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Interview with Elisabeth Maurin
(Principal, Paris Opera Ballet)
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Most of the text of the interview below appeared in German, on August 30th 1995, in Neue Solidaritet (Dr. Böttiger Verlag).
Interiewer: Katharine Kanter
Q/ A dancer today is expected to be a Jack-of-all-Trades. Can it be done ?
A/ What makes it tough, is to go from classical to contemporary, within so tight a time- frame, and without being allowed the space, first to absorb the style, and then to calmly return to one’s classical foundations. That being said, contemporary does bring one something, one learns to make one’s movements breathe, it’s almost more natural, something one cannot understand if one knows nothing of contemporary dance.
Q/ What about the sky-rocketing accident rate over the past fifteen or so years ?
A/ The age we live in holds SPEED, and ever more speed at that, to be of the essence, and to a degree, that certain values have fallen by the wayside. Everything has got to be done "yesterday", people want to see new faces, technology moves ahead at such a clip, that even artists are caught up in it. There is, furthermore, an increasing trend towards alternating classical, with contemporary works, and that may be a cause of accidents.
Although we do try to take our physical abilities as far as possible, there is, Alas ! a limit to what the body can do !
Again, the canon today, calls for extreme slenderness, to the point of skinny. One might perhaps ask whether this be in fact natural ? And whether perhaps wrong-headed or unbalanced diets, be truly compatible with intense physical effort ? And whether this might not be a factor in the increasingly-high accident rate ?
We’re called upon to be ever-more technical. I sometimes feel that in the profession, there is no-one left, really, who, FIRST AND FOREMOST, thinks it’s got to have a soul, they’re more absorbed by the spectacular side of things.
Could someone explain to me why, in Lifar’s day, for example, people felt so strongly about it all, that at midnight, after the Opera had been locked up for the evening, they’d meet in a studio to go over it again, until the wee hours of the morning. Or take the Ballets de Marseille, with Joseph Lazzini, where they’d be working until four or five in the morning, because the choreographer had an inspiration, and no-one complained. When the older dancers tell you about that, you can see that they lived through moments of great joy. Can you imagine telling people now, WE’VE GOT TO WORK UNTIL FOUR AM ? Something tells me that would be simply IMPOSSIBLE .
There must have been an idealistic cast of mind, which has gone straight out the window. And I’m the first to admit it - how ever did they do it ? Although, perhaps, there was not the same accent on technique, they must have been looking for something that lay more in the realm of art !
I find it hard to believe that things were ever that way ! Was it the spirit of the times ? All I can say is that nowadays, in so many areas, one no longer feels that sort of enthusiasm, but rather, that one is slogging away at one’s WORK.
As for the general climate, the society around and about us, I must say it doesn’t make things easier !
Q/ Your morphology is not precisely the height of balletic fashion !
A/ Quite ! I feel as though I’d slipped through the net ! Not always an easy thing, that ! I’m happy to set an example, relative to the current mind-set, the mould, where one is supposed to have proportions that are just so, and be like this, and have that, because I think that in our profession, there is no one single truth, but TRUTHS. I don’t go along with teachers who say, "do it this way, there’s simply no other way, I have got it all figured out".
One has got to keep one’s mind open. Each dancer has a different morphology, even when one is faced with people who appear to have the same exact height, the same legs, or whatever, beneath the surface, no-one is made quite like anyone else. If I ever do come to teach, I’d like to think hard on every individual, and help them, and try to understand why one fellow just cannot do a certain thing, whereas, another can, and why ?
At the moment, things have got to be SPEEDY, I can’t help bringing up that word SPEED, things have got to move along smartly, there’s no time for black sheep; come along now, everyone in step, move on, we’ve all got to do the same thing, Rightie-Ho !
Fine, of course I can understand that one might aspire to have an ideal corps de ballet, everyone with the same height, the same proportions, and nevertheless, I do believe that if I, or some other leading people at the Opéra, were to come up today, I doubt the Opera School would take us !
Q/ Is the public very much affected by mass media and television ?
A/ As to the impact of television, and the fad for gymnastics, to my mind, classical ballet is, at the end of the day, something for the connoisseur, for people who know something about the form. Some would have it be a popular art form. Well, it IS a universal language, but IT IS NOT A POPULAR ART FORM. The public, I think, has got to be educated. I’m lucky, in that I’m solid, and have a strong technique, but frankly, I’ve no interest whatsoever in displaying it, no ambitions whatsoever on that level.
Q/ How do you see your audience ?
A/ What matters the most to me, is what happens during the performance. There are days when one cannot get out of one’s own self, and go out into the public, but it’s not entirely one’s own fault ! I believe that it’s an exchange, and sometimes that happens, sometimes not. How very rare are those performances where one comes off, thinking "Perfect !" and what I mean by that, is, that although it may not have been truly "perfect", there was nonetheless a coherence between WHAT ONE ACTUALLY DID, AND WHAT ONE FELT. Such rare instants are a gift from the Gods, in a manner of speaking.
In our profession, one is very much alone. One must study what lies within oneself, without the aid of words, one must seek within the depths of one’s being, and in that search, one is indeed alone. Moreover, due to competition, one doesn’t easily make friends - although I must say that here, at the Opéra, there is a kind of family feeling, we are all brothers and sisters.
The loneliness in this profession is a heavy burden to bear. No room for cheating, no tricks, no riding the wave of self-delusion.
Q/ On stage, the POB is perhaps not the most harmonious unit on the planet...
A/ I’ve always been bowled over by the Russian troupes ! They all seem to breathe at a single instant, and to sing the music to one another. Is it the Russian way of thinking, the fact that they are born dancers, born artists - which, I have to admit, we Frenchmen definitely are not ? And the Danes - they know how to build up an ensemble, a mass. Whereas in France, we’ll try to get results by means that cannot properly be described as artistic, you know: "Put your little foot right there on the line, dear" or by tracing lines on the floor... What a mystery ! I’ve got to the point of wondering whether it might not have something to do with genes...
Q/ Where are we headed ?
A/ In this country, all the ballet schools, save for the Paris Opera, are in deep trouble. I know of schools where, a decade ago, there were 150 students, and where they’re but ten or fifteen now.
The reason is, first and foremost, the economic crisis, as parents know full well that there is little work in the profession. And, more importantly, I believe, the impact of television, video and whatever goes along with all that - gymnastics, clubs where the little girl does what they call "movement classes" (expression corporelle), the parents "stretching", and the little boy, judo. People are less and less willing to undergo any form of suffering. They’ve got in a habit of escaping into FACILITY.
Because classical dancing involves great suffering.
Kids today entertain themselves with video games. We are living through an epoch where people have UNLEARNT TO DREAM. Although I am only thirty-two years old, I feel the very weight of my responsibility, towards those generations coming into the profession right now, in an environment that cannot be said to be much of an encouragement to art, because I would like to instil into them my own enthusiasm, and, in the final analysis, the joy that, despite it all, I do experience.
Q/ You knew Rudolf Nureyev well ?
A/ Rudolf Nureyev was a figure who was decisive for the last part of the century, and that will remain.
I owe him a great deal. Apart from the fact that it was he, who appointed me Danseuse Etoile, he was vital to my artistic development, from the very moment I joined the corps de ballet of the Paris Opéra.
Thanks to his vast knowledge of the universe of the dance, he enriched us all with his own idea of the truth: upright behaviour, daily discipline, and humility towards our art. No slaggards !
Thus, some claimed he was totalitarian. The truth is, that he was not on the same wave-length as his dancers. Indeed, he seemed to inhabit another world. That may go some way to explain why there were misunderstandings, and why cabals were mounted against him. He overcame all that, but at what inner cost ? For my part, I shall never tire of expressing my gratitude, and of saying, that I did love him.