured easily, some ballets are too hard for them, and they can or will no longer dance them. In fact their repertoire should be adapted and they shouldn’t be cast in those hard ballets they might have been wonderful in a certain time ago. After all, they still have so much to say.

 

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