Excellent interview. Gia Kourlas asks all the right questions. This is a must read for anyone interested in dance and the performing arts.
Alexandre Hammoudi talks about his career at American Ballet Theatre
American Ballet Theatre soloist Alexandre Hammoudi talks about his career and his busy spring: He'll dance Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty
Mon Jun 17 2013
Time Out New York: Why didn’t you ever audition for the Paris Opera Ballet School? Did your teacher not want you to go there?
Alexandre Hammoudi: No, he did. He was very involved with Paris Opera. I did audition when I was very young. It worked out. I got in, but the school academics were very different, and I was doing school by correspondence, and they didn’t accept that as valid. My mom, my family, my teacher—it was like, it’s not a good idea. Max knew exactly how the school worked, the discipline, and he was like, “I don’t think it’s a good idea for him. It’s going to break his spirit. He’s not going to want to dance.” Even though my family lived in Paris, I would have to go to a dorm for six days a week; you’re not really allowed outside from the age of nine. So many people do it. It is a sacrifice both for the parents and the kids, but it just wasn’t for me and that was a realization that came really, really early. I feel like not going there was the best thing that ever happened to me. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: I’ve heard stories.
Alexandre Hammoudi: The director was different, too. It was Claude Bessy—she had the iron fist. Even the teachers were terrified of her. There was a little bit of brainwashing going on. Instead of seeing other works and other companies and trying to learn from them, they’re taught, “That’s not the right way. Don’t look at that.” Not anymore. I have a lot of friends who are premier danseurs or even étoile, and they’re smart enough to adapt. It’s such a big institution. ABT’s a huge institution, but it’s very different.
Time Out New York: When did you leave France?
Alexandre Hammoudi: I trained with Max until I was 12 or 13. The relationship was becoming a little bit too intense, and I only knew one studio, one thing, and it wasn’t a benefit anymore. I met a different teacher, which is kind of funny because it was the same generation as Max Bozzoni. He was Attilio Labis, and he was great. Once again, this was not a generation known for technicality and cleanness versus most of Paris Opera; it was the old school. They were really, really strong; they just did it. It was a great class because the girls would put their pointe shoes on after barre and after little jumps, he would be like, “Okay, Don Q.” And there were three guys. One by one, they would do a variation. He would coach and correct while the girls were putting their pointe shoes on and doing relevés at the barre, and then the dynamic of the class would change, and he would go into grand allegro and the girls would do a combination on pointe and the guys would come in and do double tours and then we would finish with fouettés and à la seconde turns. That’s how the class was basically, and that was great; I learned all the versions I could learn and all the jumps, but it was time to have a structure to be with other guys of my age. To do what was necessary to do, really. I spoke to Azari Plisetsky during the summer program, and he advised me to go to Madrid to audition for the National Ballet of Cuba. The school was there. When I got there, the school was no longer there; it was just the main company performing in Madrid. I took class with Loipa Araújo, and we had a very good connection right away. She said, “You’re 17. I think you should come and join us.” Well at first she wanted to know why I wanted to come to Cuba. She said, “It’s a very difficult country to live in—you’re French, you don’t speak Spanish.
Time Out New York: You didn’t?
Alexandre Hammoudi: Not at all. She said to really think about it. It was a little bit intense, but my mom and I had thought about it. She offered me an apprenticeship to work with this group of guys from the school who had just joined the company. This was August. I would have to go in September as soon as I got my visa. I didn’t really want to do that because I wanted to go to school; I was a little bit confused, but it was an opportunity that I kind of had to seize so I did and when I got there, everything changed. I started to mature faster. I started to become a man. I met a lot of people. I saw a lot of people performing. The experience was really amazing.
Time Out New York: What was it about the training?
Alexandre Hammoudi: It was just different because classes were really hard, and the weather was really hot and sticky. There were different teachers every day from the company, and it was a Russian way of dancing mixed with Latino/Cuban flair. There’s no magic secret. They have an incredible school: When you see the levels of the kids, it’s incredible. But all they do all day long is just dance, from morning to night. They get very good at it, it’s true. It was interesting, because I was performing with the company. I was learning all these little things from the stage; I had been onstage; I had done things in France in competitions, but it wasn’t performing. In Cuba, I learned how to stand onstage. That’s probably the first thing I learned. It’s funny, because the first show I did was in the festival of Havana, and I had to learn something on the spot: I played the friend of the prince who just walked onstage. I don’t know anybody. They give me a costume and say, “Just stand and follow this guy.” It was a dress rehearsal and then the show, and it was José Manuel Carreño’s big return basically. One of the first people I met was him; it’s funny how the world goes, because that’s the first time I was ever onstage with a professional company and it was with José. I was just walking around with him.
Time Out New York: But you knew who he was, right?
Alexandre Hammoudi: Of course! It was a big deal for me. So I stayed in Cuba for a year and a half.
Time Out New York: Why did you leave?
Alexandre Hammoudi: I had gone there to study, even though it was a professional setting. I had gone to learn my job; I had to get an experience off of this. I had to be able to grow. To go to school or a company, that was the plan. You take what you learn somewhere else. I was really living my life there, and it was great, but it was becoming a little bit—not comfortable—but the goal had completely changed. In a matter of a month and a half, I could get around in Spanish, and after three months I was fully integrated in the locker room. In the first week, I was like a tourist. I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying and slowly I started to be able to put it together. I’m not blond with blue eyes. So I fit in, and I lived in this apartment with five other guys from the company. I had an amazing time, but it was time to move on. I probably would have stayed for a really long time. I’ve gone back since, two times, to perform. It’s amazing to go back there, but it’s a bit sad. It’s a beautiful country, but it’s poor. The people are so warm, so welcoming, so generous. The art is really alive.
Time Out New York: When did you go to the School of American Ballet?
Alexandre Hammoudi: After Cuba, I came here. It was right after 9/11. I remember coming here for Christmas and nobody was here. ABT was in California doing Nutcracker; there were no auditions, nothing. I was here for two weeks, and I went to take class at SAB because Azari was teaching, and they offered me a full scholarship and a place to stay. I was like, “Should I go back to school?” That was a little difficult, but at the same time I did, and I did learn other things that I didn’t know before. Balanchine is a completely different way of approaching ballet. All the SAB kids really approach ballet differently and that was really interesting. Krammy [Andrei Kramarevsky] was teaching, Peter Boal was teaching, Jock Soto was teaching partnering—and that was a treat. To see him in the studio partnering was kind of unreal. It looked so easy when he would demonstrate that it was hard to understand. But that’s what got me closer to Lincoln Center, and the Met season started and that’s when I auditioned.
Time Out New York: You didn’t want to go the New York City Ballet route at all?
Alexandre Hammoudi: They wanted me to stay [at SAB] for another year. I was barely there for three or four months. The opportunity with the Studio Company came up, and I took it.
Time Out New York: Did you connect with the SAB training as a dancer?
Alexandre Hammoudi: Yes, because of the freedom of movement. You know when people say that [Balanchine] is a bit jazzy? I don’t think it’s that jazzy, but it reminds me of that first feeling when you learn how to dance to music. It’s obviously about technique, but it’s a much more natural way of doing things. It makes it jazzy, because there is freedom in it.
Time Out New York: Because it’s you.
Alexandre Hammoudi: Exactly. That’s what I related to. The quickness of it was very difficult. They were very quick at the school, and I had a very slow technique. The turns were really fast. The combinations…I remember when Peter Martins taught class; I was like, I cannot do this class. I can’t. I was just there trying to do a turn! It was really funny. I had to change a lot of things. In France, I was never told to cross my fifth positions or my fourth—the tendus. I learned that there. A lot of different energies and different ways of using your body. Performing some of the Balanchine stuff in ABT, that is really cool. I don’t feel like I have an SAB training, because I wasn’t there long enough, but I can relate to those things.