The Bold & The Beautiful

June 30, 2012
Marie-Agnès Gillot carves her own path as a Paris Opéra Ballet étoile.

Gillot in
Phèdre by Serge Lifar. Photo by Anne Deniau, Courtesy POB.

Curious, free-spirited, and unconventional, Marie-Agnès Gillot is, at 36, one of the Paris Opéra Ballet’s most magnificent ambassadors. Tall and broad-shouldered with long limbs, she makes a striking silhouette onstage. Although she shows all the refinement one expects from a POB étoile, she also possesses a raw, emotional power. This summer, she is looking forward to dazzling American crowds when the company embarks on its longest American tour to date: 25 performances in Chicago; Washington, DC; and New York City.

“She has a wild energy that has to be tamed,” says Kader Belarbi, one of her frequent partners. Now the director of dance at the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse, Belarbi admires Gillot’s sheer physical force: “She rips up the wooden floors with her teeth!”

While she is a decidedly modern ballerina, watching Marie-Agnès Gillot is also like watching history in motion. In Paquita, she evokes Fanny Elssler, and yet she has also been compared to Suzanne Farrell. In her performance of Pina Bausch’s Orphée et Eurydice this winter, she personified the choreographer’s brazen sensuality.

“She is especially gifted in a cosmic, mystic realm, capable of transforming that mysticism into movement,” comments Carolyn Carlson, the creator of Signes, the production that led to Gillot’s nomination to étoile at 28.

What is an étoile? POB director Brigitte Lefèvre answers the question: “Most of my dancers are capable of dancing the parts, but the étoiles, they have something from the au-delà [the other world], at the same time beautiful and fragile. They have an aura, they are the light of the ballet.” Seventeen of the 154 dancers are étoiles.

Last February, the strikingly beautiful Gillot was enjoying a rare afternoon break in her Palais Garnier dressing room while on the last lap of a marathon stretch of 14 performances of Mats Ek’s Appartement. Her dressing room was overflowing with photos, pointe shoes, and tutus. Her faithful companion Goldy, a wire-haired dachshund, played or cuddled in her lap throughout our conversation.

The daughter of an accountant and a physical therapist, Gillot was raised in the northern French coastal city of Caen, in Normandy. She was only 5 when she took her first dance lesson. Despite having double scoliosis, whose treatment would imprison her in a cumbersome back brace for years, she kept dancing. By the age of 9, she was packing her bags and heading for the famously strict Paris Opéra Ballet School, then located in the illustrious halls of the Palais Garnier.

“I never expected anything from anyone,” says Gillot about her years at the school. “I pushed myself. I would dance behind the girls who were better than me and copy their movements.” The back brace she wore for 20 hours a day was carefully hidden, removed only for her four daily hours of lessons. She changed in hiding, out of sight from her fellow students, in the confines of the Garnier locker rooms. Her fierce determination helped her conquer the crippling back pain, not to mention the school’s grueling training schedule. “The only way to master the movements is through your mind,” affirms Gillot.

Today that suffering has transformed into strength. She has now mastered pain, she says, and confides that nothing has since matched the suffering of her childhood. “When they took the brace off for good, I was like a race horse tearing out of the gates. Nothing could stop me.”

Often referred to as a thoroughbred—not only for the purity of her movements but also for her workhorse ethic—Gillot is at ease in both classical and contemporary work. She also learned a bit of hip-hop working alongside the break dancers at the annual Suresnes City Dance festival. “She is always in full drive, working at 100 percent,” says Florent Clerc, one of her coaches. Clerc adds that during the daily 90-minute company classes, she is very demanding of herself and never settles for less than her best. “I have never seen Marie-Agnès abandon anything. She masters everything she attempts.”

Fearless intensity and determination are as elemental to her daily regime as her morning coffee (and, if truth be told, her daily cigarettes—a habit she has vowed to quit). This born dancer attacks life with fervor, transforming what she calls her god-given “monkey arms” and “grasshopper legs” into grace like a “chameleon.” Dancing takes her to a spiritual level (“I dance for God, like Nijinsky”), levitating her 5′ 7″ body above her pointe shoes in any configuration. “When I am onstage,” she says, “an aura transports me towards something universal.”

“She has managed,” asserts Clerc, “to take her weaknesses and turn them into strengths.” She compares Gillot to an ocean: powerful and full-bodied, sometimes violently tempestuous, often calm and poetic, constantly in motion. Says Lefèvre, “She actually changes the space around her when she enters the stage.”

The étoile has worked with great choreographers, including Pina Bausch, John Neumeier, William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor, and Roland Petit, but she attributes her agility to working closely with Mats Ek and Maurice Béjart. “Mats shaped my body over the past 20 years,” she says. Béjart provided her with one of her most majestic roles in Boléro, which she describes as 15 minutes of pure suffering, like walking into a wall.

Yet Gillot is also, resolutely, a classical dancer. She revels in her role in Paquita, a role often rejected by her colleagues for its technical rigor. She conquers Gamzatti’s sequence of 32 fouettés alternating en dehors/en dedans in Nureyev’s La Bayadère. While she might consider her greatest challenge to be speed, she takes pride in having mastered her hops on pointe—a step that more often than not left her on her behind. “Nothing is insurmountable,” she smiles. “There is always a way to conquer obstacles.”

Over the past 12 months, she has brought to life a wide range of characters. In Phèdre, she offered a stunning interpretation of a doomed stepmother in this classic by Serge Lifar (see “Paris Opéra Ballet in a Nutshell”). In Nureyev’s version of Cinderella, she transforms from rags to a glittering Hollywood princess, turning misery into magic. In Mats Ek’s Appartement, she wears heavy men’s shoes and pounds the floor while wielding a vacuum cleaner.

She admits, however, that her most challenging performance was under the direction of Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who created a trio for Gillot and two other dancers for the luxury brand Hermès in 2007. While Cherkaoui’s complex, grounded movements are often difficult for classical dancers accustomed to floating on pointe, Cherkaoui says that Gillot performed them effortlessly. He praises her discipline, energy, and risk-taking qualities: “She has no limits, and loves a challenge.”

Gillot embodies the versatility that Lefèvre values for POB, revitalizing the past yet carving out a new vision for dance in the future. The ballerina’s intense curiosity takes her from the labyrinthine halls of the Palais Garnier to the theaters and television sets of Paris, where she is currently a judge on one of France’s latest reality TV shows, La Meilleure Danse (The Best Dance). And even farther, to Houston, where choreographer Dominic Walsh made a Firebird just for her.

When in 2009 she was contacted by La Chaîne de l’Espoir, a French humanitarian agency that provides medical care to poor children worldwide, she jumped at the chance. With the help of 30 company dancers, she moved tourists to tears with a fantastic flashmob of about 400 amateur dancers under the sun streaming through the Louvre pyramid. The performance raised both money and awareness for the cause.

Few were surprised, except perhaps Gillot herself, when Lefèvre invited her to create her first choreography for the POB. Sous Apparence (A Semblance Of) will premiere in October alongside Un Jour ou Deux, by Merce Cunningham.

Today Marie-Agnès Gillot is at the height of her form. Like a fighter in the ring, she conquered scoliosis and climbed up the hierarchical ladder of success at the POB. Powerfully athletic and spiritually enraptured, she is a resolutely 21st-century dancer. Under the stage lights, she projects a glow that is simply majestic, nearly angelic.

Karyn Bauer is a Paris-based journalist who writes about dance and other performing arts.

From top: In Pina Bausch’s
Orphée et Eurydice. Photo by Agathe Poupeney, Courtesy POB; In Carolyn Carlson’s Signes. Photo by Icare, Courtesy POB; In Orphée et Eurydice. Photo by Agathe Poupeney, Courtesy POB; Gillot rehearsing Phèdre with Nicolas Le Riche in the circular studio under Palais Garnier’s domed roof. Photo by Agathe Poupeney, Courtesy POB; In Dominic Walsh’s Firebird with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater. Photo by Gabriella Nissen, Courtesy DWDT; Gillot with Domenico Luciano in Walsh’s The Firebird. Note the cigarette: Walsh used Gillot’s own characteristics to create the role of the Firebird. Photo by Gabriella Nissen, Courtesy DWDT; Rehearsing Kylián’s Kaguyahime. Photo by Anne Deniau, Courtesy POB.