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By Pierre-François Vilanoba
As a principal with San Francisco Ballet, Pierre-François Vilanoba is a natural in cavalier roles, but he also excels in character parts like the evil Von Rothbart in Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake. He’s an ardent partner, giving full emotional support to any woman he dances with. He’s fearlessly physical in works by William Forsythe and Jorma Elo, and emotionally powerful as the tortured protagonist in Lar Lubovitch’s Othello. Born in Lille Nord, France, Vilanoba trained at the Lille Conservatory and Paris Opéra Ballet School. After dancing with Paris Opéra Ballet for eight years, he joined San Francisco Ballet as a soloist in 1998 and was promoted to principal in 1999. He has guested at galas around the world and performed in several ballet films, including Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet.
It was almost a fluke, if there is such a thing in life, that I started studying ballet. I was touched by seeing Rudolf Nureyev dance The Sleeping Beauty on television just days before my parents asked me what physical activity I wanted to practice. I danced because I liked it! It was fun and physical, and it was my private garden since nobody else in the family had ever danced. I felt fulfilled by the combination of discipline, challenge, and freedom. It must have been obvious to my teacher, who pushed my parents and me to take the next step toward a professional achievement. He suggested that I join the world-renowned Paris Opéra Ballet School to study more seriously.
Once immersed in the school, I started to lose sight of why I had begun dancing. The emphasis was on technique. Putting aside the emotions that the technique is supposed to serve, I focused on the execution. With teachers insisting on accuracy according to the Paris Opéra Ballet’s style, I was no longer dancing for myself, but to please the person in front of me.
Yet when I became professional and was given opportunities, I began to reconnect with the artistic aspect of ballet and dance at large. The sole execution was not satisfactory anymore. I slowly became aware that emotional depth had been missing from my performances. I enjoyed bringing feelings to the stage, yet my priority was still the execution. I soon subconsciously initiated the transition from dancing for the approval of my director and ballet masters to dancing for my own enjoyment again. Proving that I had the technique was no longer necessary, but dancing with the sensitivity and depth that could touch hearts became my priority. I had to lose sight of my essence in order to rediscover it on a more meaningful level.
I reached this enlightenment during the creation of John Neumeier’s Sylvia for the Paris Opéra Ballet. For the first time I danced a lead part in a full-length story ballet, and the experience was extremely personal. During the choreographic process I learned to understand Neumeier’s intent—his vision, his sensitivity, who he was. This led me to discover the importance of forging a relationship with my partner, not a superficial one but an intimate one that was unique for that moment. For me it was like falling in love. This experience with Neumeier was the turning point of rediscovering my essence.
Today, as I am a more mature dancer, this has become my pride. No longer do I dance for others. I now, finally, dance for personal satisfaction. I no longer seek fame, nor do I seek approval, but instead desire only to express feelings that I would certainly suppress otherwise. My career in ballet has allowed me to discover many facets of my personality, but mainly to accept who I am as a dancer and a person. When onstage, I am not afraid of exposing my emotions and even my weaknesses. I have learned that vulnerability is as beautiful as confidence—maybe even more so, since it’s rarely exposed.
Dancing is, for me, a way of experiencing the fulfillment of life on an emotional level. Our range of emotions can be intoxicating. Evil can be as exciting as Good. Dancing has provided me with an awareness of the subtle beauty of expressing what life is composed of. Why do I dance? I dance to feel.
Photo © Jacques Moatti, Courtesy SFB.