Hugo Marchand, arguably the most starred star of the Paris Opera Ballet, watches, shirtless and muscular, from the cover of his new memoir, ‘Danser’ (Arthaud), published in France last month.
Marchand, at 27, seems a little young to have written an autobiography. Although he rose through the ranks quickly — at 23 he was a star, the highest rank in the company — he still has a whole career ahead of him. And from the outside, his life looks like a series of untroubled accomplishments, validated by critics and audiences alike, who love his lyricism, virtuosity, acting abilities and top-notch allure.
Why, then, a book now? Marchand asked the same question when an editor approached him three years ago. “I had a lot of doubts, but the editor told me that she wanted to hear the voice of a young person talking about following his passion, and what the costs were,” he said in an interview. video from his apartment in Paris.
In the end, he had a lot to say. In “Dancing”, Marchand (with the help of a journalist, Caroline de Bodinat) describes, often with poetic intensity, the grueling and competitive world of the school and the company of the Paris Opera, and plunges the reader within its claustrophobic confines.
He also writes movingly about his own struggles with self-acceptance. At 6ft 3in, with a naturally muscular build, he felt too tall and tall for the thin-boned Paris Opera ideal, and his career was steeped in self-doubt and visits from stage fright. And it touches, albeit lightly, on the delicate politics of recent years at the Paris Opera Ballet: Benjamin Millepied’s brief tenure as director, Aurélie Dupont’s current reign, an internal report in 2018 on the dissatisfaction of dancers.
Since June, Marchand and other opera dancers have been able to take lessons and rehearse daily, although performances have been reduced. Marchand also worked on a project, a pas de deux with Hannah O’Neill (an opera ballet colleague), for Gagosian Premieres — a series of filmed collaborations between visual artists and artists from other disciplines. The film, which will be posted online March 23, is set among a series of enormous paintings by Anselm Kiefer currently on display at the Galerie du Bourget site in Paris.
Kiefer, who was present for the shoot, called the relationship between the dancers and the art “a lucky and wonderful intersection”. In a video interview, he said, “It was as if the dancers were coming out of the paintings, writing fleeting lines in the air,” adding that the paintings “are also fleeting; they are never finished, always in action, and the dancers show it so clearly.
Marchand spoke about the Gagosian project, the Paris Opera’s recent report on diversity and an ambition to dance in New York. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What did you like about doing the play Gagosian?
I’ve always wanted to work with other artists and involve other artistic disciplines. Hannah and I asked Florent Melac, a friend of ours in the corps de ballet, because we liked his choreography. He chose the music, “Duet” by Steve Reich. I love how it loops and matches Kiefer’s work which uses recycled and repetitive materials. We had the chance to meet Anselm Kiefer, and I was very touched and moved by the paintings.
Are there other projects or ambitions you wish to pursue?
I’ve always wanted to explore another house, to dance with other companies. I would love to come to New York and perform with the New York City Ballet or the American Ballet Theatre. I’m very interested in the American ballet style, its speed and efficiency, the way people move. But we can’t even cross borders into Europe at the moment. Maybe one day!
Benjamin Millepied encouraged and promoted you during his tenure. After he left, Aurélie Dupont arrived and there seemed to be a lot of dissatisfaction in the company. How did you feel at the time?
When Benjamin arrived, it was a cool wind. What was crazy was that these rules that hadn’t changed for years suddenly changed. We could dream of having roles even if we weren’t the “right” age or the right grade. He gave me so much attention; I would have done anything for him as an artist. In the two years he was there, I went from understudy to soloist, and when Aurélie arrived, I was worried.
Why? And how is your relationship now?
Ballet is a matter of taste; Just because one director liked you doesn’t mean the next one will. But Aurélie made me a star six months later, which changed my life.
She has ideas about a long-term career, and it can be frustrating when you want to dance particular roles. Sometimes she’ll think it’s too soon. But she has the experience of a long career; at the Paris Opera, you have to be a principal dancer for the long term because you generally stay there until you retire at 42.
An internal survey in 2018, which was leaked to the press, showed high levels of corporate dissatisfaction. In your book, you talk about it in a very neutral way. Did you identify with some of the issues that were raised?
I was shocked and sad when the internal investigation came out. Aurélie hadn’t been there long and it was unfair to put her through long-term harassment or bullying issues. The survey should have been there to help the institution grow and improve, but it had the opposite effect.
What do you think of the Opera’s recent commission of inquiry into racism and its conclusions?
The report emphasized that change must happen from the start; that the message must be passed on, you are Black, Asian, mixed race, whatever, and you should come to the Paris Opera Ballet School if you have the ability. This message has not been communicated so far, but the report means that they will work on it. The company must resemble French society, and in a few years it will be.
In your book, you brilliantly describe the formation of the Paris Opera School of Dance, the ranking, the competitiveness, the desperate desire to enter the company. Are you at all critical of the system?
Being a good ballet dancer is not about being good in the studio. It’s about being able to dance your best at the right time, in performance. The system is violent, but it helps you figure that out early on. Of course, it’s very stressful to face competitions and exams at a very young age. But it gives you the weapons for that moment when you need it.
Is the annual promotion contest, once in the company, a continuation of this idea?
When you join the company, the annual competition plays an important role, because the first year or so you don’t dance at all, you’re lucky if you ever get on stage. The competition gives you a concrete goal and a reason to work and improve every day. There is luck and chance involved; two minutes on stage determine your fate for the following year. But again, it’s about dancing your best at the right time.
And I believe that ultimately people get where they need to be. Ballet is talent, hard work, the right body type – but also that you would die to perform on stage. It’s my best talent: I love ballet so much I could die of it.