To the swoosh of the conductor’s baton, the velvet curtain of Paris’s Palais Garnier opera house draws back to reveal a bucolic scene. The classical ballet The Wayward Daughter opens with a droll rooster dance before étoiles (star ballet dancers) Myriam Ould-Braham and Mathias Heymann take to the stage. In the role of mischievous country girl Lise, Ould-Braham’s clear eyes tease as she dances in her farm girl frock with spry fragility. As she lifts her arms above her head, the tiny muscles of her back flex, as if she might fly away. Heymann, in sunburst yellow tights, is strong and agile. Calf muscles bulging, as if on a springboard, he leaps into the air, where time seems to linger, and the audience watches his pirouettes and hyper-extended splits appear in slow-motion. With a head of dark, thick hair, he appears like the alpha male, while in character, he shows a gentle, playful side, too. Together, the partners ebb and flow, over and under the allegro con mobile notes of Hérold’s score. The ballet, conceived in 1789, and one of the oldest of the classical repertoire, concludes the 2018 season.
“Inside Apollo’s Labyrinth” originally printed in the September 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia.
This month will mark the start of a new one, while 2019 will welcome the milestone 350th year of the Paris Opera. King Louis XIV of France founded the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661, formally making ballet a high art to be nurtured and protected. Eight years later, he established the Académie d’Opéra and the Paris Opera was born. The Sun King, who had started classes at age seven, was a dancer himself until 1670, when lines written by dramatist Jean Racine in Britannicus convinced him that a king should not entertain his subjects on stage. In 1681, the troupe opened its doors to female dancers. However, the first étoile dancers did not come until much later, when the title was created by Serge Lifar, ballet master and choreographer. Dancers Solange Schwarz and Lycette Darsonval were named in 1940. The following year, Italian Serge Peretti received the prestigious title.
Now, every year, since 2015, the new season opens with a spectacular black tie gala at the Palais Garnier. A monument of Paris, located off Place Vendôme, the building featuring baroque, classic, and renaissance architecture is crowned with a statue of Apollo. The mythical god of music triumphantly holds a golden lyre over his head. After climbing the sweeping marble staircase, swathed in thousands of blooms for the occasion, guests fill its 2 105 seats, all reserved months in advance. Under the whimsical Chagall mural and eight-ton bronze and crystal chandelier, heads cock to steal a glimpse of fellow guests’ ensembles. On this eve, women are dressed in couture and draped in fine jewels. Diamond brooches are pinned to silk turbans and chiffon gloves are dipped in ruby rings. In fact, the soiree is intrinsically linked to the world of fashion, with this year’s gala supported by Chanel and Rolex. Ahead of the 800-person VIP dinner in the Palais’ halls, the evening’s program announces a ballet never-before-seen at the opera. But the pièce de résistance is le grand défilé. To the repetitive music of Hector Berlioz, this virtuous march, unique in the world of dance, summons the entire Paris Opera Ballet company and its ballet school students, affectionately referred to as petits rats (little rats), to walk down the stage towards the audience in rows. It is at the edge of the orchestra pit that they bow and curtsy to rapturous applause.
“This défilé is something extraordinary,” nods Heymann, chatting comfortably from inside one of the many rooms of his workplace – the Palais Garnier. “When I walk, I feel so much pride. Me – the kid from Marseille, who came from Morocco – walking by myself on the opera stage.” Only étoile dancers walk alone. “For my first défilé, my parents were in the auditorium. I recognized my mother because when everyone clapped, suddenly, I heard a high-pitched lalalalala – the ululation.”
While Heymann still marvels, his first défilé as an étoile occurred nine years ago, the day following his nomination. Becoming an étoile is the highest rank a ballet dancer can achieve, and one that is carried until compulsory retirement at 42 years old, and beyond. It is an honor bestowed to reward a special talent, one that surpasses technique. Today, the company, led by dance director and former étoile Aurélie Dupont (2016), counts 154 dancers; among them are 17 étoiles, 10 women and seven men. “It occurred at the end of my performance in the ballet Onegin,” recalls Heymann of his nomination. “The curtain was supposed to close, when suddenly, the company director arrived on stage to make the announcement. The audience went wild,” he recalls. “That night, I had danced with Myriam; it could have been her, or I.” Ould-Braham’s nomination arrived three years later. Heymann’s large, chestnut eyes darken in defense of his partner, “Myriam has always been a star. And I am not just saying that because we dance together. Even when she was in the corps de ballet, you saw her. She has a light to her, and her body – the perfect ballerina.”
Small in stature, Ould-Braham appears to flutter across the stage like a mockingbird. She is exceptionally supple – her arch alone is so pronounced that she exhausts a pair of Bloch pointe shoes after each performance. Inside her dressing room, walls and drawers are stacked by the dozen with the pink satin slippers. A tutu leans against a wall, its crinoline stiff; the large vanity is scattered with bobby pins and stage makeup. At the entrance hangs a mountain bike – her husband, Mickaël Lafon’s; he is also a dancer in the company. On the door, a dried leaf is perched below her name and above her room number. “This is from my son,” she beams. “It is his first gift to me,” she says of her three-year-old. “Even before I wanted to be a dancer, I wanted to become a mother,” she states. While Ould-Braham is 36, somehow, learning that she is a wife and a mother and took 13 months maternity leave is both surprising and reassuring. In the all-consuming world of dance, that a star ballerina has the capacity to nurture other passions, is rare.
Ould-Braham was born in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, an affluent suburb of Paris, the only one of three sisters not born in Algeria. Shortly afterward, the family returned to Algiers, where she fondly remembers watching her parents ride horses at nearby stables and attending gymnastics class. At the start of the Algerian Civil War, the family fled to France. The girls’ mother returned to school to become a police officer, while their father remained in Algeria. Perhaps to offer a distraction, or better integrate her daughter in French society, her mother introduced a young Myriam to twice-weekly ballet classes. “I loved it because there was music,” recalls the ballerina. She eventually auditioned for the Paris Opera Ballet dance school, but was dismissed. She doubled her classes and, at 14, was accepted to the school. For the next three years, she would finish her dance exams first in her class. At 17, she was invited to join the company. The initial experience, however, was not what she anticipated. “I felt like I was wasting my time,” she remarks. “Learning roles but only serving as a replacement to the replacements.” At 23, she was named first dancer and began partnering with Heymann, though it is only in the last two years that their partnership has intensified. “On stage, he has an animal, almost feline aura that moves me. It is not always obvious to partner with him; he can be very explosive – after all, he is a star.”
Before she was promoted to étoile in June, 2012, she traveled and danced abroad. Recalling dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, she comments: “The Russian dancers are very free, they dance. In France, our way is strict and controlled. We focus on maintaining line and positions. My personal quest is to find a middle ground. I have always wanted to be free.”
Ironically, dancers’ lives revolve around a company’s schedule. When they are not rehearsing, they have appointments with massage and physiotherapists. Heymann and Ould-Braham are well-versed in the art of recovery. The year after he was named an étoile, at 22, Heymann’s tibia suffered a stress fracture. “The bone should heal itself, but it wouldn’t. Each time I would jump, it would crumble.” He became the first French dancer to have a 30cm nail inserted into his knee cap and descend the length of his tibia. He stopped dancing for two years. “I had to learn how to walk again. We didn’t know if I could dance.” Ould-Braham, meanwhile, on top form following her return from maternity leave, was thrown too roughly during a playful scene on stage. Her foot fractured mid-performance. She was left to hobble on crutches with a seven-month-old baby at home. A dancer’s resilience is two-parts mental and one-part physical.
Like Ould-Braham, Heymann began dancing late. The son of a French, Algerian-born military father and a Moroccan mother – a fervent oriental dancer – hailing from Kenitra, he began serious study at 10 years old, when his family moved to Marseille. He had accompanied his sister to a dance class when a teacher spotted him and invited him to join. “Within a week, she told my father, ‘Your son has potential.’ I was a shy kid, I didn’t really express myself and I had never said that I wanted to dance.” The movie White Nights (1985), featuring dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, had sparked his interest years ago. “I was small and so the teacher also told my father that the stretching might provoke a growth spurt,” he recalls with a laugh. “What is so touching is that it was my father, this authoritative, military man, who pushed me and who took me to my classes.” Within no time, Heymann started competing. His athletic prowess and competitive spirit – “be the best or nothing” – drove him to win a scholarship to attend a summer school in Miami at 13.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, his father had sent a video of his dancing to the Paris Opera Ballet School. Upon his return to France, the two traveled to Nanterre in Paris to see if the tape had been received. “I remember arriving at the school and the two of us peeking through the mailbox. The tape was there! But it was summer and there was no one to open it,” he shrugs. Soon after returning to Marseille, the former director of the Paris Opera Ballet School, Claude Bessy, called and summoned him for a week’s test. He was accepted to the academy, and attended school in the morning and danced each afternoon. Every weekend, he took the seven-hour train ride back home to Marseille. At 17, Heymann was invited to become a member of the Paris Opera Ballet.
Reflecting on the coming season and the Paris Opera’s history, Heymann comments: “I am someone who lives in his time. There are so many things happening in the world now, and I do think that in 100 years, people will talk about this era. But in ballet, change is difficult, for it is so precious. Respecting its traditions is a value in itself; they represent something that I want to defend. Yes, there are people who vouch to modernize things, but I am not one of them.”
The evening Ould-Braham and Heymann dance The Wayward Daughter, the horseshoe-shaped auditorium is filled with both children and adults. They express their delight through applause, laughter, and the occasional “Bravo!” Why, exactly, are they there? Why, year after year, do benefactors from Brazil to Saudi Arabia return to support this monument of high art? Is it to experience mere after-work entertainment? The answer can be found in the quiet meeting of the two étoiles’ hands. These seemingly perfect bodies, that move with flawless musicality, transcend technique to incite emotions that carry the intensity of one’s youth. When skill so exacting is matched by grace, it is a formula for deliverance. The gift they offer is a journey in time to that pocket of first memories – a first kiss, a first broken heart – stimulated through the marriage of movement and music. Many call it magic. Others, le ballet.
Photography: Luis Monteiro
Style: Anna Hughes-Chamberlain
Hair: Audrey Lambert at B Agency
Makeup: Marco Antonio
Style assistant: Alexandra Hicks
Photography assistants: Nikita Mjagkovs, Philippe Milliat
Shot on location at Palais Garnier, Paris