“Oh la la,” a guest was overheard exclaiming as the proud notes of composer Berlioz played through the gilded Palais Garnier. Aurélie Dupont, director of dance of the Paris Opera Ballet and general director of the Paris Opera Stéphane Lissner opened the 2019/2020 season at a sensational gala at the opera house in Paris on Friday. Students of the Ballet School of the Paris Opera, followed by the corps de ballet, premiers danseurs, and étoiles, emerged from the mythic foyer de la danse and descended the length of the stage to bow before a crowd offering enthusiastic applause. For a few minutes, it’s as though the heart of Paris was was beating in double time.
Following the traditional Défilé du ballet, the company offered guests including Virginie Viard, Bruno Pavlovsky, Laura Bailey, Virginie Ledoyen, William Forsythe, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Diana Widmaier Picasso, Haider Ackermann, Blanca Li, Jean-Baptiste Mondino, Alexandre de Betak, and more, a taste of great ballets. In particular, Variations by Serge Lifar, danced by étoiles Dorothée Gilbert and Emilie Cozette, featured six costumes designed by Chanel. Silk tulle tutus featured black underskirts that highlighted their grand jetés and pirouettes. The House of Lemarié, floral parurier, made the flowers for each costume. On gossamer silk organza, beads, green and silver gray lurex threads, and silk petals in pastel hues made for delicate bouquets.
Other performances included Trois Preludes by Ben Stevenson, Tchaikovsky Pas de deux by George Balanchine, and Ab [Intra] by Rafael Bonachela. Following an intermission, members of the company enthralled the audience with the performance of Blake Works I, created by choreographer William Forsythe in 2016 (for the Paris Opera Ballet), to the soulful music of British singer and musician James Blake. “The balance of classic and contemporary was on pont,” remarked guest Alexandre Nadjari later that evening.
Afterward, 750 guests took their seats in the halls of the Palais Garnier for a dinner of culinary delights including a crabe entrée by Manon Fleury, chicken and truffle main by Antonin Bonnet, and a macaron biscuit cake “like a tutu” by Sébastien Gaudard. A truly international crowd, with guests hailing from China, Bulgaria, and the United States, many took to an ephemeral dance floor for the Paris Opera Ballet afterparty animated by DJ Agathe Mougin and Wladimir Schall.
Ahead of the gala, Vogue Arabia met with the Paris Opera Ballet dance director Aurélie Dupont at her office inside the Palais Garnier.
Can you offer your musings on the seemingly eternal debate of classic versus contemporary dance? Is there room for all at the Paris Opera Ballet?
We have always done contemporary dance; I am just continuing the work. At the company, dancers can span the ages from 18-42, and the average age is 26. They are men and women of their time, who live like anyone else of 26. They want to be modern; they are modern. We don’t dance classic the way we did 40 years ago. Bodies have changed, young people no longer want to do pantomime. It is becoming more refined. I want the Paris Opera Ballet—and it is the case—to be a reference in the world of contemporary dance. When we do something here, it can be found two years later somewhere else.
Then, that a season is more contemporary or classic, it’s not always a choice, sometimes it’s an obligation; depending on orchestra, which is very expensive, and dancers. I have roughly 125 dancers in the company. Certain ballets require 90 dancers. If I have the locations of the Bastille and Garnier opera houses playing at the same time—and that happens often—I must make a contemporary dance because I cannot do two classical ballets in parallel.
Chanel made tutus for the gala and Rick Owens has made costumes for upcoming performances of At the Hawk’s Well. How do these collaborations come about?
Often, it is the choreographer who has the dream of collaborating with the designer. I adore when there is the convergence of designer and dance and so I try and help them attain it. All designers are fascinated with dance. They are fascinated by movement. When you see your clothes worn by a professional dancer, a dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet, it offers a new vision altogether. When they [the designers] accept, it’s generous, but also very intelligent.
Etoile dancer Myriam Ould Braham who we had the pleasure of interviewing for Vogue Arabia alongside étoile Mathias Heymann, was among some of the company ballerinas who traveled to Abu Dhabi last year to dance. Did you also visit and what were your impressions?
Yes, we were invited to take part in a tour, and I went a few times. I asked if there was a ballet school. It would be interesting, if there is a public that is emerging, and one that accepts to see new things, to maybe found a dance school. I would adore to do that. Art is a form of education. And, it’s also our role as artists to meet people and help instigate new things. I know that it’s a project that I would be very passionate about. I think about it.
What is a day like in the life of the director of dance?
I wake up at 7am and take care of my children; my sons are 8 and 11 .Then I arrive at the opera, often first. I listen to music while I answer emails. I am more Chet Baker in the morning—though I’m really into a singer called Billie Eilish—but that’s more around 17.00. Then, around 11am I take a dance class with the dancers. It’s to be with them, not to judge them. I know them all and have seen them enter the company. Around noon I am with the étoiles, while they practice. Then, in the afternoon I will manage things. If I have a show, I will stay late.
This is the second Gala under the patronage of Chanel, and the first for its new creative designer Virginie Viard. How do you perceive this dynamic?
I adore Viriginie and I’m so happy that Chanel is the patron of the opera. Along with both of us being women, we share the fact that both our maisons respect heritage. Sometimes there are new leaders who want to erase everything that preceded them to mark their territory. I think that’s absurd. Chanel has loved dance since forever. Chanel is very French and so is the Paris Opera. These are two strong names, pillars.
Dance touches so many things—music, philosophy, literature. Do you have another hobby or passion apart from ballet?
I do love music. I can listen to music while working. I am frustrated to not have much or any free time. Unfortunately I have so little time for things I love like reading and going to the cinema. Now, as director, I have to have an overview of dance that is even more expansive than when I was a dancer. When I go out, it is related to dance.
In your eyes, what is femininity?
I consider myself to be a truly liberated person, but freedom is not femininity. Even if it is related, I don’t think it is my first definition. Femininity is the consciousness of your body. The consciousness of a neck, posture, of the position of the legs. Yes, it is that, but also—it is allure.
I notice that you are wearing wonderful jewelry, are you superstitious at all?
No, not at all, but I love jewelry and designing it. When I was a dancer I had an atelier in my dressing room. I once made a collection of 85 pieces for the boutique of the Opera de Paris. Everything sold. Now, I don’t have that much time. Maybe, in the future, I can do a collection with a brand. I made this necklace and I never take it off. From a long chain, Dupont slides two gold disks apart, outlined in diamonds. Inside, the names of her children are engraved, Georges and Jacques.
The evening’s fundraising resulted in over 1.2 million Euros in support on behalf of Rolex, Exclusive Timepiece of the Paris Opera and Sponsor of the Opening Gala, and the House of Chanel, Patron of the Opening Gala, along with generous donations of the Honorary Committee.