Grace Milandou reflects on the recently retired star that is the Paris Opera Ballet’s Aurélie Dupont, an étoile in every respect; and sees her in her final role, Manon Lescaut.
I cannot remember the first time I heard about Aurélie Dupont. Nor the first time I saw her face. I get a diffuse feeling there’s always been someone out there named Dupont, someone famous and amazing.
T like talent: naming a star
Before actress Sophie Marceau became Marceau, she was an ordinary teenager in some Parisian suburb. When the time came to give her an artist name, rumour has it she was showed a map of Paris and asked to choose her last name from any avenue that led to the Place de l’étoile, where the Arc du triomphe is raised. Mac-Mahon, Wagram, Foch, she could just pick. She chose Marceau, and raised the name to her fame. Between the mighty General of the French revolutionary war and the young teenage movie sensation, stands the quite figure of the mime Marcel Marceau who could watch the young actress with a keen eye.
Aurélie Dupont was born Aurélie Dupont. In English she would be Ms Smith, Ms everybody. She shares a name with a crowd. In that crowd stands the famous dancer Patrick Dupond. Dupond was still in the company when Aurélie was hired and was director while she was still in the corps de ballet. A few months ago, Dupont and Dupond crossed on a TV show. When asked about their common patronime, Patrick Dupond elegantly replied: “Je m’appel Dupond avec un D comme dindon, vous vous appelez Dupont avec un T comme talent.” (My name is Dupond with a D like dingo, your name is Dupont with a T like talent.)
In the conservative world of French ballet, an étoile is something born. The list of requirements is long – only little girls with the right size, weight, bone structure, body proportions, flexibility, hip opening are allowed in the Paris Opera Ballet School, the gateway to becoming an étoile. Most of these features cannot be worked on. Few people are born with them all. Aurélie Dupont was born Aurélie Dupont, born under the sign of talent. She had everything in her, ready to be worked on. Early on, she hadn’t figured out what her special talent was. She wanted to be a concert pianist. She became another kind of musician, a dancer.
Blood sweat and tears
Talent is useless without a strong personality. A strong personality is nothing without a strong will and discipline. In the ‘80s, Claude Bessy led the Paris Opera Ballet School of a firm hand. She ensured a very strong discipline and encouraged rigour. The little girl in her lilac leotard with big brown eyes wasn’t happy in that school. She found her pleasure in art, in performances; she liked working on herself, but felt the school was a hostile ground. Talent is nothing without work. A rough diamond is just a beautiful stone with good potential. The Paris Opera Ballet School prides itself in selecting the best stones and giving them the perfect cuts and polish. It is a purifying fire that delivers great dancers. It is there she has learnt by the force of her sweat, shaky legs, bloody point shoes, tears of rage, pain and joy. In her farewell address, Dupont thanked the ‘89 promotion, those who made it to the company with her and shared with her a professional life since childhood.
How do you make a name in a company of almost a hundred and fifty, where every body dances the same, walks the same, talks the same, looks the same and where anything that distinguishes you from the others is considered a flaw? If ballet training has a lot to do with developing a dancer’s artistic personality, entering a big company like POB is all about blending in, becoming X, becoming everybody, the corps, the crowd.
Dupont’s answer was more work. She wanted to be technically unbreakable. There was no question anymore as to what her special talent was, she just had not found her voice yet, though being a perfect technician would be key. After numerous promotions gave her access to interesting solo parts, her career in the company started to bloom She would be given complicated twisted solos and could dance them in a spin; she was an iron pillar on which the director could rely. But step, step, step, feet, legs, arms wasn’t enough. At some point, she got bored. She realised she wasn’t on the right track to become the kind of artist she wanted to be.
Being Aurélie Dupont
When Pina Bausch came to Paris with her staff to pass on her Rite of Spring, it was an intense, life changing experience for many. It changed their vision of dance, what they did, how they worked and the results they expected. Some even left the company to follow the German choreographer to Wuppertal. It was there, bare feet in the earth, half naked, with a mud taste in her mouth that Dupont found herself. She was pushing herself to new heights and wasn’t scared to fall. Pina taught her not to fear herself, to embrace her flaws and weaknesses, to open her heart. She did, and there was no turning back. In the following season, Dupont made her debut as Manon, alternating with big names such as Fanny Gaïda, Isabelle Guérin, Elisabeth Maurin and Sylvie Guillem. About a year later, on a New Year’s Eve, she was promoted étoile after a performance of Nureyev’s Don Quichotte. She had superlative technique and a real artistic voice. She reached her star.
I wasn’t there for her first season as an étoile, but I was there for her last. And while I do not remember the first time I saw her, I clearly remember the last.
Her artistic truth
Some say there is no such thing as a former étoile. They claim étoiles are eternal. To the contrary, Dupont confided, before her farewell performance, that she felt she was giving back her title. Along with Nicolas Leriche and Agnès Letestu, Dupont was part of what has been labelled the Nureyev constellation. Ballet lovers of my generation have followed her since we were teenagers. An étoile in every respect, she was admired for her flamboyant technique, her unique sense of style and great musicality. She achieved fame abroad as one of the greatest French schooled ballerinas of her generation. Dancers were hardly commonplace in the media in the 1990s and early 2000s, but she was an exception; often on television and in magazines. Hers was a name everyone knew. In magazines, Dupont was known for her beauty. On stage, she was respected for strong technical abilities and interpretation that made her a first choice for any classical ballet.
Dupont has also been a mentor for many dancers in the company, including now fellow étoile Ludmila Pagliero. She is to remain with the company as Ballet Master (Maître de Ballet) and contribute to the nurturing of the next generation. Her experience and extensive knowledge of the Parisian repertoire will also continue to benefit the company.
Aurélie Dupont has been dancing Manon since 1998, and it was the role she danced on May 8, and on her final performance ten days later.
L’histoire de Manon (as it is known in France) by Kenneth MacMillan is a ballet about lust, crime, sex and money that corrupts even the purest hearts. It is a dark, decadent and dramatic depiction of the ultimately fatal fate of a low class beauty turned successful courtesan; a ballet about ugliness. Manipulated by her greedy brother and used by her patron, Manon is however unconditionally loved by the young knight Des Grieux. But after a deadly fight between her brother and her patron, she is arrested, tried for prostitution and deported to New Orleans. Des Grieux still looks out for her, follows her, and saves her from jail by killing a guard, before the couple flees to the swamp where the poor girl dies of exhaustion.
Dupont’s take on the character of Manon was mature. Constantly hesitating between love and money, she impersonated a cheeky, lively and playful girl. Men proposed, she tempted, she played, she tasted and then she finally made her choice. On May 8, the first two pas de deux, with Italian ballet sensation Roberto Bolle, who had been invited for the occasion, were simply sublime. Dupont was fresh; together they were tender, touching and sometimes funny.
Bolle’s infallible technique and fiery interpretation contrasts with Dupont’s fluid dance. He is also the superb and reliable partner a ballerina needs, especially in Kenneth MacMillan’s highly acrobatic pas de deux. A ballet like Manon can only convince and penetrate the heart if there is complete trust between dancers, and between dancers and audience; and these two superstars ensured a poignant performance.
Dupont’s Manon contrasted with that by Laetitia Pujol on April 20, her first performance in the role. Pujol played her as a very shy girl, absent in all decisions taken in her life. Men lead her and trade her like a possession. She is a sad victim of a fate she cannot control. By Act II, this interpretation became difficult to believe. Although Manon is supposed to become the “queen of the party,” she remained soft and tender; an innocent girl in a world of constant debauchery. Technically, however, her performance was near-perfect, and at her side, Mathieu Ganio, as Des Grieux, moved like a poem.
But back to Aurélie Dupont, one the most popular and most beautiful étoiles in the company. On May 8, the truth of her portrayal was welcomed with respect, admiration, and strong, long ovations full of gratitude, for an uplifting career, great performances, and memories that will be long cherished.