Interview with Laurent Hilaire, étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet
by Marc Haegeman
Tall, exotically handsome, exuding a Latin-tinged virile charm, the magnetic Laurent Hilaire - "Laurent le Magnifique" as he was dubbed by the French press, hinting at the famous Florentine Renaissance prince - has been a leading dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet for almost twenty-five years. He entered the Ecole de Danse de l'Opéra in 1975 and joined the Paris Opera Ballet in 1980 at eighteen. He was nominated étoile in 1985, following a performance of Swan Lake. As is becoming for an étoile of the Paris Opera his repertory is huge and extremely varied, his flexibility and responsiveness all but unlimited.
As all Parisian dancers of his generation Hilaire's career has from the start been strongly coloured by the presence of Rudolf Nureyev who ran the company between 1983 and 1989. "One experiences many things in life", Hilaire explains. "There are those one sees, and there are those one is prepared to see. An encounter always has two parties who are prepared to meet each other. When Nureyev arrived at the Opera there was a generation already waiting for him to come. Rudolf didn't make French ballet, but he was the detonator, the revealing force."
In this interview, Laurent Hilaire, eloquent and passionate, and with that paradoxical but quite characteristic Parisian mix of self-awareness and modesty, speaks about his career, the Paris Opera Ballet, reminisces about Nureyev, and looks toward the future.
In last year's Paris Opera Gala dedicated to Rudolf Nureyev you danced Le chant du compagnon errant, a ballet by Béjart created for Nureyev in 1971. It became a signature piece of his and also in 1990 his final dance performance at the Palais Garnier. In short, a most fitting homage. But then again, Nureyev means a great deal to you?
When we speak about the Gala for Rudolf, we speak about the past - unfortunately. When Rudolf became director, I was just twenty. So in fact he arrived at the moment when I most needed it. Twenty is really a crucial moment in the career of a dancer. In a sense it's a turning point. It presents the final moment when you can really build a dancer before he achieves a certain completion, decisive for the future.
I had met Rudolf a couple of years earlier, though, when I was following lessons with Alexandre Kalioujny, who was at the time the teacher of the étoiles at the Opera - a fantastic master. Rudolf was mounting a performance in Paris, in the Palais des Sports or some other venue, and for a whole month he came to take class. It was in a very small room upstairs, under the roof of the Opera house. One day, all of the sudden Rudolf arrived, wearing his bonnet and his big dressing gown, a thermos of tea in his hand, and very, very focused. He glanced at the class and I started thinking - provided he doesn't take place right next to me. And that's exactly what he did.
The whole time I had the impression that one can never hide from these piercing eyes of his. He really scanned right through you. Not only did you feel completely analysed as a dancer, technically and academically, but I guess he was also able to read your mind, to look inside your soul. It wasn't an easy thing to withstand. I was eighteen or so and I found it hard to face this enormous charisma. For a whole month, every day I had to say to myself: "No, I'm going to stay. I'm not giving up!" He must have noticed that I was somebody who resisted, who held firm, and I guess it was then that he kind of "discovered" me.
He returned one year later as director of the company. He immediately gave me a leading role - Frantz in Coppélia. He arrived in September 1983 and in October Elisabeth Maurin and I were already dancing Coppélia at the Champs-Elysées. It was my first ballet. Yet to give you an idea of the working atmosphere with Rudolf, I can tell you that when I was busy with Coppélia at the same time he was reviving Raymonda with other dancers. OK, it was my first major role and although it is only a two-act ballet, it took all my time and energy to prepare it. When I arrived the day after my performance at the rehearsal of Raymonda, I found out he had cast me for the opening night with Manuel Legris as the two friends Bernard and Béranger. He looked at me and said: "Hilaire, Legris - Ber-Ber!" (as he amusedly called us). I must have been uttering in amazement that I didn't know the role, for he looked back, his nostrils curled, saying: "Tomorrow you will know it, or you will never dance it again." Well, I can assure you that the following day I knew the role. As you can tell, from the beginning everything was crystal clear with Rudolf. To work with Rudolf you needed to have perspicacity, acuteness, speed and efficiency. Everything had to be focused on the essence. And the essence was to learn the steps, and to do them.
In a way it's easy to work this way - provided one can handle it.
It worked. But I guess it worked, because I was ready for it. I didn't ask myself any questions. I had (between quotation marks) "the willpower" to go on, and that's exactly what happened. Others may have stopped with Raymonda, but I jumped on the train while it was moving. I guess if anyone of us ever had started questioning, or sat back to reconsider, it would have been too late - no time for it, the train would have been gone. This metier is marked by a kind of urgency. One has to move on, for obvious reasons - physical and mental maturity are hard to match - and move on fast. I definitely learned this aspect of urgency from Rudolf.
You have danced with Nureyev too?
Yes, I danced Le chant du compagnon errant with him. I remember he called me the 31st of December, telling me I had to learn Le chant du compagnon errant, The Moor's pavane from José Limon, and Two Brothers. I asked, "OK, Rudolf, for when?" - "Tomorrow", he replied. "You go back to the Opera, take a cassette, and tomorrow, 1st of January there is performance". And that's what I did. I worked until 5 in the morning. Don't ask me how, but I was able to dance the three works the next day.
I guess from the moment you start thinking: "That's not possible. How on earth am I ever going to accomplish this?"- it's already a lot harder. You really needed the ability to react in those situations. But then again, you start to realize how important this is in a performance. What makes a character on stage interesting? What makes the interplay between two dancers exciting? What makes them living characters? It's precisely this ability to respond to an occurring situation. We are not little metronomes, constantly taken by surprise by the first event not figuring in the book. This acuteness, this all-embracing look on your character, as much as on the whole stage, these are absolutely essential to breathe life in a performance, and to draw the audience into the performance.
I also learned from Rudolf that the stage is an extraordinary square, a magic square, which you have to experience in an extraordinary way. We are not there on stage to show the daily life, but we need to transmit something exceptional to the public. People come to the theatre to have a break from daily life. They want to dream, they want to share emotions with us, they want to love with us. Yet in order to have the public on your side you need to attain something which has a universal value. And when you are aware of this and you have the potential, the sensibility to have access at this, than you can really qualify yourself as an artist.
I would never say I had Rudolf's talent. But there are certain things which he made me see. Not everybody likes Nureyev. Rightly so, no doubt. Yet everybody recognizes his talent, this personality, this immense being on stage. Nobody can deny his charisma, this extraordinary vitality of his - that's beyond discussion.
Qualities which are often missing in today's performances ...
Which are often missing today, true, but here the process of handing down is extremely important. To take Le Chant du compagnon errant again as an example. I was twenty-two when I danced it with Rudolf. I danced the other role - his shade, his double, his conscience, his buddy, whatever. I didn't have any experience for it. Today I am forty. And this time, preparing for the Gala I really felt ready to dance Le Chant du compagnon errant. As Maurice Béjart told me after the performance, it is totally the story of Rudolf. And that's how I approached it this time. To live it this way, with sufficient distance, is a tremendous feeling. I saw Rudolf a dozen times in it. No matter how he looked physically, he was the character inside out. That's not easy to replace. Yet the interest of reviving a role is not to make something else of it, just for the sake of making something else. No, one has to live it in such a way that the role acquires a different colour. I danced Rudolf's role once on a tour in Japan, some ten years ago. I made something of it anyhow, but frankly I wasn't ready for it. Yet now, this time, I felt I was. And the emotional impact it had on the audience is the best possible homage to Rudolf. Moreover, I danced it with Manuel Legris, who is of the same generation, just a few years younger than me. We both shared the desire to pay tribute to Rudolf in such a way that if he could watch it from afar, he would feel proud and satisfied.
I took part in the Paris competition once. Rudolf made us prepare some tough pieces, like the Black Swan pas de deux and The Sleeping Beauty pas de deux in his version, Capriccio, some other things - really preparing us for the future. We didn't get the first prize, but that wasn't so important. In the closing gala I danced Beauty with Isabelle Guérin and during the variation I managed to do a double assemblé and finish in 5th. Really, one of those moments where everything succeeds. Rudolf was watching from a box where my wife was sitting as well, and when he saw how I was able to execute that variation, he exclaimed: "Voilà!" This way he knew why he made us work and that something had been understood and absorbed by us.
I could say that my main goal in the recent gala was to dance Le Chant du compagnon errant in such a way that he would have exclaimed: "Voilà!" When we mention the process of handing down, there are things I learned, absorbed, and which at a certain moment need to become effective. And I felt they did on that Gala evening for Rudolf here at the Opera.
I always wonder what would happen if Nureyev would arrive at the Opera today? Do you think that the current generation has the same receptiveness and would be prepared to jump on the train as your generation did?
Nureyev took his place within an environment that lent itself to it. If he would arrive now, things would have been different - definitely. But he would have adapted himself. Running a company today takes a different manner and I don't think the steamroller approach is the best nor the only approach.
Which important changes do you see in ballet in the last twenty years?
The technical aspect has now developed a great deal, but at the same time it was necessary. Things have developed, accents have been shifted. I don't think we can speak of a break, in the sense that before, in our time, there was emotion, and now there is none anymore. No, we're considering different generations and these are like the wine: years vary, there are exceptional years, yet others will be less good. That's part of life. I don't want to judge the dancers of today. Some of them are truly outstanding.
That's also why I am so interested in teaching: I want to share what I learned, my experience, my "patrimony" with those who are willing to listen to it and to accept it. That will include things I learned from Rudolf. What he made me see, but also what I learned in the years after Rudolf. The way I followed as an individual, how I came to perceive my metier over the years. Not everything comes from Rudolf, nor did I keep everything which came from him. I met other people who showed other aspects.
I don't consider myself the hero of a special mission or so, I just want to share what I learned, how I perceive the stage and so on. I took care of myself for the last twenty years. Now this is no longer sufficient. Coaching others, who are twenty years younger, is an enriching experience as well. I am making progress this way, also as a dancer. After you worked with others you return to the stage as a richer person. And I feel there is an appetite to learn.
From where comes your passion for dance?
I started dancing by accident. I did some gymnastics and accidentally ended up in a dance class. Work is 90% of the success. I was fortunate to have a teacher who guided me to the Ecole de Danse de l'Opéra. Afterwards there were several important encounters - Nureyev, Kalioujny, Robbins, Kylian, Forsythe, Preljocaj. The personalities who marked me most of all were those who aren't obdurate. People with their own ideas, but also with the flexibility to evolve. Robbins' world was exceptionally rich and poetic, yet at the same time he was really hard and demanding. I used to observe him in the studio, he was so considerate and listening to everyone, but at the same time always working until he obtained what he had in mind. Not because it was him, Jerome Robbins, no, but because he wanted that the dancer somehow, consciously or not, expressed his idea of poetry. It's not easy to obtain, but when it works, it's pure magic.
I was lucky to be able to work with these great choreographers. I had the luck to be able to partner magnificent ballerinas, Sylvie Guillem, Alessandra Ferri, Altynai Asylmuratova, Svetlana Zakharova, among others.
In a way I have the feeling I was spoiled. Of course, it wasn't always easy, I had my difficult times just like everybody else. It wasn't a bed of roses, but I don't have any regrets. When I look back at the past I am content, but what interests me now is the future.
Talking about your repertory, which type of roles do you prefer?
My favourite roles are those where I lived in. Roles which have a definite personal significance are Romeo, des Grieux in Manon, don José in Carmen, Abderame in Raymonda, Frollo in Notre-Dame de Paris, Solor in La Bayadère, Albrecht in Giselle... All for different reasons. Des Grieux for instance because he has this attractive weakness, he is head over heels in love. A beautiful, intense character. Don José as well, he kills for love. Frollo, at the same time hateful but constantly struggling with himself. We all have a dark, an ugly side which sometimes surfaces. It's part of every human being. Frollo, who is tormented and torn between his commitment towards the Church and this carnal attraction which he tries to fight finally by destroying it. It's beautiful and cruel. Even if what he is doing isn't human, it gives him humanity. I love to look for the human side of these tormented characters. They allow you to take risks. Although, I must add, one has to be careful not to mistake the character or the subject. The madness scene in Giselle shouldn't become the vehicle for the ballerina's own neurosis, or the outlet of her personal, daily life problems. Manon's death is the death of Des Grieux's beloved in that particular story, it's not the death of a person dear to him which the dancer might have suffered in his private life. The same for Romeo.
Not all characters in the repertory have the same dramatic depth. Roles like James in La Sylphide or the prince in The Sleeping Beauty attract me less, because they don't have this intensity, this strong emotional appeal. They are written in a certain way and I don't think it's necessary to elaborate them. If you try to give extra meaning to a character which is thus conceived (take James in La Sylphide or Lucien in Paquita) there is a big chance you fall into the trap of appearing grotesque. These ballets were created in a certain era and context and one needs to respect this. It's not a coincidence that the great classics were written in the 19th century. It's no use to turn ballets which were basically created as divertissements into tales full of Freudian meanings and psychoanalytical explanations. It just doesn't make sense. They are what they are.
The Paris Opera Ballet offers its dancers a huge repertoire. How do you see the relationship between age and the choice of roles?
It's a delicate thing. Evidently, at forty life is experienced differently than when you are twenty. There are roles which demand maturity. On the other hand you shouldn't approach them too late. You need to start with them soon enough to have the time to develop. I danced my first Albrecht when I was twenty-two. It goes without saying that I feel better in it now than when I was twenty-two. It's easier to analyse the character, to grasp the meaning of treason, culpability, remorse. Nonetheless, I don't regret to have danced it then, with all my enthusiasm and my truth of that very moment - regardless whether that truth was correct or not. Everyone needs to decide for himself what he makes of his career.
There were roles, Apollo for instance, I didn't want to dance right away. We spoke about Le Chant du compagnon errant. I understand Romeo better now, but maybe I do it less well now. Romeo needs to be a youth of twenty. You can still dance it later of course, but the role needs a certain naivety and candour. After all Romeo is discovering life. He can't be an old professional doing his thing. Of course, you can act all these emotions, but whether it will go down well is another thing. I don't think I will dance this role again - well, let's see when the occasion arises. Abderame in Raymonda I danced at thirty and it was at the right moment. You have to listen to yourself.
I never danced The Prodigal Son, and it's too late now. I could have danced it. A beautiful work, no question about it, yet, I don't regret that I didn't dance it when I was younger. I wasn't really inspired by it. I only danced Petrushka the first time five or six years ago and this is a role which improves with maturity. Petrushka is at the same time very naïve, but one needs to have understood life. Nureyev was brilliant in it, by the way.
How do the dancers of the Paris Opera find themselves in this variety of choreographic styles and prevent that everything gets mixed or starts to look similar?
We work on them. They don't get mixed and at the same time they are complementary. What's so great about this House is that we have a very strong traditional, classical repertory. But at the same time we are living today and we are working with the most talented choreographers of today. The Paris Opera has an extraordinary repertory. I can't think of any other company which has a comparable splendour in ballets, revivals and creations. Thank you, Rudolf Nureyev, but also, thank you, Brigitte Lefèvre to have inaugurated and kept this open-doors policy, this ability to find and attract these choreographers to work with us. So, every time we dance a certain ballet, from our side there is the desire to go towards the choreographer and his or her particular style, while at the same time the choreographer has the desire to go towards us. There is an encounter every time. When it works, it means the encounter has actually taken place. As soon as we managed to change our colour - almost like chameleons - at the same time staying ourselves, we have enriched ourselves with another colour. This ability to adapt ourselves and to switch continuously from one style to another is precisely our strength. If we would dance only the 19th century classics for a dozen of years and all of the sudden we are asked to dance Balanchine, it would be difficult. But we have been doing this from the very beginning of our careers. It's like a child living in France with a Russian father, an English mother. He will speak all three languages without any effort. But at the same time we stay with our French culture and upbringing. It's an adaptation, not a metamorphosis. That's also what attracts the choreographers to come and work with us: our ability to remain ourselves, while we do adapt at the same time. We take the best from other schools and styles, but basically we remain French. When we are learning an English, a Russian or an American choreography, there is no question that we become English, Russian or American. We stay what we are. And I hope that they too think in that same direction.
Classical dance isn't some old dusty thing from the 19th century. Classical dance doesn't mean "old" or dance from yesterday. Some people have a much too restricted view on this. No, it's contemporary and it evolves. On the other hand, there are also people who think that the language of classical dance has become obsolete. But they are mistaken. I always reply then that with our academic training we can tackle any style. I'm not saying we know everything - we don't. We must learn continually, and some techniques we really have to learn from scratch, but we are physically ready to go in whichever direction thanks to our academic training.
What makes an étoile?
To use a silly expression, an étoile is something that shines and on which we can place a name. An étoile is somebody who has sufficient personality to share. Who has the talent to dance Swan Lake as well as Robbins, Kylian or Bausch. Somebody who is really general-purpose. Who has an innate sense of his or her responsibility. Who understands what it means to be on stage with eighty dancers of the corps de ballet behind him. Who knows that going on stage is not just doing one's job, but a lot more. After all, we artists, we develop with and inside the society. We can't be outside of it. That would be really dangerous. If we, as artists, are no longer the mirror of lasting values, we are off track. And it's not a question of trying to be nice, but rather to be truthful.
Interview with Laurent Hilaire © 2003 Marc Haegeman. All rights reserved.
First published in Dance View, Winter 2003