The Paris Opera Ballet makes its debut tonight at the newly reconstructed Bolshoi Theatre with Pierre Lacotte’s Paquita, and when Russian paper Moskovskie Novosti (Московские новости) asked if I could interview an étoile for them ahead of the tour, I immediately thought of Mathias Heymann. One of the youngest principals in Paris, he was sidelined for 18 months with a bad injury and only made his return last March, for the company’s Nureyev Gala. He went on to dance a beautiful Sylphide with the Bolshoi’s Evgenia Obraztsova in June and opens the Paris Opera’s Moscow tour tonight. Moskovskie Novosti devoted four pages to the interview, and kindly allowed me to publish the English version here:
You were born in France but grew up in Africa. How did ballet enter your life?
My mother hailed from Morocco and was an Oriental dancer and dance teacher, so music and dance were part of my life from a very young age. We lived in Africa for nine years, first in Morocco and then in Senegal and Djibouti. Dance was almost like a family activity there: women would express themselves together through dance. I tried to imitate my mother, and I loved the rhythms. Ballet only came when we moved back to France. I was around 10 and I had growth-related problems so a doctor suggested that I try ballet to stimulate and stretch my body.
You came to the Paris Opera Ballet School relatively late…
Yes. I started with a wonderful teacher in Marseille, Véronique Sottile, who had danced with Roland Petit and then with the Ballet de Genève. I was the only boy and she took me under her wing, she pushed me, and it made me appreciate hard work because I could see the results very quickly. She really challenged me technically from a young age, too, and it gave me confidence. She sent me to the Youth America Grand Prix, and that’s when I realized I wanted to have a professional career. My father saw that and sent a video to the Paris Opera Ballet School. I was 14 when I joined, and it took me a year to really comprehend the style, the placement and the cleanness, because I didn’t have that.
Your elevation is remarkable, and it’s not something the French school usually emphasizes. Is it something you consciously worked on or did it come naturally?
Both. As soon as I started ballet, my teacher in Marseille taught me that jumping is crucial for a dancer, and we really focused on that during the four years I spent with her. For two years I did specific exercises, some with weights. It goes back further for me though: I had also done some diving and trampoline when I was younger, and in Africa we would regularly encounter Maasai tribes because my parents loved to travel. They had tribal dances where they would jump a lot, and I tried to imitate them. When I worked on ballet jumps, I tried to emulate their rhythm.
You were promoted every year once you joined the Paris Opera Ballet. Looking back, do you think it was the right pace for you?
I was privileged: I felt like I was evolving every year and I didn’t really have to worry about anything beyond my work. Doubt didn’t come into play. I was so happy to be promoted to étoile with my parents in the audience and in a role, Lensky in Onegin, that was very important to me. But when you get to the top so soon, so young, at 21 – looking back, I was perhaps missing something in terms of life experience and maturity that I have now. I can’t deny it was lonely, too. People immediately see you differently in Paris because of this title and the expectations that come with it, your schedule changes, you find yourself alone onstage and often offstage as well. Normally there are stages when you rise through the ranks, you start with pas de trois to hone your adage skills, and I didn’t really have time to do that. I was dancing with partners who had much more experience than I did and I was insecure – I had a lot of help but I didn’t want to waste people’s time. As an étoile I had to make my mark but I was still finding myself. I still have doubts once in a while. It’s not an entirely stable process yet for me, but I want to be able to enjoy it 100%.
You were away from the stage for 18 months with a serious injury and only returned last March. What happened?
It was a nagging shin injury I’d had since I was a teenager. I always somehow managed physically but it flared up regularly when I joined the company. I knew my jump was one of my strong points so I kept pushing anyway, I overdid it. Because of my inexperience, I wasn’t really honest with myself or with others either, I didn’t say anything when I was too tired or when it hurt, I wanted to prove that I belonged where I was. That’s how I got to the point where it became very serious, because I kept dancing on it. When I stopped in 2011 I had about 15 micro-fractures and pseudarthrosis in my bone. I tried rest and various treatments for a year, but nothing worked. I went to 20 different doctors, and I was told I might have to give up dance. I ended up meeting Federico Bonelli from the Royal Ballet who had had a similar injury, and he saved me, he was so generous: I met his surgeon and I ended up having the same operation he had. They put a metal rod in my leg, and from this point on I recovered very quickly. I followed Federico’s process. I spent almost three months in London doing physical therapy with the team at The Royal Ballet, who were wonderful.
We’ve seen a lot of injuries during classical runs in recent years in Paris. Do you see any causes for this?
It’s not an easy question. We have access to a wonderful repertoire in Paris, with very varied artistic experiences, but back where there was less variety, I think the dancers’ bodies were better adapted. Whether we want it or not, modern choreography doesn’t use the same muscles. The more you do classical work, the better you feel, and the fewer injuries you see. Our work methods haven’t necessarily changed either. Having spent time in London, I can say we’re a little behind in Paris in terms of medical care and cross-training. In London they have everything on site, whereas in Paris everything is far from the Opera, it takes time just to go and see a good physiotherapist.
What did you do while you were away from the Paris Opera?
I went back to my roots. I’m very close to my family, relationships are very important to me, but my reaction when fame struck was to isolate myself even more, which wasn’t good. I also took up some of my hobbies again. Cooking is one of them, it helps me deal with stress, and I took some lessons. Gardening was another. My grandfather was a farmer, and my father passed this love of nature on to me. I went to community gardens, I provided home help to show people how to grow plants. You see the pleasure they get – you give some when you dance and I missed that, so it filled the void, and it taught me a lot.
You will be performing Paquita at the Bolshoi. What are the main challenges in this ballet?
I see it as a test of bravura, both for the corps and for the soloists. It’s typically French in style. The story is set in Spain and the choreography reflects that, but the approach is French: it’s refined, musical, noble. The lines are very pure, there are no flourishes. That’s the difficulty of it: it’s nothing and yet it’s everything. You have to find pleasure in that. The acting is also tricky to get right: the ballet is set in a time so far removed from ours that it’s important to think about the context and be careful with the mime, which can easily trip you up. When you’re not used to the comic timing it requires, you tend to want to overdo it, but the choreography is all you need.
What is your relationship with Pierre Lacotte like?
He’s someone I really admire because he tries to preserve the classical heritage. He brought back Paquita when it had been nearly forgotten. Every time we work together, it’s a joy to share that with him and it’s so rewarding. He’s one of those people who are real monuments, who have lived and seen so much, who have so many anecdotes to share, who really love and help the ballet world. His ballets are all about musicality: if you listen to the music, it really sings the steps. I felt that with La Sylphide at the end of last season and I’m glad to be working on Paquita now, it’s a nice feeling of continuity.
Paquita remains the last 19th-century reconstruction staged at the Paris Opera. Do you feel reconstructions belong in the repertoire?
I personally believe they’re an important part of the repertoire. I don’t know how to say this without sounding conservative, but even if times change, these ballets came first and contributed to the glory of classical dance. It’s important to me to see them stay alive through new artists and to preserve the style and the stagecraft. I’d like to see more reconstructions. Pierre Lacotte was telling us about Marco Spada, which he’s restaging for the Bolshoi, and I actually fell in love with this ballet when I first joined the Paris Opera: Manuel Legris showed me a video and it’s the first variation I chose for the concours de promotion. Nureyev’s Manfred is also on my mind: it wasn’t a success when it was created but years later, the excerpt I danced on stage last season worked well. I don’t see why we should hide away everything that’s been done in the past – quite the contrary. This heritage is important for the audience, too. People also come to the Paris Opera to see our classical tradition, and it’s one of my goals to contribute to its preservation as well as I can on stage.
You will be performing in Moscow with the Paris Opera for the first time…
It’s a stimulating perspective. Touring to Russia means a lot in a dancer’s life, including for my colleagues in the corps de ballet. We’re all very keen to present ourselves well and we look forward to just being there and enjoying the theatre and the atmosphere.
How do you see the Paris Opera Ballet evolving at the moment?
After being away for almost two years I feel like I’m returning to a new company. A lot of new dancers have joined, and an entire generation of étoiles is about to leave: Agnès Letestu, Isabelle Ciaravola, Nicolas Le Riche, and then Aurélie Dupont and Benjamin Pech. They will leave a huge void, but the company is young at the moment, there is a new generation coming up who is full of energy, with more of a family vibe.
How do you feel about the arrival of Benjamin Millepied as artistic director next season?
I talked to Benjamin Millepied but I haven’t had the opportunity to work with him yet. I’m optimistic. Brigitte Lefèvre brought us so much, she gave us access to an incredible repertoire. The change might be beneficial for the new generation though. We know what we have and we don’t know what we’ll get, but I think Benjamin Millepied has ideas. He knows that this is an institution you can’t change overnight and he might bring a new vision, new people too. I’ve mostly done classical work so far but the experience of working with Wayne McGregor was a high point in my career, so when I hear neoclassical creation is among his goals, I’m interested.
Millepied recently made headlines denouncing the lack of diversity at the Paris Opera. What’s your perspective on this?
It’s a tricky question. Obviously I’m all for diversity – I come from Africa, I think of it as my native continent even though I wasn’t born there. It’s part of my roots, and I see impressive physical potential in some mixed-race or black dancers. But what’s magical about corps de ballet like the Paris Opera’s or the Bolshoi’s is their uniformity. It’s not just about the company either: it’s a larger social perception that would need to be challenged. If he manages that, much good may it do him, but I don’t think the debate is that necessary. It’s not like there is no diversity at all in the company.
It also depends how you define diversity – the Paris Opera Ballet employs Asian dancers, an Argentinian principal…
I didn’t dare say it. One thing I’m really in favour of is guest artists, like the Bolshoi’s Evgenia Obraztsova in La Sylphide last June. When there are 150 of us being together all the time, it’s easy to get comfortable, and guests do bring diversity. They’re an inspiration both for the audience and for us dancers.