THE stage at the Palais Garnier is bare and luminous. Eleven people are seated at a table in the empty section of the orchestra, frowning over their notebooks. A bell rings and an announcer appears on stage and officially introduces a dancer. For about three minutes, she navigates the technical minefields of the mandatory variation and finishes with a bright smile. There is no applause. A few seconds of silence and the bell rings again.
The annual Paris Opera Ballet Competition is not for the faint-hearted. In this company, one of the largest ballet companies in the world, it is not enough to be gifted. It is not enough to constantly be chosen for soloist or leading roles, or to be chosen by guest choreographers. It’s not enough to be adored by the public or find special favors with the artistic team.
This is because, unlike any other ballet company in the world, the Opera has an almost military hierarchy and promotion system in its spartan exactness. To be promoted, a dancer must participate in the Annual Competition, or promotional competition, and perform two variations (one set, one “free”) before an 11-member jury made up of fellow company members, Opera officials and two external judges (this year the choreographer Pierre Lacotte and Igor Zelensky, director of the Novosibirsk Ballet).
The competition has existed at the Opera in one form or another since 1860, instituted by Marie Taglioni as a compulsory level maintenance examination. (It wasn’t until the 1970s that participation became voluntary for the company’s 154 dancers, about half of whom participate.) The most recent competition was held two weeks ago and offered the same spectacle of ambition, hope and despair that plays out every year.
The ranking of the jury determines who is promoted in the few places available in each grade: after the entry quadrille come corypheus, subject and first dancer. Once dancers join the Opera, a state-backed company, they have little incentive to give up a guaranteed salary until the mandatory retirement age of 42, and retirement thereafter. (This year, the coveted top spots went to Ludmila Pagliero, Josua Hoffalt and Vincent Chaillet.)
The only rank impossible to acquire through competition is the elusive star. The title is mainly given to the first dancers, but not always.
Most dancers, however, depend on competition for both improved salaries (about a 15% gain at each rank) and better roles, as casting is largely determined by rank.
It’s a grueling system. An injury, illness, nerves or just a bad day can derail a career for an entire year or more. The dancers find themselves judged and confronted with friends and colleagues with whom they will soon – perhaps the same evening – dance on stage. But the competition is viewed favorably by dancers, said Ariane Dollfus, editor for Danser magazine.
“We are a nation of competitions,” Ms Dollfus said. “The idea that excellence is recognized by an examination or a competition is widespread in all French circles. There are competitions to enter the Grandes Ecoles, for administrative jobs, for architects, for civil servants. It’s very French. We have more faith in a formal, official structure than in something resembling an arbitrary decision.
To non-French ears, the idea of the competition as a democratic procedure may seem strange. Can’t we miss marvelous artists who are perhaps not technical virtuosos? The personal likes and dislikes of the five members of the company who make up half of the jury can certainly influence the result?
“There are dancers who are not beasts of competition”, says Brigitte Lefèvre, director of dance at the Opera, a little tired after the first tests. “Sometimes it has serious consequences. If you don’t succeed in your pirouettes, your balances, at least there is a group of insiders on the jury who know what you can do and who take it into account.
Ms. Lefèvre acknowledged that the competition is psychologically exhausting for the dancers, who work on their solos for months while rehearsing and performing a changing repertoire. (Mme Lefèvre and the ballet master Patrice Bart choose the variations of the decor each year.)
“It’s brutal on competition day,” she said. “There is so much at stake. There are always tears, always dancers who come to see me afterwards to discuss. I tell them, and I believe in it, that over the course of a career, talent finds its way. And after all, nerves and tests are things that dancers have to deal with during their life on stage.
For dancers with clearly exceptional promise, competition is probably nothing more than a routine. Agnès Letestu, Dorothée Gilbert and Mathias Heymann are some of the current stars who have risen through the ranks in a short time. But for others, the path may be more difficult. Isabelle Ciaravola, recently named étoile, had to endure 11 trials of the competition before finally being promoted to first dancer in 2003.
“For me, doing the competition has nothing to do with the joy of dancing,” Ms. Ciaravola said in a phone conversation. “Your life, your career is on the line for four minutes. It takes nerves of steel.
But even Ms. Ciaravola spoke positively about the competition, pointing out that it is a chance for corps de ballet dancers to get noticed and that it motivates dancers with permanent jobs to keep working hard.
“It’s an incredibly stressful system, but it’s just normal for them,” said David Hallberg, a principal dancer with American Ballet Theater who spent a year in the final division at the Ballet School of the Ballet. ‘Opéra de Paris, watching his classmates prepare for the entrance exam to the company. “Not only do the dancers not question the system, they are proud of it. It is part of their institution, their tradition. In France, it matters a lot.