An Interview with Dorothée Gilbert
New York, New York
April 14, 2013
By Michael Popkin
Copyright (c) 2013 by Michael Popkin
Dorothée Gilbert, Photo by James Bort
Dorothée Gilbert, the young star of the Paris Opera Ballet, is in New York this week to dance at the Youth America Grand Prix’s “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” gala. We spoke on Sunday (April 14th) in the lounge of the Peninsula Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Of tall to middle height for a ballerina, her manner is open and informal and totally lacking in pretension. In conversation, she speaks with her hands as well as her voice and illustrates what she means with gestures, particularly when it comes to dance. We spoke in English, a language she learned in her teens at the POB academy. She struggled once or twice with it, when she particularly wanted to find a precise expression, but her command of the language was good and her idiom charming. Her speech was punctuated now and then by an infectious, good-natured laugh, never ironic, and always at her own expense, her voice musical and of middle pitch.
What are you dancing at the gala on Thursday?
I’m doing the balcony pas de deux from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet with Marcelo Gomes.
Is that the version of the balcony scene that I found on YouTube, where you’re dancing with Hervé Moreau?
No, the You Tube clip is from Nureyev’s version of Romeo and Juliet. I’ve never actually danced MacMillan’s version before, but I’ve got four days to learn it for the gala. But I danced with Marcelo three years ago in Rio and he’s such a good partner and person, and we have a really good feeling on stage, so we should be able to master it nicely. I’m looking forward to it very much.
What makes him such a good partner?
It’s his feeling for the ballerina’s balance. He knows exactly where you will feel good and look good too. That’s not a technical skill you can learn. Either you have it or you don’t. Of course, he’s also very strong, so that all the lifts are good. But he has something special for your balance. It’s really a rare talent and Manuel LeGris at the Paris Opera also has it a little. And when you dance with Marcelo, it’s a pleasure because you don’t have to tell him: “a little bit more in front . . . a little bit more in the back.” He just feels it and you’re where you want to be and need to be, so it’s all very easy.
How does the MacMillan version of the balcony pas de deux relate to Nureyev’s?
The steps are different. But I think it will be easier because the Nureyev version is really, really hard. Nureyev's version of any role is always very hard and whenever I do a ballet I know from a Nureyev production in another version, it’s always easier. (Laughing). But Juliet is also just a dream role for me. She’s an incredible character and I find so many feelings to express in this story.
Photo by James Bort: Dorothée Gilbert and Marcelo Gomes rehearsing the Balcony Scene in MacMillan's "Romeo and Juliet" for their upcoming performance at the Youth America Grand Prix Gala
Nureyev’s version of the balcony scene looks more neo classical than some of his other choreography, for example, in The Nutcracker. Can you comment on that?
Yes because it’s more off balance. For me that's what neo-classical means. The body doesn’t stay in a straight up and down line so much but goes from one movement into another. When you’re "in between" movements, for me that’s neo-classical. You’re dancing more. Because very classical, you are straight in the leg and it’s like that. (She indicates a line up and down the chest). But Nureyev’s ballets are different from one to another from that point of view. Some are very classical. Others like Romeo and Juliet, or Cinderella - for me Cinderella is a little like Balanchine, with all those variations. And a bold way of moving too that’s also like Robbins. I like that.
How do you prepare for a role the day that you dance it?
The day of a performance I am really a bit closed and inside of myself. And all day I’m reviewing the technical things for the show in my mind, as well as the big things I want to tell about the character and the story. And I have a ritual. I take class in the morning, and rehearsals and eat; and then afterwards I go to sleep. And when I go to sleep before a performance, I always visualize all the steps I will be doing. Sometimes, I fall sleep before I finish the ballet in my head though. (Laughs). But I always do that. Then I wake up and do the make up and hair, and stuff like that. And because the ritual is very precise, I’m not thinking about daily things before a performance, what I’m doing, what else is going on in my life. I’m just thinking about the character, and it’s why I’m so inside myself during this time. And I prefer doing a show in the evening, to a matinee, because with a matinee there’s not a lot of time to prepare like this. But anyway, after all this I just go out and dance.
How much do you vary the details of a ballet from one performance to another?
Every performance is different, because you do it with the feeling of that moment. The steps are very precise and don’t change. But the feeling of the music that night, and especially the partner and the audience – those things change with every show so they’re all a little bit different. It’s nice because details of acting can change spontaneously. Because the partner will tell you something different, or will give you something new, and you will respond like he did. So I always think about the dramatic details before a show but I’m prepared to throw them away. You go on stage and it’s spontaneous.
In Giselle last summer you made Giselle’s moment of death a big grand jetée in attitude that you didn’t land. Instead, when your leading foot touched down, you just crumpled to the floor. It was amazing. I’d never seen this elsewhere. How did you develop that detail?
(Thinking) I don’t know really where that came from. But when I thought about the mad scene, I thought that here (touching her heart) I’m getting weak and doing the jumps. So when I just touch the floor I just don’t have the force to stay up and have to go down. Then I don’t know . . . I was thinking like that and did it in rehearsal. And the ballet master also liked it and told me, “Yes, let’s take it like that.”
Was your visit here last summer with POB for the Lincoln Center Festival the first time you danced in New York and how did you like it?
For me New York was the best audience I’ve ever seen and, really, I don’t say that because I’m here in New York now. But it was a very different audience from what I’m used to because they reacted even during the performance. In France, they wait for you to finish your variation to applaud. Here, during the variation, if you do something special, they applaud you and you can feel that they understand what you’re doing. So it was very touching and gave me the power to do more. So it was a very good audience for me. And also New York is a city of dreams. When you’re from France, New York is the city of all the dreams you can dream. Of everything you want. So it was a little bit of a dream to come here and dance and I would love to dance more here in New York.
Are you taking class here this week?
I am going to take class with ABT because Marcelo is there.
Do you think that Benjamin Millepied, when he becomes director of POB next year, will by the nature of his career until now put Paris more in contact with New York?
I hope so because I think there are lots of complimentary things. The two schools of dance – French and American - are very different. But I think it could be very interesting to exchange.
Photo courtesy of Dorotheé Gilbert of Gilbert in the POB's Production of "Coppelia"
What characterizes the French school of dance?
The calf and lower part of the leg are very important in our school and we work a lot on turn out in our presentation; also on how we roll up on to, and down off of pointe. You go through the foot. (Indicating with her hand a pliant, continual motion). You don’t spring up. But the most important basic thing in our school is the line and placement of the body and the way you are straight. This is very, very important for the French. And for me, I was not very good in placement when I began dancing.
Tell me about that. What were your challenges as a young student?
The first time I presented myself at the POB school at eleven years old I was rejected. Because I had very good facility and in Toulouse we did a lot of difficult things but I didn’t have the keys to the French school. I didn’t have the placement. My feet weren’t turned out enough. And my extension: No. It’s still not very good but much better. Generally my way of moving was very good and coordinated but the details - those were the things I didn’t have. So it was very hard for me to enter into the ideal physical mold. Because when I arrived at the school, I was doing pirouettes and brisées and manèges but I had to go back to the beginning. Dégagé. Plié. And at twelve years old I was like, “No, I want to dance. I don’t want to do dégagé and things like that.” So it was hard to understand that I had completely to forget what I had learned before in order to rebuild my body. So this was the biggest challenge I had to face in the school.
How long did it take to reconstruct your placement?
I’d say five years - all my years at the school. Because in the beginning, I was always in the middle of the class. But at the end, I started to be third, and then second, and first. When I finished the school, I was the first one to be taken into the corps de ballet. So it took time. And I didn’t finish working on these details during my first years in the corps de ballet at the Paris Opera either; I did lots of work to improve and never stopped working on all the weaker elements. Even now I have to continue to think about that. But the placement is more in my body now, so it’s easier.
And what are your challenges now that you’re an Étoile?
My challenge now is never to stop working. Because when you arrive at Danseuse Étoile in the Paris Opera – when I was young I was dreaming of all the stars I could see, like Isabelle Guérin and others. And they’re not there any more and I am right at the place they were. So I don’t have women dancers who can make me dream now at the Paris Opera. I have to do it for the others, but I still need to dream myself. So I have to see a lot of things. I love to see other women dancing. So when I do a gala, I love to see the way the Russian women are dancing, or the American women, and I try to take a little bit of what I love in all these schools to make it work for me in more of an international way now. And it’s o.k. I don’t need to worry about the French schooling because it’s in my body and anything else I absorb is built onto that foundation.
And do the ballet masters say anything if they think you’re going too international?
No. It’s fine because the work of the Paris Opera is still there, you know, in my body. Also because, when you’re doing a Nureyev ballet, you can’t do it any other way. You have to do it in the way of the Paris Opera because it’s not possible otherwise. (Laughing).
Photo Courtesy of Dorothée Gilbert of Gilbert as Kitri in the POB's Production of "Don Quixote"
When you talk about having to work on your placement for five years I wonder how do you dealt with the self criticism that’s so much a part of ballet training? As an adult woman and an Étoile, have you made your peace with that?
It’s not easy. Because there’s lot of moments when you think, “I’m not like I want to be.” You see some video of yourself and every detail that’s not good and sometimes it’s hard. But then you do a performance, like in New York last summer, and the audience is so exciting and you feel that you are compensated. It’s such a privilege and joy to dance. So we have both. We are happy when the performance goes well and it’s a pleasure.
But with an audience or with critics, you can do something well and maybe they won’t like it. Or you can do something that you know wasn’t your best, and they’re praising it. Isn’t that a problem if you try to depend on those reactions?
Yes, sometimes you are not satisfied with what you did but the audience likes you. And other times you feel that you were good and the audience preferred you another day. But I do think a lot about the corrections. Also in life, I’m never really satisfied with what I’m doing and always want more from myself. I’m very self-demanding in dance but also in other things. (Laughs with great gusto).
But you laugh when you say it! So maybe it’s just that spirit you’ve got that balances the self-criticism? Has that positive energy always been in your nature?
Completely. It’s a balance of things. You can’t only see the dark side. Because if you see only that, you’re not going anywhere. It’s not going to make you better. So it’s good to have critical moments, in order to improve. But you also need to laugh and smile. And yes, I’ve always had the sense of humor. (Laughing). The laugh is Toulouse and I’m like that and it helps me a lot. Because at the beginning, dance was very hard for me. The first time I went to the Paris Opera I was rejected. After every exam in those early years, I was medium, like 5th or 6th, in a class of thirty girls. But I always thought, “I’ll work twice as hard to be better next year.” The bad news was always a force that made me want to work more. To prove to people that I was capable of reaching the level I wanted to.
What are your favorite things to dance right now?
I love ballets with strong characters. Like Romeo and Juliet, or Onegin, Giselle or La Bayadere. Very strong characters like that, these are my favorite things on stage. Because you are totally another person; and you can feel the story with the music, and you are going into another world.
How did you learn to act?
By performing. Otherwise I had no formal training in it. But when you work with the ballet master on a character he can give you some advice. Also I learned to watch lot of video to learn the way other dancers do things and to see what was touching me and what wasn’t. For Giselle, for example, I watched video of Carla Fracci and things like that. So when I do a ballet, I try to always look at a lot of video to see what I like and what’s my taste. I choose some moments and make them my own. But then I forget everything I saw and put the role together for myself. And right now it’s very easy to do that because you have so much video on the internet and things like that. So that’s very good. Because a few years before it was very difficult to have good video. To try to have Margot Fonteyn or things like that when you were doing Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella - it was very hard to find. So now it’s easier and a very good tool for my work.
What interests you artistically outside of dance?
All of the normal things. I like reading, going to the cinema. I try to go to museums, painting, everything you see there. But I think that for us, as dancers, the music is the most important thing. Because when you do ballet, the music inspires you and the way you dance
What did you listen to growing up?
A lot of classical music, grand opera and jazz. My parents listened to that.
Have your parents moved to Paris?
Yes, they moved to Paris when I entered the POB school because I’m an only child and I didn’t want to be a boarder at the school. And they knew nothing about dance. That’s why they came with me - because I could be dismissed from the school after a year and they didn’t know about dance, and the difficulty of all the schooling, so they did that. We stayed together. I’m very close to my family.
Photo by S. Mathe: Dorothée Gilbert in POB's Production of "La Dame Aux Camelias" in 2008
What did your father do?
He had a small business manufacturing uniforms for industry, health care and the cleaning business,the white coats for doctors, those kinds of things – a small firm started by my grandmother. My mother was helping my father run things. The family was originally Spanish but came to France and was fortunate in this industry. But my father was happy to sell the business because times were changing. With the competition from Asian firms, I doubt you could do it today economically.
What else do you have coming up that people should know about?
I will do La Sylphide in July for the first time. I’ve never done it before. But other than this it’s very hard to say what I’m doing next year because just now it’s the end of the 2012-13 season. A new season begins in September. So I just know I’ll do Paquita at the Bolshoi theater in September in Moscow, with the Paris Opera on tour. And after I think I will also do Sleeping Beauty. Then we’ll see about next year’s casting.