Étoile Léonore Baulac on Feminist Ballet, Hygge and Not Dancing Too "Safe"
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
"She is an all-arounder," says POB director Aurélie Dupont, who promoted Baulac to étoile on New Year's Eve last season, after her debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. "And her dancing is intelligent. She is mature, she knows what she wants, why she does things."
That maturity, along with a solid sense of humor, has helped Baulac weather the rough waters that have rocked the venerable French company in the past few years. When Benjamin Millepied was appointed director of POB in 2014, he pushed Baulac, then a coryphée, into the spotlight.
"I quickly noticed a very musical and imaginative dancer with great individuality," Millepied remembers. "She has a very French elegance, this fine-champagne sort of quality, yet she can also be fierce."
Baulac visibly blossomed under Millepied, her dancing growing in scale and confidence. Her innate musicality was right at home in the American-style repertoire her director favored. She also tried her hand at classics, including Paquita, as well as creations by Mille-pied, Wayne McGregor and William Forsythe.
Millepied's drive to nurture young talent led to discontent among more senior dancers, however, and when the embattled director abruptly announced his departure in February 2016, his protégés weren't quite sure what the future would hold for them. "I worried the momentum I had would come to a halt," Baulac admits.
It didn't. Along with Germain Louvet and Hugo Marchand, two friends and frequent partners, Baulac was one of three Millepied-era favorites to be promoted to étoile by Dupont in the space of three months last season: "It was wonderful, because I was able to share that huge emotion with people who were going through it too." As several other étoiles near retirement, the trio is now leading the charge for the new generation—and rejuvenating the 154-strong company in the process.
Ironically, Baulac didn't even get through the first round of the POB School's entrance exams—the physical examination—when she was 10. She only became serious about a classical career a year later, after winning a competition where her idol, POB star José Martinez, sat on the jury. "I decided to be a dancer to dance with him," she says with a chuckle.
By then, she was too old to reapply to the POB School, instead training with a private teacher, Monique Servaes. At the age of 13, Baulac was admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris, and credits her interest in contemporary dance to its mixed curriculum. "Before that, all I wanted was a tutu," she says. "I think we underestimate how important it is for ballet dancers to learn contemporary dance in order to move in a less rigid way."
She finally joined the POB School at 15 as a paying student, the only path for older candidates. Baulac relished the atmosphere, and joined the POB corps de ballet three years later, in 2008.
A frustrating spell ensued. For five years, she missed the mark at the internal concours de promotion, and as a young dancer on the lowest rung, rarely set foot onstage. "The concours got harder and harder every time I failed," Baulac says. "I was hungry for the stage, for roles. I'm a very impatient person, and I had to learn patience."
A handful of opportunities—including De Keersmaeker's Rain and Olympia in John Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias—as well as side gigs with 3e étage, a pickup group of POB dancers, kept her going. By the concours for 2014, however, she made the decision to leave the company if she wasn't promoted. "I think it freed me: I realized that if it didn't work out, there were other options."
She earned a coryphée spot (the second rank of five), and the following fall, Millepied replaced Brigitte Lefèvre as director. "There was an energy about him that was very encouraging," she says. He immediately cast Baulac and Louvet in Nureyev's Nutcracker. "I went from corps understudy to a principal role. The rehearsals in front of the whole company were more stressful than the shows. You feel people looking at you, wondering: Why not me?"
Dupont was her coach for the production, and was impressed: "If you give her a correction, she will analyze it, keep thinking about it," says Dupont. "The progress she makes between the first day of rehearsal and the show is always striking."
Baulac, who has a comfortable technique but was never known for competition-style virtuosity, has forced herself to unlearn the cautious approach drilled into POB's dancers. "I was a good turner, but at the POB School, we were always told: Instead of trying four turns and messing up, just do two." She credits Forsythe, who created a role for her in Blake Works I, and Dupont with pushing her to take risks. "When you're stressed, it feels safer to dance small. I tell myself that the audience wants to see someone who gives their all."
Baulac in Forsythe's Blake Works I. Photo by Ann-Ray, courtesy Paris Opera Ballet
Despite her steady rise, with promotions every year since 2014, her appointment as étoile still came as a surprise. Baulac was only an understudy for Odette/Odile, her one performance coming as a result of injuries. "For me," says Dupont, "it was already done. I was just waiting for the right role to promote her."
Baulac is honest about the weight of responsibility as an étoile: "You're supposed to be excellent all the time, but I don't feel excellent that often." A short period of therapy, before and after her promotion, helped her to embrace the pressure without complacency.
A balanced home life is part of the secret: Outside work, Baulac, whose mother hails from Norway, swears by hygge, the Scandinavian concept of coziness and warmth. In Paris, she lives close enough to walk to work. After a high-profile relationship with fellow POB dancer François Alu, her current boyfriend is in the field of biological agriculture. "It's refreshing, because when I go home, I can really leave the ballet world behind."
Onstage, one of Baulac's dreams came true this fall when she performed Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring. The next item on her wish list—working with the recently retired Mats Ek—may have to wait, but she hopes for more female choreographers in Paris, including the return of Crystal Pite. "I love the way she makes women move. They have the same strength and power as the men."
She still enjoys the traditional tutu-and-tiara roles, but deems it "crucial that creations depict women in new ways, for the classics of the future." In Paris, expect Baulac to be center stage for them.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
Get Dance Magazine in your inbox
We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.