Classical To Contemporary

Brigitte Lefèvre, artistic director of the Paris Opéra Ballet, on the casting conundrum
Published in the April/May 2009 issue.

With a history reaching back to Louis XIV, the Paris Opéra Ballet is one of the dance world’s most tradition-bound institutions. The 154-member company is strictly hierarchical, with casting strongly influenced by rank: leading roles go almost without exception to “étoiles” (“stars,” or principals), soloist roles to “premiers danseurs” and so on. POB is one of the few ballet companies that has managed to maintain a signature style—elegant, cool and extremely classical—thanks to its school, which trains nearly every POB dancer. Yet the company has been steadily adding
contemporary works by choreographers like Trisha Brown, William Forsythe and Maurice Béjart to its repertoire—works that go beyond classical technique, and that often have no soloist parts.

This mixture of old and new makes casting singularly challenging. Pointe spoke with company director Brigitte Lefèvre about her casting process.

How do you go about casting each program?

I am in charge of all the casting, but it is really a group effort: I work very closely with the chief ballet master Patrice Bart and the administrator Olivier Aldeano. I try to figure out which dancer is best for each type of choreography, and whether it would be interesting to give someone who has been cast in classical works a chance to venture into something different. I don’t want dancers to become specialized.

How does the hierarchy at POB affect casting?

It sets rules—it is a basis for mutual comprehension. It used to be very rigid, but I think we have succeeded in making it both present and very flexible. When Benjamin Millepied choreographed Triade last year, I didn’t hesitate to entrust a young dancer with one of the main roles. I remain very cautious though, because the company has many étoiles and it is my duty to cast them. Everyone wants to dance, obviously.

How do you cast classical dancers in the work of a choreographer like Maurice Béjart?

First, the choreographer’s wishes are binding and deserve great respect. That’s why no more women will dance Béjart’s Boléro (whose soloist role is designed for a man but has been danced by women, including Sylvie Guillem) while I am here. But I actually see a part like the title role in Béjart’s Firebird as a great classical role, which makes it slightly easier to cast. I find it particularly important for a young étoile, such as Mathieu Ganio, to experience such expressive, difficult choreography.

Do you worry about potential injuries when casting dancers in very different types of choreography?

It is extremely rare for a dancer to dance different styles at once. When it happens, I discuss it with them first. On the other hand, there are companies who only dance the work of one choreographer, and they have injuries as well. Some dancers agree to juggle simultaneous productions, some choose not to. Hopefully such choices help develop independent personalities, who know both the constraints and the pleasures of dancing in this company.

Do you think every dancer needs to venture into the contemporary repertoire to grow?

They say it takes 10 years to train a classical dancer, but it takes an entire artistic life to build on that common ground. I believe someone who has been cast in a work by Mats Ek acquires warmth in performance, for instance. I don’t want to deprive the dancers of everything dance has to give, emotionally speaking. We cannot do everything, but the Paris Opéra should be an open-minded place.