Aurélie Dupont talks about being the Paris Opera Ballet's shining étoile
French ballerina Aurélie Dupont talks about what life at the Paris Opera Ballet—currently in residence at Lincoln Center Festival—is really all about
Tue Jul 10 2012
Photograph: Sébastien Mathe
The French ballerina Aurélie Dupont lights up the Paris Opera Ballet, which performs as part of Lincoln Center Festival at the David H. Koch Theater through July 22. During the season, she performs Giselle and makes her debut in Maurice Béjart's Boléro. In this exclusive interview, she talks her early years spent in the United States, the rigor of the Paris Opera Ballet School, her work with Pina Bausch and where she wants to live after she hangs up her pointe shoes—New York!
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Paris Opera Ballet étoile Aurélie Dupont is considered by many to represent the French ideal, but she’s an American girl at heart. Speaking fluent English via telephone from Paris, Dupont, now 39, explains that she spent two of her early years living with her family in Bethesda, MD, where her father, a doctor, was engaged in research; that time is, as she puts it, her “best souvenir from when I was a child.” In honor of the Paris Opera Ballet’s engagement at the David H. Koch Theater, which continues through July 22, Dupont will appear in the title role of Giselle, as well as dance the lead in Maurice Béjart’s Boléro. It’s hard to tell what she’s more excited about: dancing in New York or being in New York. Either way, it’s our treat.
Time Out New York: Originally you wanted to be a pianist. How did you discover ballet?
Aurélie Dupont: I wanted to be a pianist because I loved the music, and it’s a little bit because of the United States. I lived in Bethesda when I was seven with my two sisters and my parents, and that’s where I really met music, musical comedy, dance. I was having a great feeling with piano. And then when I came back to Paris two years after, that’s what I wanted to do more than anything else. My parents never wanted that—I think they were thinking, Well, if we buy a piano, it’s going to cost a lot of money and take lots of space in our little Paris apartment. They told me, “You should dance, because dance is nice for little girls.” I went to a very professional ballet class. It was very funny, because I was nothing like the other ones. You know, my hair was really messy—not a good look. [Laughs] But what I felt was incredible, because in this ballet class, there was a piano—a very big piano—and a great old pianist. And he was playing Chopin, and I said, Okay, maybe I won’t be a pianist; but if I dance, I will be very close to my first passion.
Time Out New York: Basically, you discovered that you could be near a piano in a dance studio, so why not study ballet?
Aurélie Dupont: Yes, but when you’re seven, you don’t know that this can be your life. You don’t imagine that dancing or playing piano could be your life, and that you could be paid for this. My mother was a doctor; my dad was a doctor. I thought, Okay I have to be a dentist or something serious. [Laughs] But then when they told me, “You can dance all your life and this can be your job,” I thought, Okay, this is what I want to do. But first, of course, it was the piano. It’s good that I danced because when I was a child, I was really shy, and I didn’t make friends so easily. It was difficult for me to meet people, to be with people. So I’m sure that’s why I wanted to be a pianist, because I wanted to do concerts and, of course, this could mean that I would be alone and be a real soloist. So dance, for me, is better because I’m not alone. Maybe for my personality it was good.
Time Out New York: Why were you living in the U.S.?
Aurélie Dupont: My father is a doctor, and he was in research; and for his job he had to work for six months at a big institute of research in Bethesda. So the family moved, and we loved it so much, we stayed almost two years. I was in an American school; I was really living like an American little girl. I remember the first day in my school, it was very difficult, because I couldn’t speak any American words. I didn’t know anything, and everyone was speaking English to me. I remember crying a lot, but three months after, I was completely American. I could speak really well, and I loved to live there. I remember when we came back on the plane, everybody was crying. [Laughs] I loved it. It was very different, you know—we were living in a house; Paris is quite small and we had an apartment. School was different. We had a lot of sports in the afternoon, and we don’t have this in France. I had so many friends. And really, I discovered all the musical comedies. For me, as a little girl of seven years old, it was just a dream.
Time Out New York: What do you mean by discovering musical comedy?
Aurélie Dupont: I remember Annie. I was so in love with this red-haired girl. I had the record, and I knew all the songs by heart.
Time Out New York: When did you enter the school of the Paris Opera Ballet?
Aurélie Dupont: I was ten. I started real classical dance when I was nine and a half. So I was really not a good ballerina. I think I had talent; I was supple, I was skinny, but I didn’t know anything about dance.
Time Out New York: That must have been difficult.
Aurélie Dupont: Yes it was. But I think they prefer to have talented little girls or boys who learn everything there. Because when you learn dance very early, like at four or five years, sometimes you don’t have good teachers and then you have to change everything that you learned before. But it was hard; it was difficult.
Time Out New York: How did you get through that institution’s rigor?
Aurélie Dupont: Passion first. And I loved to play; I like to gamble, and I thought it was like a game. It was very strange, but maybe it was a positive way to deal with it, because I immediately understood that there was an exam every year, and that they fired half of the students. So the game was: I want to win and I want to be at the top, and I want to be an étoile.
Time Out New York: And you did.
Aurélie Dupont: Yes. Maybe if I had to do something else, I wouldn’t have the same way of seeing this. I don’t know. But it was really light. I understood that I had to work. I liked very much to work on myself, on my body, when I was really young. I remember it was very nice to work on my body, and I could see that if I worked well, my body had a nice way of responding—the muscles were correct and the position and the pirouette and the jump were correct. Sometimes it was difficult to work, because it was like six hours of dancing; for a little girl, ten years old, it’s difficult, but I remember it was really nice for me and quite natural.
Time Out New York: Do you think an American sense of competition helped you?
Aurélie Dupont: That’s a good question. I don’t know, maybe. Yes, yes. I remember in the United States, there was a lot of competition. Like in the afternoon, there were baseball games and American football and all this stuff. There were teams, and we had to choose players and it was maybe the same, yeah.
Time Out New York: How long were you at ballet school?
Aurélie Dupont: There are six grades, so I went from ten to 16. And then you join the corps. I was really happy to leave the school. I didn’t like the school so much—I liked the way we had to work and progress, but I didn’t like the atmosphere of it so much. I felt there was a little bit of frustration from the teacher I had. Of course when you have a little bit of talent… But I didn’t know that at ten; I heard some nasty little words or sentences, and that was very difficult. I couldn’t understand why they had to be nasty with people. That was the most difficult thing for me at school. So I was really happy to leave this school and become a professional, and work the way I had to work and work with people I wanted to work with. But it’s difficult to go in the corps, because in school you don’t have lots of freedom; you work from Monday to Sunday. On the weekend, I had to do my homework for school, and I wanted to have private lessons to be better than the other dancers. So I never had a lot of freedom. And then when you go in the corps, you are paid. And well-paid for a 16-year-old girl. You don’t have an apartment, you don’t have children, you don’t have anything, so you just have money to spend. And you have freedom. So that’s a very difficult moment, because you want to go out, you want to have a boyfriend, you want to have dinner, you want to go to the discotheque, you want to spend your money—and that’s the moment when you have to be really serious. Otherwise it’s too late, because every year there are new dancers from the school going to the corps. So I was really serious. I thought, Okay, you have to work, let’s say, one or two years so you move up quickly, and then you will rest a little bit and take care of yourself and live a little bit and discover life. I was really aware about this. I could really see the situation. I thought, Okay, if you want to go out you can, but be at class at 10am. So that’s the way I was living at 16.
Time Out New York: Did other dancers tell you to think of it like that, or did you just observe?
Aurélie Dupont: No. I observed a lot. Because when you leave school and you go in the company, you’re with dancers who are 30, 35, and you can see how it goes. You don’t know anyone, so you just have to look and watch, and I really felt I had to work.
Time Out New York: When were you promoted?
Aurélie Dupont: To étoile, I was promoted in 1998. I think I spent three years as première danseuse. First, when I came I was 16 and I went directly into coryphée. And then from coryphée to sujet, I went directly. So in two years, I was sujet. It is very difficult; there are, like, 35 dancers and only one or two at the end of the exam that can upgrade. As sujet, I spent maybe two or three years, and then première danseuse the same.
Time Out New York: Did it seem like it took too long?
Aurélie Dupont: No. It was perfect, because I was étoile at 25. I had some experience onstage in three-act big ballets. I think it was the right time, because I was still young. I never felt I was ready to become étoile. When they told me, “You’re étoile,” the first thing I thought was, Wow. It’s too soon; I’m not ready. And I think I was a really good étoile, or I could assume [the role of] the étoile maybe three years later. I couldn’t understand it—I was thinking, The day before, I was exactly the same and I was premiere danseuse, and then today I’m étoile, but I didn’t change. I’m not dancing better. I’m not different. So I had to find some time to really become étoile, and I think that’s true: You become étoile when you’re young. Of course, some people in the company are étoile at 35, 33 so it’s different because they did a lot of ballet before; it was not the way it went for me. I had done Nutcracker, Don Quixote, and that’s it. I didn’t have a lot of experience.
Time Out New York: Were you dancing more contemporary ballets? And Balanchine?
Aurélie Dupont: Yes. I was dancing Balanchine a lot. That’s my favorite. I love Balanchine. He was so clever and so modern. Even today, it’s amazing. For me, he did everything. And I was doing a lot of modern pieces. But everyone here at Paris Opera works with a lot of contemporary choreographers. I remember one thing that was very important for me was when I met Pina Bausch. I was première danseuse, just before I became étoile, and at that point I had a very difficult time. As I told you, I worked and worked in school—I worked on my technique a lot, because I thought if you have a good technique, people think that you’re really strong—that you’re a strong woman. But it doesn’t mean anything. You can be a very good technical dancer and be very sensitive. And that was what I was really. So I thought, Okay, now I’m dancing only technical ballet and technical variations, and I didn’t want to do this anymore. And when I met Pina Bausch, she felt this in my dancing, and she told me once, “Okay, you’re a very tough woman, you’re a very tough dancer, but I’m sure you’re very sensitive, and that’s why I chose you, and I want you to show me this. Because your strength, your force—I don’t care. I want to see your heart.” So I thought, Okay. She’s coming now, and it’s the perfect time for me to change; because of her, I changed. And I changed in her ballet Rite of Spring; it changed my life and my career. From that day, I changed everything. And then I became étoile.
Time Out New York: Did she make you aware of how to show your sensitivity?
Aurélie Dupont: Yes. And she told me that is what is interesting in artists. And I knew she was right, but it was difficult for me to prove that I was not like how others were thinking of me. But I did it, and I’m so happy I did it. Dance is so artistic, and if you don’t see the dancer’s fragility a little bit, it’s not interesting. With technique, there is always someone in the dance world who can do more pirouettes than you and jump higher than you. For me, this is not dance. And I wanted to be an actress. I wanted to dance love stories, and I wanted to cry and I wanted to laugh onstage. And if you’re technically perfect, you don’t have these roles; you don’t get to dance them.
Time Out New York: Did you ever try to have a career in America?
Aurélie Dupont: I never tried, because I think it’s difficult. I don’t know why, but I think people think that the Paris Opera is a very private company, very difficult to [penetrate]. So maybe they don’t think about inviting us, and most of the time, companies invite dancers. About one month ago, I e-mailed ABT [American Ballet Theatre], which is a company I love. And I know that ABT invites dancers from everywhere. They have a lot of Russians, they have a lot of Royal Ballet, they have many, many dancers and very good dancers. So I sent a little e-mail and said, “You’re performing Eugene Onegin by [John] Cranko, and I just did it in Paris, and I love dancing this ballet. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I would love to join the company and dance with you.” And they said no, that they were not interested. So I don’t know. I understand, but I think it’s difficult for [Paris Opera dancers] to exist without Paris Opera. I danced a little bit with the New York City Ballet, twice. I was really happy. I did Rubies and Sonatine. I was very honored, and it was a great experience. I really loved it, and I love New York. I would love to live in New York. If I was not living in Paris, I think I would choose New York. ABT is really difficult. I don’t know why.
Time Out New York: I would have loved to have seen you dance Onegin at the Met.
Aurélie Dupont: I know that the Cranko team is very difficult, but that’s normal. They want to see the dancers, they want to choose the couples. For me, that is really, really normal. I’m the same. So I really understand, but they know me because I’ve danced ten performances in Paris. I would love to have just one performance. Just to be in New York and to be with ABT, and to be on an American stage in this wonderful company. I think they have a lot of dancers, so it’s difficult to leave a performance for a French dancer. It’s okay; I understand.
Time Out New York: How long have you been dancing the role of Giselle, and what is your approach to the ballet?
Aurélie Dupont: I’ve been dancing Giselle since I was 27. You really have to work on your body. That means that you cannot stand like you are dancing Balanchine or Sleeping Beauty. You have to be romantic like Sylphide. Physically, you have to [hold yourself] a little bit down. The end of the first act, [the mad scene] when you become a little bit crazy, is very interesting; I love to act. That’s why I’m dancing.
Time Out New York: How do you interpret the second act?
Aurélie Dupont: The second act is for me like a dream—with no force, something very delicate, musical. I try to work on the eyes. Like you watch, but you never see. I try to be always in the lights. That means it can be my eyes, it can be my face, it can be my neck or my arms or my back. I always think that the light is like a camera, like a movie. And I really feel it. At the end of the second act, I try to work on something that I saw Carla Fracci do; I try to be almost blind when Giselle goes back to death, and dawn is coming. So I really work on the eyes there: She doesn’t see Albrecht. It’s like she’s almost gone, but she’s still a little bit onstage. I’ve changed a lot about my Giselle. Maybe because I’m older, I try to be more sensitive, more young, more—I don’t know the word. It’s like when you don’t like to be naked?
Time Out New York: Shy?
Aurélie Dupont: Yes, but more than shy. I changed…not the second act, but the first act I changed a lot. Everything is more shy.
Time Out New York: How do you feel about dancing Boléro?
Aurélie Dupont: I’ve never danced it before. It’s the first time for me. I’m really, really excited. And you know when you’re afraid? I’m really stressed. [Laughs] It’s a great piece, and it’s really difficult because it’s, like, 15 minutes of dance, and you’re on this huge red table, and you’re almost naked. Now is a good time for me to dance it, because I feel completely free. You know, sometimes when you’re a young dancer in the Paris Opera, you’re always afraid that people don’t like your dance. Always. You never know why you really dance. Do you dance for people at the company? Do you dance for people that like you very much? Now I dance just for me. I’m not afraid anymore.
Time Out New York: And I think you have to be a woman to grasp that. You can’t be a girl anymore.
Aurélie Dupont: Yes. And I have two babies. I don’t have any more complexes or things you have when you’re younger. And it’s maybe almost selfish because if people don’t like me in Giselle or Boléro, I don’t care. It’s like, Okay, I’m sorry you didn’t like me, I’m very sorry, but I won’t change it; that’s the way I want to do it and I will do it again. So it’s a very new feeling that I have, since maybe one or two years. I don’t want to lose time thinking, I’m not good enough, I’m not pretty enough and my dance is not good enough. I just want to dance. I want to try everything on stage. I don’t want to lose time.
Time Out New York: It’s so surreal to imagine that, like all Paris Opera dancers, you must retire when you’re 42. Is that on your mind as well?
Aurélie Dupont: Yes. I prepare myself every day a little bit. What is the most difficult for me is not Paris Opera, it’s not my pointe shoes, it’s not my costumes. I think I won’t miss anything about it except the stage.
Time Out New York: Would you consider continuing to dance? Not at Paris Opera, but somewhere else?
Aurélie Dupont: I don’t think so. I won’t do it, no.
Time Out New York: Why not?
Aurélie Dupont: [Laughs] Because I’m lazy and at the Paris Opera, it’s very easy. You don’t have to think. You just wake up and you eat and you go to have your class and then you have your schedule and your rehearsal and you just have to dance, you know? And I feel like if I’m a free dancer, if I don’t have any more company, I will be too lazy to work every day.
Time Out New York: I think it must be different as a mother, too.
Aurélie Dupont: Yes, this too. It’s great to dance with the perfect situation: the perfect company, with the perfect stage and orchestra and a woman who comes to your dressing room to do your hair. It’s like we’re divas. I know this. And if I don’t have this anymore, I will be completely lazy. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: How old are your children?
Aurélie Dupont: Jacques is four and Georges is one and a half. They’re coming with us on tour. I have a nanny who’s coming. I hope it’s going to be okay. I don’t know. Jacques, because he’s the oldest, really wants to see New York. He’s very excited.
Time Out New York: You spoke about what it was like for you to be a young dancer. Do you maintain relationships with dancers who are starting their careers now?
Aurélie Dupont: Yes. Young dancers are the future, so of course I’m close with them. I look at the way they work, I look at the way they live, I look the way they dance. It’s very important for me to stay close to people and to young dancers. And I have lots of young dancers that I work with. For the exam, I prepare a lot of dancers. They ask me; every year, there is this exam in November or December, and they have to work two solos from the classical repertoire and modern repertoire. And I don’t know, I have sometimes ten girls that I work with to prepare for the exam. I really like to do it.
Time Out New York: Would you want to teach or coach dancers in the future?
Aurélie Dupont: No, because I want to be onstage. If I’m not onstage anymore, then I don’t want to work all day long and go in the theater at 10am and leave at midnight after the performance, and see all these dancers onstage and me in the wings. It’s impossible. It’s too difficult. I will feel too much frustration. As soon as I am not onstage anymore, then I will want to stop. But it’s okay for me. I prepare myself to do this. If I want to teach or be a coach and give dancing lessons, then I would prefer to do it somewhere else. I would prefer to do it in New York or Los Angeles or anywhere else, but not at the Paris Opera.
Time Out New York: Do you think you’ll move to the United States?
Aurélie Dupont: We would love to. My husband [Jérémie Bélingard, who’s also an étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet] would love to. He keeps telling me every day, “I want to stay in New York, I want to stay in New York.” But I don’t know—I think it’s difficult to have a life in New York. But I would love to. If it is my choice in two and a half years, then I want to move. I don’t want to stay in Paris. My husband lived in the United States when he was a child like me, and it’s a great memory for him, too. So because we have children together, we want them to have the same experience. But I don’t know if it’s difficult for French people to go to New York and work.
Time Out New York: I think it’s less bureaucratic then in France.
Aurélie Dupont: That’s good. Because it’s horrible here. I don’t know about the schools for my children. I don’t know if it’s expensive. I don’t know anything. But we would love to. If I had to choose, and I’m really honest, we would want to live in New York first. Maybe I can be a coach at ABT instead of dancing with the company. [Laughs]
Time Out New York: How do you prepare for your retirement, as you say, a little bit every day?
Aurélie Dupont: One way is to focus on all the people that I see every day—dancers, teachers, the guys who work in the wings, the women who do my costumes. I have small moments with those people, and I just think, Live it in a strong way, because one day you won’t have this anymore. One day, you will go back to the stage door and somebody will ask you your name.
Paris Opera Ballet is at the David H. Koch Theater through July 22.