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"Classical ballet doesn't stand mediocrity"
a conversation with Patrice Bart
Spring 2001
by Marc Haegeman
© 2001

Paris, Opéra Garnier

Patrice Bart is one of the veterans of the Paris Opera Ballet. His career took off almost 45 years ago as a student of the “Ecole de Danse de l’Opéra”. He has been a danseur-étoile with the Paris Opera Ballet for 17 years. Now, as “Maitre de ballet, associé à la direction de la danse”, he is one of the key figures in this company. Moreover, In the last ten years Bart has been active as a choreographer, mounting his versions of the great classics for the Berliner Staatsoper, the Paris Opera Ballet, the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, and the Scala of Milan.

As an étoile Patrice Bart’s dancing style was once described as spirited. And that’s probably the first thing that comes to mind when meeting the ballet master now. Apparently always dressed in black, Bart is a small but extremely lively and energetic looking man, moving with balletic grace. He talks with pride and passion about his art, the encounter with Rudolf Nureyev, the turns in his career, and his responsibilities at the Paris Opera.

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MARC HAEGEMAN:   Patrice Bart, can you describe briefly what your function of «Maitre de ballet, associé à la direction de la danse » consists of?

PATRICE BART:   As ballet master I am in direct contact with the company to mount the performances, to prepare new productions. I am dealing with everything that happens in the studios, in fact everything which concerns the proper functioning of the company. To be “associated to the dance director”, means I closely cooperate with Brigitte Lefèvre, the company director, on the programming, on the casting of étoiles, soloists, and corps de ballet.

MH:  Can we rightly consider you the guardian of classical dancing at the Paris Opera?

PATRICE BART:   I think you can say that, yes, in the sense that I am responsible for all the major productions of Nureyev. Of course, I need to emphasize that I am not the only one who works on them, there are plenty of other people, but it’s true that all the great classics danced by this company fall under my responsibility.

MH:  What distinguishes the Paris Opera Ballet from other great companies?

PATRICE BART:   The main characteristic of the Paris Opera Ballet is for me the link with the Academy of Music and Dance, founded by King Louis XIV. This is unique in the world. There is no other company with such a rich background, with such a long history. The Paris Opera Ballet is by definition a major ‘company of tradition’. And that is precisely what we try to preserve: this particular tradition, with its many aspects such as the hierarchy within the company, the way it is structured and so on. At the same time many works are created for the company to keep it alive. But this historical aspect, which gives the company a firm place in the history of France, is extremely important and unique.

MH:  How would you describe the style of the French School?

PATRICE BART:  I think that the style of the French School is firmly linked to the French temperament. French artists are open, rather flexible and demonstrative. The School goes back to Louis XIV as well and is part of that tradition. In the course of the centuries there have been influences from outside, but you can still say that the French School is the essence of classical ballet. As you know all the ballet terms are in French, no matter where you go.

Our “Ecole de Danse de l’Opéra de Paris” is of fundamental importance in preserving the identity of this style. Children receive from the very beginning a certain mark, a ‘factory label’ so to speak: exercises, steps, everything is done according to a certain manner. And this mark remains an obvious feature for their whole career.

MH:  How is the tradition passed on?

PATRICE BART:  There are manuals, but there is also what you might call a system of rotation. Dancers - étoiles or soloists - who retire often continue to work at the School as teachers and there is an automatic transmission from dancer to pupil. It’s in fact a closed circuit.

On the other hand, considering the great classical ballets, there is a definite development. Even if you remain very traditional it is important not to close yourself up completely. For example while Rudolph Nureyev was director here he reworked all the great classics that we still dance today. So there are certain outside influences and it matters to pick out the best of them and integrate them in our own world. It is necessary to have an open view, to keep up with what is going on in the rest of the world. New, contemporary, creations are essential to keep the classical tradition alive.

MH:  Is there any danger that companies are losing their identity because of too many external influences? For example nowadays one can see dancers of a certain company appearing all around the world.

PATRICE BART:  I don’t think so. I was étoile here in this company and in the course of my career I danced many times in other places, yet I never felt I was losing my identity. You keep what you have and you take some supplementary colours, to enrich yourself. Somehow it’s important that you keep your origins and that external influences never become too dominant.

MH:  How did your career as a dancer begin?

PATRICE BART:  My parents adored theatre, opera, ballet, and I was pushed in that same direction. I did some theatre, played the piano, started dancing at ten. I had most affinities with classical ballet, so I naturally choose that direction. The only condition was that I would join the “Ecole de Danse”, because my father wanted me to enter in a precise system. That’s how it all started.

MH:  What were the most memorable moments in your career?

PATRICE BART:   Entering the School is already an important step, as you have to go through a medical examination for your physical aptitude. A small anecdote, the first time I applied I was rejected because they found I had flat feet. Yet, the second time I was accepted, so I guess I didn’t have them anymore, or perhaps there had been a little recommendation which helped (something that existed in those days, but which, I can assure you, is no longer possible today).

Once you entered the School your goal is to join the company, to become a member of the corps de ballet. There are annual examinations at School to make promotion and at that time it was still allowed to join the company at the age of 14 (now the age is 16). So, I was two years at School, jumped a few classes and became a member of the corps de ballet, as second quadrille, at the age of fourteen and a half. (In those days the company’s hierarchy was still more elaborate and at the bottom there were the second and first quadrilles.) Once in the company I participated, again, in the annual competitions until I was promoted premier danseur. In 1969 I competed in the 1st International Competition in Moscow and won gold medal together with Baryshnikov. When I returned, and as a result of this, I obtained my first principal role, Swan Lake, and I was nominated étoile.

MH:  What were your favourite roles?

PATRICE BART:  I danced quite a lot of different ballets, but my all-time favourite is Giselle. The role of Albrecht is so rich and allows such a variety of approaches. My repertory was extensive: the 19th century classics, but also works like Prodigal Son, Petrushka, Rubies. I created some works by Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart, here at the Opéra, worked with Kenneth MacMillan, and so on.

MH:  At one point you became ballet master. Is this a logical step for a dancer?

PATRICE BART:   It’s a logical step, but in fact it only happens very rarely. In my case, I was in my late thirties, Rudolf Nureyev was director and I wanted to give my career a new turn, preferring not to wait for the moment when the final curtain would fall. I discussed it with Rudolf and told him I would be interested to try to supervise some rehearsals. He liked the idea (we knew each other well, since I had been a guest artist with the London Festival Ballet for ten years and had often been involved in his productions) and at that time he wanted to restage his Manfred for the Opera Garnier. He gave me the video and asked me to do it. Actually, it was something of a poisoned gift (the video only showed two thirds of the stage), but he quite liked my work and after the untimely disappearance of Claire Motte, Rudolph proposed me to succeed her as ballet master. That’s how I became his assistant for six years.

After Rudolf left the Opera, Eugène Polyakov and I became directors ad interim for one year. When finally Patrick Dupond became director, I was appointed “Maitre de ballet associé à la direction de la danse”.

MH:  How do you remember Nureyev?

PATRICE BART:   I always had a true passion for Nureyev. Especially for the artist, the character, the magic. As a dancer, I think there were many who were at least as good, if not better than him, but as an artist he was unique and he left an indelible mark on ballet in the 20th century. His influence on classical ballet, sparking off a considerable development of male dancing, that’s beyond any question.

He was a difficult man, very demanding, but also for himself. And you accepted his system or you didn’t. No discussion about it. I did it unequivocally and I always considered him as an example.

When he became director of this company he gave it a new youth. He rebuilt it. The company had been slumbering a bit in those days and Rudolph really gave it the shot of adrenaline it needed. There wasn’t necessarily a shortage of good dancers, of strong personalities then, but as a group the company was rather faceless and Rudolf gave it a new life. And we can still see the result of that today.

MH:  You already mentioned his versions of the classics. What’s the importance of his choreographies?

PATRICE BART:   One may discuss his choreographies of course, but I don’t think we can neglect the fact that while restaging the great classics he also gave them a new life and force. He cleaned them up, he restructured them, he tightened them up – even if I think that some of them are still too long. In my opinion you cannot really talk of a choreographer. But you can talk of a stage director, of sort of a genius of the theatre, an artist with an enormous sense of the theatre, and this passion and feeling he had to rework the great Petipa classics, that remains an enormous achievement. I think that’s beyond any discussion.

If I may talk for myself, everything I learned and realized in my career, I learned from him. Finally, if you see the impressive list of dancers at the Opera, women as well as men, that he groomed and what he obtained from them, that’s not a small accomplishment either.

MH:  After working for some time on other’s productions, you eventually began your own stagings and choreographies of the great classics. How did this step come about and in what exactly consists your own contribution to these well-known ballets?

PATRICE BART:   It was something that occurred quite by accident. I was working with Patricia Ruanne on Nureyev’s Sleeping Beauty for the Staatsoper Berlin. The director of the Staatsoper, Martin Putke, appreciated my work and proposed me to restage Don Quixote for his theatre. At first I was surprised and worried at the same time, because I never had done anything like it. But I started working on it, mainly trying to find what in this production of Don Quixote is still valuable and accessible today. After all, this is an old ballet, without much depth, a bit in operetta style, and so on. What can be kept, what needs to edited, etc? For example the character of Don Quixote is half comical in the ballet and has very little to do with the character created by Cervantes. I tried to find something of that original Don Quixote and at the same time rub out the parts which, to my taste, gave the ballet an old-fashioned air.

So I worked quite a lot on it, re-choreographed parts, and asked the famous Spanish castanet dancer José de Udaeta to mount the Spanish character dances like the fandango, the bolero, which in the existing productions of the ballet are always “in the manner of” and in fact very weak. As a result the ballet had a refreshed and re-energized look.

After this first production I always worked from the same idea: what do I like about this ballet, what is no longer acceptable today, how can we refresh it? This has always been my primary concern.

MH:  For your production of La Bayadère for Munich you reconstructed the last Act.

PATRICE BART:   Yes, I started from scratch as nothing of it survives. I collaborated with a Russian pianist from the Kirov, Maria Babanina, who had found music from that period and I worked in the spirit of the existing choreography. But here too, I tightened up the action, I reduced it to two acts of two scenes each, because I don’t want these ballets to become too long. I don’t particularly like to watch these ballets where all the entractes and scenes are intact.

On the other hand, I try to give the characters more psychological depth. For Swan Lake in Berlin for example, I attributed a lot of importance to the role of the Queen Mother, because I always felt that this character is in most productions neglected. I tried to give her character a logical place in the ballet. This woman, this mother (as there is never a husband in the story), who is almost in love with her son and who exerts an enormous grip on him, deserves more attention.

MH:  I feel you are not a partisan of so-called “authentic” reconstructions like Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty at the Mariinsky Theatre?

PATRICE BART:  First of all, I haven’t seen this production of which I only heard many good things. I feel that you can do this, but under the condition that you really go to the very end. The Kirov had in my opinion all the means available to do this reconstruction. The theatre was in the right position to attempt it. But if you don’t possess these means, notations, documents and so on, when you cannot get close to the original, then it’s another matter.

For me it’s a fact that we can no longer see the “original” on stage now. That’s no longer possible. So either you present your ballet as a museum piece, and consider it as one, or you have to adapt. To adapt - meaning I am part of a traditional house, and I respect the tradition, so I feel that we have to make this tradition come alive. It needs to be rejuvenated continually. We don’t adapt just for the sake of adapting, we don’t revise to play around with the work, yet we try to keep it alive and kicking this way.

We also shouldn’t forget that when reconstructing a ballet, it still has to be performed by dancers with bodies and training completely different from the original artists. And, finally, who is going to tell us what “authentic” is? Even when you are studying this and you have all the documents in your possession, there is still a huge question to be solved. I remember that after I won the competition in Moscow I was invited to perform Swan Lake and Giselle in several Russian theatres, Kirov, Bolshoi, Kiev… and they all pretended to posses the original version, yet in fact they were all different.

There is no question that you can do whatever you like with the classics. But if you understand the tradition and if you grasp the structure and the reason behind it, you can rejuvenate, you can adapt without being unfaithful.

Are there any particular problems to mount classical ballets today? Do the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet still warm for these ballets?

PATRICE BART:  Yes, because dancers who join the “Ecole de Danse” here, join it with the idea of dancing Giselle and Swan Lake one day. Afterwards there is a certain opening when they become acquainted with new trends and work with contemporary choreographers. But their starting point is classical ballet. If it would only be the classics, I think they would grow tired of it, but since there is a lot of variety in our repertory, it doesn’t happen and they always return to the classics with pleasure.

MH:  So it isn’t a problem to switch from Petipa to Forsythe?

PATRICE BART:  Not at all, for it keeps the dancers on their toes. And if the programming is done in an intelligent way, one will nourish the other. There is no way that a dancer tackles Forsythe in the afternoon and dances Swan Lake the same evening. But if he returns to Swan Lake after having danced Forsythe some months earlier, there is a whole new feeling and approach. On the other hand the classical rigorousness gives Forsythe a kind of beauty and polish. To say nothing against Forsythe’s own dancers, but they lack that classical meticulousness, which gives these contemporary choreographies a truly particular look. This openness is really one of the most remarkable qualities of our company.

It remains however important to approach this mixed programming with a lot of care. We had a season here once where the two Giselles, the traditional one and the version by Mats Ek were shown alternatively. We didn’t know how this would work out, but it was an interesting experience as there was a cross-pollination.

MH:  Do you still believe in emploi?

PATRICE BART:   It is respected less and less. I would be the first to remind that we need proper coaching and that the colour of the work needs to be preserved, but on the other hand, what I would call “contre-emploi” can be revealing and bring out completely new aspects of a role. I think we have understood the success of it.

An artist can incarnate a character, but at the same time he can also mould it to his own personality and give it a personal touch. If an artist is perfectly able to do this, once again with all respect for tradition and work, it transcends the limits of emploi.

To give one example, Agnès Letestu, who debuted here as Giselle not so long ago. If we would strictly have followed the rules of emploi (physically she is better suited for Myrtha), she would never have danced Giselle. But her interpretation brought out something moving and very personal. It was interesting what she did with it.

So, in fact it is limiting if a company sticks too much to emploi. Nice opportunities to find new aspects in a certain role will be lost. No question of doing no matter what of course, and there still needs to be a line of conduct, but it shouldn’t be too restrictive.

MH:  Does classical ballet still have a future in the 21st century?

PATRICE BART:   Classical ballet doesn’t stand mediocrity. It needs the best possible treatment. There is a lot of arguing about this here in France, where for instance it is often deplored that there is just the Paris Opera Ballet as true classical company – OK there is Bordeaux, Marseille, but still that’s not really the same. Yet, is it a such good thing that “second-rate” companies bring classical ballet in a mediocre way? I think that this is precisely what causes a lot of harm to classical ballet. In my opinion it is preferable to have a few great companies, which act as guardians of these ballets and bring them in the best possible way. That’s how we can save classical ballet. On the other hand allowing everybody, no matter who, to have a hand in it, is a dangerous situation. That’s how I see this question. What I say is may be considered restrictive, but isn’t it better to do it less and in the best possible way, than often and only so so? It’s something we need to think about.

Also, one cannot ignore the fact that our classical productions sell out. One has a right to question whether ballet has a future, but there are still evidences. Many people nowadays want to see classical ballet. The company sometimes performs in Opéra Garnier and Opéra Bastille at the same time, and both houses are sold out. We bring every production 15 or 20 times and it works. And it’s not a unique case. You have it in all cities where there is an important company.

MH:  What makes an étoile?

PATRICE BART:   At the base you have a certain physique, a technique, and artistic qualities. But on top of that there are certain exceptional qualities, small things which make a huge difference. It’s extremely subtle. It may be stage presence, aura, sometimes it’s hard to put into words, it’s what you may feel when you see a dancer. In any way there must be something particular.

In my own case for instance, at the beginning people were saying I could never be an étoile, because I was too small. And it was true, but even with my small stature I managed to be a danseur étoile. So there was something that largely compensated for my handicap. It is really a very personal characteristic, which makes that in this company of 154 dancers there are only 6 female étoiles and 6 male étoiles.

MH:  What do you think of young dancers just out of school being cast as Giselle or Odette?

PATRICE BART:   Yes, that is a tendency in many companies nowadays, in Russia for sure. If they dance it, it means they can do it, technically. However, I have never seen a convincing Giselle younger than 30 or 35. Is it useful to try out these roles when dancers are so young? It depends of the ballet, I guess. But basically I don’t believe in these precocious experiences. Most of these roles need a good deal of maturity and experience of life. Classical ballets offer plenty of opportunities for young dancers to acquire experience and afterwards they can try the principal roles. But they need time, they need to digest. Some people develop really late. Physical and mental development is different for each individual. There is no general rule for it. Not to mention the dangers of these early experiences. They may harm physically and mentally. Bad experiences can be detrimental for the rest of a dancer’s life. When a dancer is not really ready, it can destroy his career.

MH:  Are there dancers you particularly admire besides Nureyev?

PATRICE BART:   I have always admired Baryshnikov, particularly for his openness, this eternal search of his for other means of expression. I wouldn’t say to last longer, as I don’t think that’s his purpose, but this eternal desire to find new challenges. Not many dancers are able to do this. They stop dancing and try to find a new job. Yet Baryshnikov keeps on developing.

I knew Yvette Chauviré very well, she was one of our truly great ballerinas, the incarnation of French ballet. There was Noëlla Pontois, with whom I had the pleasure to dance.

I think that nowadays, as in all artistic branches, you have many good dancers, but this “myth” of the dancer has gone. These myths are often made by the public and this phenomenon seems to have faded.

MH:  Talking about myths, why are there no longer famous partnerships like in the old days with Fonteyn-Nureyev, Maximova-Vasiliev,…?

PATRICE BART:   There is less and less a desire for this. In a great company it’s not practical to form partnerships between two dancers. Moreover, I don’t believe in the systematic pairing of dancers. Dancers who are used to the same partner all of the sudden obtain different results when paired with somebody else. I feel that if two dancers always dance together the magic tends to disappear quickly. Of course when you have two exceptionally gifted artists like Fonteyn and Nureyev this won’t be the case, but with ‘lesser artists’ it is better for them if they can change dancing partners every now and then. It gives them new blood.

In this respect we tend to avoid forming couples. It happens, but we found that it is more rewarding not to limit them to always the same partner.

Even between partners who don’t know each other well, or who never danced together, something interesting might happen. It takes a certain effort and openness to understand and help each other. Sometimes it doesn’t work and it needs to be corrected, but that’s part of our responsibility.

MH:  What are your plans for the future?

PATRICE BART:   I just finished to mount a new Giselle for the Staatsoper Berlin. It was initially meant for Steffi Scherzer, who thinks of retiring so it was meant to be her farewell performance, but unfortunately she got injured during the rehearsals, so it was Margaret Illman who danced the first night. It was a good experience, with Peter Farmer who created the sets.

I am also planning a Romeo and Juliet, again for the Staatsoper, as I have a contract to mount a new production per year until 2002. And there is also a project for the Paris Opera here, for 2003, but this is still an open question.

 

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