conversation with Elisabeth
Paris, January 4, 2002
The Paris Opera Ballet is living through a transitional period. A sterling generation of dancers, generally associated with Rudolf Nureyev, is gradually disappearing and their successors aren’t found that readily. Elisabeth Maurin is the last female étoile of the Nureyev-generation and if the Opera rules remain unchanged, by the end of next year she, too, will have left the building.
There is definitely something intriguing about Elisabeth Maurin. It’s not so much her figure, because even if her tiny and waiflike appearance makes her an exception amongst many of her younger colleagues, once on stage one is only aware of an artist of the highest order. It’s probably this anti-stardom quality of hers, this agreeable humility, this stubborn refusal to give in to a cult of the ego and to artistic complacency, and this almost instinctive affinity with classicism, as was obvious the night before by her Nikiya in Nureyev’s La Bayadère— “What regards an interpretation in a more academic environment, I feel that people of today find it more difficult to open themselves, there is a kind of restraint, or fear, or maybe they just don’t feel it anymore. We opened ourselves to contemporary a lot and it’s true that it’s finally much easier to be natural in there than in the purely classical stuff,” as Elisabeth Maurin summarized.
Elisabeth Maurin joined the Paris Opera Ballet in 1979 and was nominated étoile by Rudolf Nureyev in 1988. Her repertoire mirrors to a certain extent the diversity and range of the Paris Opera. There is a strong emphasis on the great classics (mostly in the versions by Nureyev) and on Balanchine, but on the other hand some of the contemporary choreographers who frequently turn up in the careers of other étoiles, like Robbins, Kylian, Forsythe or Ek, are only slightly represented or even completely absent. As for the main 19th century ballets, some came very early in her career (Coppelia, Giselle), others only recently— Elisabeth Maurin will dance her first Kitri this season.
DANCEVIEW: Elisabeth Maurin, how would you characterize the style of the French School of today, also in relation to the other great Schools?
ELISABETH MAURIN: Even without going into the pedagogical aspect of the matter, when you watch dancers in performance, differences between the various schools are certainly noticeable. Compared to the Russians for example, who pay a lot of attention to the arms, in our School we care more about the placement, about turn out and so on.
These differences in style are in my view for a large part inherent to the culture, the mentality and the way people function in general. We, the French, have the reputation of being intellectual. (That’s what’s being said, anyway.) Because of this quality there is perhaps less passion in our dancing, unlike Russian dancers who carry this kind of emotionalism in their blood, which translates itself into a more eloquent use of the upper body, but which may also appear - and I am not saying this maliciously - a bit superficial.
So, it’s true that we can speak of a mark, an imprint of the Ecole de Danse. Pupils from our School are formed in a certain mould and there is this homogeneity which makes for a major part the beauty of the Paris Opera Ballet and sets it apart from others. On the other hand, I don’t think that there is such a thing as “a” French School, in the way that there is a French language. I don’t think so, because the French School derives from the Italian School and over the years there have been various influences (Russian, American,…). It really became a mixture.
Moreover, there is a constant evolution in the style. I see now that the professors at the Ecole de Danse pay more attention to the arms, to breathing, the way to dance and so on. Ballet is like life. It’s constantly changing, it evolves continuously.
The tradition is a fragile thing and its preservation by way of its transmission is problematic. We have the example of the Danish School which seems to be losing its Bournonville repertoire. Through the years it becomes more and more difficult to keep this individual stamp and everything turns increasingly into a mixture of genres.
It’s one of the strengths of the Opera that we live with our time. We have to grant this to Brigitte Lefèvre. She opened the doors of the Opera—true, Nureyev had given the example—and she favours a policy of modernization. Yet, at the same time it happens at the expense of the repertoire, as dancers seem to invest more of their energy with choreographers who are present, than with the repertoire we try to preserve and which becomes more and more alien if there is nobody behind it to transmit it.
DV: How do dancers of the Paris Opera find themselves in this multitude of choreographic styles that you encounter in the company’s repertoire? For example, how does the company succeeds in making Balanchine still look like Balanchine, and Forsythe like Forsythe?
MAURIN: You have to realize that what we do is not exactly the real thing. The Balanchine we dance at the Paris Opera is not a 100% Balanchine. Nor is the Forsythe, to take those examples. I know that people who are familiar with New York City Ballet or Frankfurt will often make comparisons at our expense. Yet they shouldn’t forget that we adopted these choreographies to enrich ourselves, and who knows by doing so, to transform them, to approach them from a different viewpoint. Why not? But people who come to watch us for example in Forsythe should never think that we are full-blooded Forsythe dancers. On the other hand, I think it’s a challenge for choreographers like William Forsythe to come and work with us. They are dealing with unfamiliar material, and there is definitely an exchange.
At the Opera we are in a privileged position, as we are able to live with our time and still preserve a repertoire, which is now mainly Nureyev - in other words, relatively recent. It’s hard to predict what it will look like in ten years from now, but that’s unavoidable. It’s the same with the Petipa repertoire. What we dance now, is it really Petipa? – The technique, the bodies have developed. After all a repertoire is not a museum piece. Even a “traditional” ballet like Giselle is now totally different from what it was at its creation in 1841.
DV: How do you feel about this tendency to go back in time, as we had a recent example with the Maryinsky’s reconstruction of Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty?
MAURIN: Every era has its own lighting; it’s not possible to go back in time. Even when people say “I remember it like this….” it’s already different. Nonetheless it’s thrilling to realize that we are part of an art form where the oral transmission, from generation to generation, is so important. Of course, now we also have video and ballets have been notated in the course of time, but even so it’s amazing that we still have these ballets from such a long time ago.
On the other hand, I think it’s necessary that certain productions are brought up to date, become more “actual”—although I don’t like to use that word very much. Some parts of a staging might look too lightweight for the public of today. Why does he leave the stage on that side, while he entered from the opposite side? Details like that. We need to achieve a dramatic coherence in our productions and should avoid that people start laughing when they see certain scenes. Things that looked great in a certain period, but look outdated now, need to be replaced.
DV: When I saw Nureyev’s La Bayadère yesterday at the Bastille it struck me that some details have already been changed since the previous runs. For instance the warriors are now constantly touching the girls in the djampo dance. I wouldn’t exactly call it an improvement, as it makes it all look rather obvious.
MAURIN: Probably this was introduced to make the spectacle look more lively. But you are right, we need to find a golden mean and avoid excesses. It’s essential to preserve the perfume of those ballets, even if that’s not always easy. In La Bayadère for instance there is a lot of pantomime. Too much pantomime creates problems for audiences of today. Maybe we will need to work on it. The public doesn’t always understand it and these passages become overlong for them.
DV: Isn’t the pantomime one of the strong moments of La Bayadère, thinking for instance of the confrontation between Nikiya and Gamzatti?
MAURIN: Yes, but there are also long stretches of pantomime between the Brahmin and the Raja. For us it’s all quite evident. However, we must avoid that the gap between performers and public becomes too wide. A ballet shouldn’t be hermetic.
DV: Let’s go back into time. How and why did you start a dancing career?
MAURIN: It was a coincidence. We were living in the provinces, in the city of Angers, in the Maine-et-Loire. When I was four my parents wanted to sign me up in a judo course. I don’t know why exactly, maybe it was trendy in those days or they just wanted to channel my energy a bit - I loved to move. One Wednesday they took me to this judo class in Angers, but it happened to be closed. And one level below there was the classical dancing school of Mlle Joubert. Don’t ask me why, but the next thing I knew was that I had been enrolled in that school.
Very quickly my teacher spotted my musicality. I was lucky, because Mlle Joubert was a very cultured lady. She had been a soloist in the company of the Marquis de Cuevas. Because of some health problems her dance career came to an early end, but she had definitely an eye for these matters.
I must have liked dancing, because in those days I was rather withdrawn, very quiet and disciplined—I didn’t argue much [laughing]. In any case I kept on dancing and it became part of my life, also after we moved. (I remember I even went all the way through a snow storm to take dancing lessons across the border in Switzerland.) I always kept in touch with my first teacher, who also had a course in Paris at the Salle Pleyel. She insisted that I should apply for the Ecole de Danse in Paris. This institution was still considered something special, because of its prestige and as a sure bet for a career. So when I was nine and a half I presented myself at the Ecole de Danse. In those days there were no facilities yet for people living outside Paris. We didn’t have family in the capital, so we needed to find people with whom I could live. Anyway, a whole history, very difficult, but the main thing was that I got immediately accepted.
I did my Ecole de Danse quietly. I was never ranked among the first. I even repeated the 2nd division. I was a very closed person in those days. All this discipline stuff, the new environment, alone in Paris and everything. I was very much on my own, but people started to notice me nonetheless. Claude Bessy for one—it was in the first years of her directorship of the School. She remarked my gifts as a comedienne during the performances she mounted at the Opéra Comique and this surely helped me a great deal. In September 1979 I was engaged in the corps de ballet. Later, when I was in the company, I was fortunate to be noticed by Rudolf Nureyev. I danced with him and he gave me several opportunities; roles beforemy time and my nomination as étoile in 1988 during the filming of The Nutcracker.
So you see, lots of things. Lots of doubts as well, moments I wanted to leave the Opera because it didn’t go as quickly as I hoped, ups and downs—a typical career in other words. There surely are regrets in my career. Most of all the fact that I wasn’t cast in certain ballets and that I wasn’t allowed to work with choreographers like Robbins, Kylian, Forsythe, Ek.
DV: But at least you were able to dance their works?
MAURIN: I did Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering. But I always needed to force things, it was never evident. And of course, there is no way to force in this metier. When there is no harmony between the choreographer and yourself, when you are not accepted, it’s basically a waste of time. In any case it didn’t bring me what I could have had.
DV: What attracts you most in ballet?
MAURIN: In all my career what always interested me most was to tell stories. I can say that my favourite role is Juliet. There are no gimmicks, no stereotypes, it’s directly human. You can really make this role your own, but you need to open all your emotional registers.
DV: How do you feel about a role like Nikiya in La Bayadère which you danced yesterday?
MAURIN: Actually, La Bayadère is a ballet I am still discovering. I only danced Nikiya the first time in 1998 (before I used to be cast as Gamzatti) and I wasn’t too happy with it at first. I found it bizarre: the last act is so different from everything that precedes it. All of a sudden you are wearing a different costume and have to face all these technical difficulties. And in the beginning I needed to prove too much that I could dance the role to get any pleasure out of it. By now, I’ve matured in it, and I’ve really started to discover the role. It took me a while to grasp the development of the ballet and the why behind the 3rd Act.
On the other hand Giselle is a ballet you started dancing very early in your career and which became one of your signature roles.
MAURIN: Giselle is one of the great moments in my career, because I danced it for the first time with Rudolf Nureyev. I also had to learn it in two days. I was completely unprepared, I was still a sujet and had never approached this ballet, not even from the vantage of the corps de ballet. It was terrible, I was in tears, but at the same time I realize now that I was living a wonderful moment, like a dream come true. [pensively] You live great moments when you need to surpass yourself.
DV: What’s the secret of a convincing Giselle?
MAURIN: To a certain extent you have to get rid of the clichés, but at the same time you need to respect the style of this ballet, which remains primordial. You simply cannot do with it what you want. It’s not like: “Oh, for me that’s old fashioned, let’s throw that out.” No, nothing like that. You really need to gain access to this style in order to assimilate it, to make it your own. A present-day input is unavoidable, of course: we have our technique and our vision. But for me the essence of Giselle’s identity is to go through the language, the choreography, the style of this ballet, with its special port de bras, its costume, in fact a whole context, and identify yourself with it. If I can speak of myself: it’s Elisabeth Maurin approaching Giselle and not Giselle approaching Elisabeth Maurin. That’s a difference.
Giselle is the role of roles. It’s pure magic to dance Giselle and also wonderful that it still has this profound effect on people, the dancers as well as the public. Swan Lake is very different. Even if Giselle certainly became a symbol (especially in the 2nd act), she is still human. In Swan Lake you represent even more a symbol, a myth. There is a whole vocabulary to represent the swan, to symbolize purity, and so on. Moreover, Nureyev gave us a very Freudian version of Swan Lake. And that makes it harder to bear. Giselle on the other hand is simplicity. The eternal pitfall of Giselle is to approach it in a much too sugary way. That’s what makes it so difficult to dance, especially the 1st act. It all has to look very natural and definitely not as something borrowed, as an imitation or a copy.
You continue to discover a role like Giselle throughout your career and that ensures its fascination. Every time you dance it, you find new things and sometimes realize that the previous time you were completely off beam. It can never be a routine job, because there is this kind of renewal every time you approach it.
Yvette Chauviré, who taught me the role, stated that you only dance Giselle well at forty, when you have no longer the strength or the youth for it [laughing]. Well, she wasn’t too encouraging, I agree, as I was very young at that moment, but I think one can see Giselle from different angles. Yet, the further you develop in your career, the bigger the chance your approach will be stripped down to the essence. When you are younger you often want to do too much, sometimes without ever hitting the nail on the head. That only comes with age.
DV: What’s your opinion on emploi and how is it considered at the Paris Opera?
MAURIN: At this moment everybody wants to dance everything. It’s quite normal, in fact. Dancers used to be categorized more than is the case now. I know quite well what it is. I for one should never have danced Balanchine, because I am too small. I should never have danced this and that because I am blonde and so on. With all this you cannot do anything. It’s very frustrating to have a career like this. I truly had to fight for certain roles in which they didn’t find me suited: Nikiya, Cinderella for instance. Yet, I don’t think I did all that badly with them.
I remain convinced that from the moment you like to act and it works from a dramatic viewpoint, I think you can try everything. You might be wrong of course, but sometimes that’s the challenge. So why not? I have always felt attracted to roles which supposedly weren’t me. Roles that didn’t seem to correspond with the initial impression that people have of me as this pure and ethereal being. I always wanted to be cast against type and dance thoroughly passionate characters, like Carmen for instance.
DV: Were you refused these roles?
MAURIN: When you work in a house like the Paris Opera, where there are fellow-dancers who do suit the image, you may be sure that they will get the roles first of all. Afterwards other factors come into play. How should I put it: I have never been a media figure. It’s not my style. I was lucky, though, to dance Fall River Legend, which has proven a complete triumph. Everybody was pleasantly surprised, including myself, that I could pull it off. People still talk about it today.
So, to answer your question, I agree that one cannot and perhaps one should not dance everything, but it’s hard if you are refused roles, especially in a metier where taking new challenges and constantly surpassing oneself is so essential. I wanted to be an actress. For me that was important and my main interest in dance—to act.
What was hard for me, was that I revealed myself on stage. The choreographers had to be extremely confident in me, they really had to know and trust me, because I only disclosed myself at the very last moment, on stage. For them it was a challenge as well. But there have been people like that, Nureyev and Neumeier for instance.
DV: Rudolf Nureyev is of course somebody closely linked to your career. Can you tell me something about him?
MAURIN: Nureyev was our master. He made our generation. Nureyev was this immense, almost superhuman personality, with all this implies, positive as well as negative. It was hard for some of us. You have to realize that he made people suffer. If he didn’t like you, you were done for. But in the end, I think that we were very lucky to have him.
I always feel that the current young generation looks a bit disoriented by comparison. Probably they are freer, although times are different. Perhaps it wouldn’t work anymore. No guarantee if we had a Nureyev now that it would work out the way it did with us. Young people of today don’t accept the same things anymore.
We had to wait for a role and once we got it, we needed to prove that we actually deserved it. If he wasn’t happy about it, you might as well forget it. No way of getting a second chance. Today, it’s true, it’s easier for the dancers because they need them. But does it make them surpass themselves? I don’t know. At the same time they look more fragile. They give up very quickly. They lack this passion.
Nureyev himself always set us an example. He was there in class every day, and he constantly kept an eye on you. We had to participate at the rehearsals from 1.30 till 7 pm. And even if you didn’t have to do one single step for the whole day, your presence was required. It was a rough school. He couldn’t understand that there is another life besides dance. He was typical of those people who so totally devoted their whole life to dance and that clashed with the bureaucratic side of the Opera. He was dedicated to this House and the dancers he groomed, but at the same time his temperament was at odds with the system. He wanted to push dancers, in spite of the hierarchy. He preferred the dual system, just soloists and corps de ballet, and for the rest do what he wanted. This whole institution at times irritated him, also because it prevented him from being the only captain on board. On the other hand, it was good to have an institution to counter his excessive side [laughing].
DV: What do you think of his work as a choreographer?
MAURIN: Formerly his ballets were criticized. Yet, besides the fact that they gave the male dancer a more prominent place in classical ballet, Nureyev revived the company with his ballets. I remember when he mounted his Swan Lake, people were threatening to go on strike. That’s why he agreed to keep the Bourmeister version which we already had in the repertoire. But time has spoken in favour of Nureyev’s Swan Lake. The dancers started to appreciate his version more and finally even came to prefer it.
You may argue that he introduced a kind of extremism, what you might call a profusion of steps. But we have assimilated that, it became a part of us, and when we dance other choreographies of the classics, we miss something, we almost experience a kind of boredom. And I also think he is very musical, something which wasn’t appreciated in the beginning either.
DV: The end of your career at the Opera is approaching. How do you feel about all this?
MAURIN: [laughing] Wait, because there is talk to prolong the age of retirement to forty-two. Maybe I can stay two years more, who knows!
These are the house rules. It’s true, of course, that in many cases women are considered to be at their best at that age of forty. But on the other hand I think it’s important to realize that this is a metier where one needs to know when to quit. You have to accept that you can no longer dance as much as before and everything. It’s a turning point in your life. In any case I think I will stay in ballet.
DV: Do you have any plans?
MAURIN: Yes, I am very interested in teaching and as soon as I have the opportunity, I will have a look at the Ecole de Danse. I know that Claude Bessy wants the étoiles to contribute to the continuation of the School and she will welcome former étoiles like Carole Arbo, Fanny Gaïda, myself, especially now that posts are becoming vacant. And I love to teach roles and transmit what I learned to others. But I need to find out for myself. We’ll see when the time comes.
DV: Which interests do you have besides ballet?
MAURIN: I love the theatre in general, in fact everything related to dramatic arts. It’s an enrichment for me. Funnily enough but in the days when I felt bad, I started to ponder which way I could go. And to be honest there wasn’t much else [laughing]. This metier is so gripping, it takes all of yourself. It possesses you completely, day in day out. Even if you do not perform every day, there still is the daily class, this discipline, this hunger. Yes, it’s a passion. It almost becomes a drug. However, when the time arrives I don’t think I will stick desperately to my dancing shoes; I want to give something as well and play my part in this art of transmission.
DV: Whom do you consider your examples ?
MAURIN: The generation of artists like Pontois, Thesmar, Denard, Atanasoff, Khalfouni, Nureyev and Fonteyn. When I was little I had a poster of Fonteyn and Nureyev in my room. I couldn’t imagine I would be dancing with Nureyev one day [laughing].
It was a dream, although when I was little I never had the wish to become an étoile. I wanted to dance, but being an étoile was never an ambition of mine. Of course, once I had my first serious role, Coppelia, I knew I wanted to tell stories and then the desire to climb the hierarchy became more pressing as I regarded it as a means to accomplish what I wanted to do.
DV: What does it mean to be an étoile?
MAURIN: Sometimes you hear children say: “I want to be danseuse étoilé!” That’s sad, I think. In the end, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a word. After all, being an étoile is to remain humble. It’s not a title which gives you more rights. On the contrary you have to stay with both feet on the ground. It’s dancing that comes first of all, not that mere title of danseuse étoile - it won’t be for everybody anyway.
The essence of a dancer is to be at the service of his art. In recent times this whole metier became more and more mediatized, with the result that as an artist you are more at the service of yourself than of your art. And if you are not interested in this, you won’t be granted a certain status. No doubt, it can have its negative sides. You can be pushed very highly, but the higher you go, the harder you may fall. This has never been in my character. I never had the urge to fight. I only fought through my art. I don’t say this to discredit my fellow-dancers; perhaps they were more with their time. They benefited from their time, so for the better. I think it’s important to be at peace with oneself.
That’s what life is about. As a dancer to arrive at the point where you can say that you have learned something and were able to give something. When you see that people are happy because of what you have given them. That you became a richer person. In the end, that’s the essence.
1998-2003 by DanceView