15 November 2003
Published in Russia on November 15th 2003
and in Germany on December 15th 2003
Over the past decade, as everyone who attends performances by the Paris Opera Ballet on even an irregular basis is well aware, a bizarre controversy has arisen in respect of an individual who would, by any normal standards, be called a genius, a controversy that has spilt over into the trade press, and even into the daily newspapers, as we shall shortly see.
First, a brief biography taken from the press, since, never having met the individual in question, I know nothing more.
Emmanuel Thibault is a Frenchman, born in 1974. After early classes with Max Bozzoni, he entered the French National Theatre’s School, where he was educated. At the age of fifteen, if I recall aright, he was admitted into the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the world’s leading ensembles.
He thereupon won a string of events (Silver Medal, Concours international de Paris, 1990, Gold, Eurovision Competition, Helsinki, 1991; Silver, Varna, date unknown) rising, by 1991 or 1992, to the rank of sujet, a soloist title under that of premier danseur. And there he has remained ever since, dancing, to a standard that beggars description, every night in the corps de ballet, all the while studying with Noella Pontois.
Since 1998, M. Thibault has presented himself at the annual internal Concours, for promotion to the rank of principal dancer, known in France as premier danseur. He has never been promoted.
How the matter has come to press notice at all, is something of a miracle, as especial care seems to be taken that M. Thibault never be set down to dance at a première, when reporters would normally attend, and - shades of the Non-Person, back in the old USSR - his likeness will rarely, if ever, appear in a programme brochure. But, given the very dominant role played by the Paris Opera Ballet in the art world, come to international attention it certainly has, and, to give one the flavour:
Scandal At the Concours de L’Opera
"The case of Emmanuel Thibault (...) who, for the past three years, has found his path to the position of premier danseur blocked off. Each and every year, he has been the best of the Concours, and each and every year, he has not been promoted. Yet again, this past Wednesday (...) he shewed himself to be extraordinary. Light years above everyone else. Virtuoso, light, musical, catlike, frolicking through the most devilish technical problems. Such ease astounded even the professionals. And this time, we hoped against hope that he would at last be promoted.(...) Tears were shed, of rage and injustice. Two other people were promoted (...) good dancers, of course, but the performance they put in at the Concours was well below that of Thibault...."
A. Bavelier, in Le Figaro, February 28th 2001
"(....) Thibault in the taxing male role [Pas de trois - "Paquita"] which demands a perfection of technique beyond the reach of most, was simply stupendous. Nijinsky himself who danced the role in 1907 could have wished for no better substitute. Thibault, light, quick, neat, aerial, with giant leaps in immaculate style where he hung in the air, is now one of the finest dancers of his generation in the world."
P. Boccadoro on "Pierre Lacotte and Paquita", in Culturkiosque, February 20th 2003
Critics’ choice" for Best Dancer 2002/2003 in virtually everything he dances - his promotion to premier danseur is long overdue."
E. Manning, Dance Europe, October 2003
"(...) the man soars as if suspended by an invisible string or lifted by silent gusts of a benevolent wind, and because he carries himself beautifully up there. Back on the ground he knows how to modulate accents without making them look strained, he gives full shape to his pirouettes, while his port de bras draw wonderfully clean arcs and lines around his centre.
In a company of outstanding artists, Thibault is one of a handful of Princes of Dance (...)° and the only one with such a superlative gift and outstanding facility for classical ballet dancing."
Alexander Meinertz, in DanceView (Washington, October 20th 2003)
"M. Emmanuel Thibault, that extraordinarily brilliant soloist (...) has still not been promoted premier danseur. Yet again, he is paying a high price for his particular physical constitution, one better suited to the very rigorous demands that classical academic dance calls for, than to fashion shows (...) where Karl Paquette and Jérémie Belingard, the two youths who were promoted, would most certainly not look out of place."
Bérengère Alfort, in Les Saisons de la danse, July 2001
And from a letter, amongst many expressing the like concern, sent to the present writer by a foreign dancer with whom I am quite unacquainted:
"(...) I am a ballet dancer, and, for years now, have been following this man’s work; in addition to having a technique that is impeccable to a most exceptional degree, he is the only one, who is able to get across what is the dance: an art, not a sport."
The French National Theatre’s Management has never made an official statement as to why the gentleman "cannot" be promoted. Unofficially, to infer that a man who is roughly five-foot ten be "tiny" does rather strike one as an overstatement. What else has filtered down from Mount Olympus, is that he is felt to be a "trouble-maker" because of a bloody-minded concern with rigorous classicism.
Now, you thought that the Paris Opera was a "rigorously classical" troupe, did you ?
The cocktail-party company
Under the combined influence of the tastes of Claude Bessy (musical comedy), Head of the school for a quarter-century, and Brigitte Lefevre (Post-Modern Art), who has run the company for just under a decade, the Paris Opera has gone down the primrose path to the hell of Body Worship. The majority of the troupe’s dancers are now tall, fair-haired, remarkably good-looking, and endowed with tendril-like, serpentine limbs and hyper-extended feet. That there be no scientific basis for asserting that so photogenic a physical constitution might fit one for the classical dance as an art form, is deemed irrelevant. That what a dancer have in his mind, might be equally, or more important, than a fetching face or figure, still more irrelevant.
A "cocktail-party company" perhaps, people who look terrific tinkling glasses and exchanging sweet nothings with the diplomatic corps ...
The gentleman under discussion here, is a great artist. It is not quite the same thing.
People who take an interest in the classical theatre, in general, would not care to dispute that the art of classical dancing is indeed a rigorously scientific discipline, one that calls for mastery over a number of highly technical and complex elements. What differentiates, however, the high-level professional, from the truly creative ?
First and foremost, the ability to "debate" with the compositional ideas in classical music.
Professional musicians are wont to cringe and cover their eyes in the ballet: Dancers come down, but only very roughly, on the beat. The more skilful and graceful have some sense of melody, and will, through their dancing, "sing", rather pleasantly, a melodic line in their dancing.
Only a few, rare individuals, go down onto the stage with the actual musical text in their head. They are NOT dancing squarely on the beat, and they are NOT emphasising the purely melodic aspects of the text. They are engaged with the music, they hold ironic conversation with the conductor, playing with rubato - discreetly - and syncopation - discreetly ! They cast the mind forward to the onrushing musical events, and anticipate them, one night pointing to certain of the score’s features, and another night - unexpectedly - to others. A musical surprise, that nonetheless always strikes one as right.
All professionals have a developed ability to produce, by an act of the will, precise geometrical shapes. This is what the notion of "Line" in the ballet, refers to.
In a great artist, like the gentleman who is the subject of this article, beauty of line is actually a musical concept of a higher order, the domain where ideas in a most abstract form, can be conveyed without the use of words. That is why when people note, let us say, the attitude, or the arabesque, of such people, it strikes them as the true and original form of that figure, non pareil. It is sober, it is terse, it has become the essence of the IDEA behind that figure. But those geometrical forms are not perceived "silently". Thus - and this really is most peculiar, it is Unheimlich, most eerie, the image of the step calls up the precise passage in the music, even in a score that one had not heard before. In infinite profusion, these geometrical forms are generated, countless in number and of imperishable beauty, and to a degree, that long after a performance, one will still be rehearsing them in one’s mind. One is no longer dealing with "steps, to music". It has crossed over the border, to become a fully-integrated work of art.
A different Principle of Motion
Aided by his professors, the gentleman has been working on a principle of motion quite unlike that employed by his colleagues here, viz., to engage épaulement in every step. This principle, that allows one to accede to a seemingly-mysterious level of prowess, has, in the main, fallen into disuse over the past thirty years.
A striking manifestation is an unbroken, soaring trajectory from one end of the variation to the other, even where the most complex terre à terre alternates with steps of great elevation. The flow of the steps is never, for one moment, broken off, no matter how complex the batterie, how unexpected the occurrence of a pirouette - the staccato, "hiccupping" quality of the discrete step has been swept away, by taking the enchaînement as though it were a single, thorough-composed poem.
This is a study, it is NOT natural. It is come, first, by a developed capacity to work harder than anyone else, and second, by conceptualising the relations between the steps, the "in-betweenness" of those steps, as a single musical phrase.
While reserved, and entirely free from the animal-like exhibitionism that has wrecked so many in the profession, perhaps the most telling aspect of the man’s work, is a deep and unquenchable optimism.
Those who have not seen such dancing, might not believe it were possible.
In this writer’s view, the turning point was in 1998. I would ask the reader to peruse these lines:
"The Spectre de la Rose was danced - magnificently - by Elisabeth Maurin and Emmanuel Thibault. The spectre - a true enchantment. Elisabeth Maurin, her eyes half-closed, a delicate, touching sleepwalker, was poetry itself. Each of her gestures, without a hint of preciosity, is true, telling, and withal, veiled in grace. In the presence of Emmanuel Thibault, one forgets that this is a human being of flesh and blood. Supple, riding the airs, he carries off with subtlety and without (apparent) effort, the role’s technical feats. Nary a sound as he alights from a jump or a perilously off-balance double tour en l’air. With light arms and an intriguing smile, silence rhymes with seduction as he suavely traces the Labyrinth of Love, an ideal echo of Gautier’s poem. Beautifully restaged [by Pierre Lacotte], this short ballet has taken on afresh, the aura of a masterpiece."
Sylvie Chaban, in Danse Conservatoire, February 1998
That performance created an absolute sensation in the very closed world of the ballet.
Might I ask you to imagine how the more ungenerous amongst the gentleman’s colleagues and rivals, may have reacted ? Or what course of action they may, whether consciously or unconsciously, have resolved upon ?
Prometheus, and his wayward creatures
In all sorts of areas, history tends to show that where an individual of undisputed ability is "got at" for refusing to play the game by the rules, it is the system, and not the individual, which has gone glaringly wrong. The case of that individual thus automatically becomes a principled one, of wider concern.
Why of wider concern ?
When, at long last, one comes across a genius, and frightening as that encounter may initially be, one has met up with the hard-core of the art form. As one sees with the review cited above of Le Spectre de la Rose, such individuals unleash poetry amongst the cognoscenti, while they spur others on to action in the outside world. The public, to whom the ballet had theretofore been a pleasant, if tepid, pass-time, suddenly sits up and takes notice. Lightning strikes, as they realise that there are ideas in the ballet, which may lead to the more general conclusion that ideas may be important, indeed, worth one’s passionate involvement.
Many would give their heart’s blood to have the privilege of working with such a fellow, and, who knows ! perhaps learn something ! The duty upon Management is to foster genius, not snuff it out, nor are the laws of morality confined to the world outwith the theatre. In choosing to make a terrible example of Emmanuel Thibault, the Influentials are actually making a terrible example of themselves.
Emmanuel Thibault is now 28 or 29 years of age. Non-dancers may not realise how dreadfully serious that is, but dancers retire at the age of forty, and many retire by the age of thirty-five.
Therefore, we cannot wear little white gloves about this. Boxing gloves would be more in order, actually.
Somewhere in the labyrinth of the Opera Garnier, the Influentials are playing for time. The company now boasts two or three tall, very pretty youths ten years younger than M. Thibault, and hope is no doubt cherished in some quarters that the latter may, for whatever reason, crack up under the pressure, and retire from the stage before his day, the aforesaid youths being brought on in the meantime, to distract the gaze of a fickle public.
Do not punish the art form ! At the end of the day, it is not the artist who is being punished - one cannot "punish" a genius ! and, clearly, he has a sense of mission, and will go ahead regardless - but rather the art form itself, that, in these rather dire times the world is struggling through, has a crying need for individuals of this stature.
Mark this ! If the Game be played with one, it will be played with many. In the interest of the profession, and above all, in the public interest, the Game cannot, and must not, be allowed to go on.
In his film on Maître Serge Peretti (The Last of the Italians), Dominique Delouche has cast M. Thibault in the opening scene (Tambourin). In the Paris Opera DVD of Pierre Lacotte’s Paquita, the gentleman dances the role once taken by Nijinskii, in the Act I Pas de Trois.
Published in Russia on November 15th 2003