Hugo Marchand, probably the most famous of the stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, or étoiles, stares bare-chested and muscled from the cover of his new memoir “Danser” (Arthaud), released last month in France.
Marchand, 27, seems a little young to have written an autobiography. Although he climbed to the top quickly – at 23 he was an étoile, the highest rank in the company – he still has a whole career ahead of him. And from the outside, his life looks like a lighthearted string of accomplishments, confirmed by critics and audiences who love his poetry, virtuosity, acting skills and leading man looks.
Then why a book now? Marchand asked the same question when an editor approached him three years ago. “I had a lot of doubts, but the editor told me she wanted to hear the voice of a young person talking about following your passion and what the cost of doing it,” he said in a video interview from his Paris apartment.
As it turned out, he had a lot to talk about. In “Danser” (“to dance”) Marchand (with the help of a journalist, Caroline de Bodinat) describes the strenuous, competitive world of the Parisian opera ballet school and company, often with poetic intensity, and lets the reader into his claustrophobic boundaries.
He also writes movingly about his own struggles with self-acceptance. At 6 feet 3 and a naturally muscular build, he felt too tall and too tall for the fine-boned Paris Opera ideal, and his career was marked by self-doubt and visits by stage fright. And he goes, albeit frivolously, on the tricky politics of the past few years at the Paris Opera Ballet: Benjamin Millepied’s brief tenure as director, Aurélie Dupont’s current reign, an internal report from 2018 on the dissatisfaction of the dancers.
Marchand and other opera dancers have been able to give daily lessons and rehearsals since June, although performances have been restricted. Marchand also worked on a project, a pas de deux with Hannah O’Neill (an opera ballet colleague) for Gagosian Premieres – a series of filmed collaborations between visual artists and artists from other disciplines. The film, which will be released online on March 23, plays in a series of giant Anselm Kiefer paintings now on view in the Le Bourget grounds of the gallery in Paris.
Kiefer, who was present during the filming, described the relationship between the dancers and the arts as “a happy and wonderful interface”. In a video interview, he said, “It was as if the dancers came out of the paintings and wrote fleeting lines in the air,” adding that the images “are fleeting too; They are never finished, nor in action, and the dancers make it so clear. “
Marchand spoke about the Gagosian Project, the Paris Opera’s latest report on diversity and the ambition to dance in New York. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What attracted you to the Gagosian piece?
I’ve always wanted to work with other artists and bring other artistic disciplines into play. Hannah and I asked Florent Melac, a friend of ours in the Corps de Ballet, how we liked his choreography. He chose the music, Steve Reich’s “Duet”. I like the way it repeats and brings together Kiefer’s work that uses recycled and repetitive materials. We were lucky enough to meet Anselm Kiefer and I was very touched and moved by the paintings.
Are there any other projects or ambitions you would like to pursue?
I’ve always wanted to explore another house, dance with other companies. I would love to come to New York and perform with the New York City Ballet or the American Ballet Theater. I’m very interested in the American style of ballet, how fast and efficient it is, how well people move. But we cannot even cross the borders in Europe at the moment. Maybe one day!
Benjamin Millepied encouraged and promoted you during his tenure. After he left, Aurélie Dupont came in and there seemed to be a lot of dissatisfaction in the company. How did you feel back then?
When Benjamin arrived it was a breath of fresh air. What was crazy was that these rules, which hadn’t moved in years, suddenly changed. We could dream of having roles even if we weren’t of the “right” age or rank. He paid me so much attention; As an artist, I would have done anything for him. I switched from understudy to soloist in the two years he was there, and when Aurélie arrived I was concerned.
Why? And how is your relationship now
Ballet is a matter of taste; It is not because one director liked you that the next will. But Aurélie made me an étoile six months later, which changed my life.
She has ideas for a long term career, and that can be frustrating when you have specific roles to dance to. Sometimes she’ll think it’s too early. But she has the experience of a long career; At the Paris Opera you have to be a long-term solo dancer because you usually stay there until you retire at 42.
An internal survey in 2018 that was released to the press revealed a high level of dissatisfaction with the company. In your book you speak about it very neutrally. Did you identify yourself with some of the issues you encountered?
I was shocked and sad when the internal survey came out. Aurélie hadn’t been there long and it was unfair to burden her with long-term issues like harassment or bullying. The survey should have helped the institution grow and improve, but it had the opposite effect.
What do you think of the opera’s latest commission of inquiry into racism and its conclusions?
The report indicated that changes must be made from the start. that we need to send the message, you are black, asian, mixed race, whatever and you should come to the paris opera ballet school if you have the ability. This message has not yet been delivered, but the report means they will be working on it. The company must look like French society, and in a few years it will be.
In your book you vividly describe the training of the Paris Opera Ballet School – the ranking, the competitiveness, the desperate desire to join the company. Are you critical of the system at all?
Being a good ballet dancer isn’t about being good in the studio. It’s about being able to do your best at the right moment in the performance. The system is violent, but it helps you understand this very early on. Of course, it is very stressful to face competitions and exams at a very young age. But it gives you the guns for the moment you need them.
Once in the company, is the annual advertising contest a continuation of that idea?
When you join the company, annual competition plays an important role because for the first year or so you don’t dance at all, you’ll be in luck if you ever get on stage. The competition gives you a specific goal and reason to work and improve every day. There is some luck and chance; Two minutes on stage determine your fate for the next year. But here, too, it’s about doing your best at the right moment.
And I believe that ultimately people get where they need to. Ballet is about talent, a lot of work, the right body type – but also about dying to appear on stage. This is my best talent: I love ballet so much that I could die for it.