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Chat with Marie-Agnès Gillot

Henri: How does dance change from a passion to a profession?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: Dance became my profession as soon as I joined the Ballet School. But it has remained a passion all the same – one that is as strong as ever. I just don’t know where the years have gone. If I had to begin my career all over again, it’d be just the same for me. Otherwise there’d be no point in getting up in the morning. Dance is an art – or rather, a vocation. It can’t just be a job.  

Frédérique: What’s a day in the life of an Étoile like?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: It starts with a Ballet class in the morning. Then there’s a 90-minute rehearsal, a pas de deux, etc., what we call a “service d’Étoile” – an “Etoile session” – on all the tricky parts. Then there are two three-hour rehearsals with the Corps de Ballet. If there is a show in the evening, we stop earlier, at 4.30. But at 6.30, we start warming up for the performance. After this chat, I’ll take a half-hour nap, then it’ll already be time to get made-up.

Anne: We’ve seen you in a lot of contemporary dance in the last few years. Does the Ballet repertory still inspire you?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: Yes, it still makes me just as excited as ever. I don’t take it easy in class. At the moment, I’m not pushing myself, because I have a huge amount of shows and I have to conserve my energy. But my ballet skills are always up to standard, and I can do whatever I want. Ballet and contemporary dance feed each other. My training has always been based on Ballet; I’ve just added contemporary things. I’ve never become a “contemporary” dancer, and I’ve never abandoned the Ballet side. That’s the most important aspect. It’s also the hardest… Ballet is my raw material, my native language.  

Paola: Are there any particular classical roles you would love to do?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: In Ballet, I’m somewhat limited by my physique to fairly stereotyped roles. I’ll never dance Little Red Riding Hood (and that doesn’t exist, anyway)! Luckily, contemporary dance has enabled me to do other roles. All the same, I like the idea that a body can express an attitude or a character. We all have a range of roles relating to the physique we are born with, rather than to our personalities or technique.

Marc: How do you construct your characters?

Marie-Agnès Gillot:

If it’s based on a book, I read the book – or the libretto if it’s based on an opera. After that, everything depends on the nature of the part. I tend to only do dramatic roles. The ability to give breadth and dramatic power to a part is a talent you either have or you don’t, and it can’t really be explained. Some dancers become great dramatic performers; others don’t.    

Elodie: Which kind of ballet particularly moves you?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: I find contemporary dance more moving than ballet, because the parts involve more human reality, and the way real people interact. In ballet, everything is more codified: great performances are often linked to great energy, great technical skill and above all great musicality. Contemporary dance leaves more room for the actor.    

Olivia: You have performed a great many roles in your career. Isn’t it hard to always feel the desire and the passion to give everything you have in a new project?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: I have as much enthusiasm as ever. But achieving perfection in ballet makes me just as excited as something new in contemporary dance.

Danny: Do you still get nervous before going on stage?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: For some roles, yes; not all. Especially parts where you have to “die on stage” – the ones where you have to dig really deep into your physical resources. It’s difficult to go on stage when you know you’ll be going right through to that level of physical exhaustion. With Béjart’sBoléro, for example, you know you’re going to suffer. So it’s more of a physical fear. Not to be able to bend any more – that’s what really stresses me. Once you are on stage, you channel this stress. If you feel it’s going to be evening like that, it helps to represent it mentally to yourself.    

Benoît: You are taking part in an evening of ballets by Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor. Have these choreographers influenced how you dance?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: They are both very different. It’s the first time I’ve worked with Wheeldon, while I have already worked four times with Wayne. Influenced? Yes, I’m glad to say! I’m a performer, so I’m there to be influenced – that’s what I want. In front of those people, I am a performer, not a choreographer at all. So I’ve obviously been influenced by Wayne, but Christopher also has that gift.

Gilles: Have you ever choreographed a piece? Is it something you’d like to do?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: Yes, I’ve already done some choreography, including Sous apparence at the Palais Garnier. Choreography takes up the time I have left! For many years now, it’s been there all the time in my head. My free moments are always taken up with preparing something creative. At the moment, it’s taking shape on a somewhat small scale. I don’t know when this desire to choreograph began – when I was around 30, I think. But even when I was only four or five, I would dance in front of my parents, so I was already choreographing, in a way. It took me so much time to become an Étoile that I put it on the back burner. But once I had made it as an Étoile, I went back to it pretty soon.

Carine: Which choreographers make the most impression on you

Marie-Agnès Gillot: The ones who demand a lot from dancers. That’s what enables us to grow. Dancers need to be fed. It’s not their job to create the steps. Great choreographers like Carolyn Carlson, William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor require our constant input. It’s a personal type of creation, but moulded by the choreographer. Many Ballet dancers don’t like that – they feel lost. But I love feeling lost! You find yourself in a kind of state of nothingness, which makes you create things that come from your subconscious and your imagination, and that’s really interesting. But if you come from ballet, you need time to adapt.

Yohann: Which piece would you like to see added to the Opera Ballet repertory?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland. Mats Ek’s Carmen. Lots of others … I can’t list them all!

Victor: How do you see your future? Will you do more choreography and less dancing?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: I can’t imagine my future at all! I’m more of a grasshopper than an ant!

Noémie: What advice would you give a little girl who wants to become an Etoile?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: That’s a huge question! You need so many qualities… It’s not enough to have the body of a dancer; you also need the head – and the musicality, of course. Perhaps it’s best not to say too much in case it’s discouraging…

Gaëlle: As an Étoile, do you transmit your knowledge to the youngest dancers in the Ballet?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: Yes, and I absolutely love it! I am an unusual case, because I learned dance from teachers who were relatively old. I felt I had jumped a generation. Now it’s my generation who teach. I have the knowledge of my elders, plus everything I’ve learned during my career. It’s very enriching to transmit all this to young people, because it makes you think about yourself, and it helps you to grow while helping them. The method I learned with is known as the French School. For my part, I combine what I learned as a child and as an adult, then serve it up to the youngsters, and they love it! I did a course with Violette Verdy. She really liked what I was doing. She even said I had gifts as a Ballet choreographer! I would really love to choreograph a ballet.

Mathieu: Can you recommend a few exercises you do that are good for the body and heart?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: Sadly, there is no miracle recipe. What I have added to my preparation work is the plank. Normally people wouldn’t do that, they’d swim, or cycle – indoors, of course. Adding the plank is the best way of stimulating and firming up the body before training.

Wilson: Do you do any sporting activity alongside your career?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: No. I still do cycling and planking, but only here, at the Opera.

Alice: How did your collaboration with Éric Reinhardt go for his 3e Scène film?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: I have known Eric for a long time. He did the dramaturgy for Le Songe de Médéeby Preljocaj, in 2004, I think. Since then he has become a friend. I stage-directed him at the Maison de la Poésie last year, in a choreographed reading: a new form I’ve invented. I love it when people tell me stories. The idea is to add scenes to a text, but without it becoming a play; it’s still a reading. I found this an interesting idea. And I had such a good time doing that. For the 3e Scène, he wanted to do exactly the opposite.

Paul: When you choreographed Sous apparence, you worked with the visual artist Olivier Mosset. Do you have a liking for contemporary art?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: Yes. I have even made a few steps in that direction. I did my first pieces at the Palais de Tokyo. There were seven of us from the Opera Ballet. I submitted four pieces, which were accepted. In France, they don’t much like crossovers in art, but that’s precisely what I love.

Tristan: As an Étoile, do you experience the upside and downside of celebrity?

Marie-Agnès Gillot: Mostly the upside. It’s an art that inspires a respectful attitude from people. They don’t clap you on the shoulder in the street! If someone recognises you in the metro, they’ll say “I love what you do!” That’s really nice.