The Paris Opera Ballet is one of the most prestigious and oldest classical dance companies in the world, and many European and international ballet companies can trace their origins to it. It is still regarded as one of the four most prominent ballet companies in the world, together with the Royal Ballet in London, the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Mariinsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg.
The Paris Opera Ballet is a French ballet company that is an integral part of the Paris Opera. In 1661 Louis XIV created the Royal Academy of Dance, then in 1669 and at the instigation of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the corps de ballet was integrated into the Royal Academy of Music. It is now part of the Opéra national de Paris.
The ballet company consists of 154 dancers, among them 17 Danseurs Étoiles. The principal dancers give 180 dance performances each year, primarily at the Palais Garnier. The dance departments are located at the Palais Garnier. Classes and rehearsals usually take place there. If the ballet performances take place at the Opéra Bastille, the dancers find there the appropriate equipment, dressing rooms and rehearsal rooms.
Since of August 1, 2016, Aurélie Dupont succeeds Benjamin Millepied as Director of Dance at the Opéra national de Paris. She is assisted by a Dance Administrator, a Ballet Master associated with the Dance Department, three Ballet Masters, two Assistant Ballet Masters, a general manager and five managers. Seven teachers provide the daily lessons which take place in the morning. The afternoons are reserved for rehearsals which can also take place in the evening when there is no show.
The ballet of the Opéra national de Paris has its own dance school, the Paris Opera Ballet School, and recruits very little from outside. Most of the ballet dancers come from its dance school, considered one of the best in the world. Its former pupils have won a record of 20 Benois de la Danse awards. The school celebrated its tercentennial in 2013.
The competition for admission to both institutions is extremely fierce. For a dancer to enter the Paris Opera Ballet, it is almost compulsory to be admitted to the Paris Opera Ballet School, to pass the annual competitive examinations in May, and to attend at least the final two classes. 95 percent of the admitted dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet are French.
Development and influence of the French ballet
Ballet is a dramatic genre whose action is represented by pantomimes and dances. Its origins date back to the Italian Renaissance (15th century). Originally developed in the courts of Italy, the ballet received its letters of nobility in France, then in Russia, as a dance-spectacle.
In the 17th century, the significant development experienced by ballet at the court of Louis XIV explains the French origin of most dance vocabulary terms. Depending on the eras, countries and currents, the choreographic show can integrate music, song, text, decorations, even machinery.
The Ballet comique de la reine, choreographed by Balthazar de Beaujoyeulx, was staged and performed in Paris in 1581 the same year that Il Ballarino, a treatise on court dance technique by Fabritio Caroso, appeared in Italy. Although the Ballet comique de la reine was not the first ballet of its kind, its performance coincided with the publication of the treatise established in Italy, then the center of the technical development of ballet.
The French court ballet, both instrumental and vocal, was contemporary with the first attempts at dramatic monody in Florence (the “interludes” at the end of the 16th century). Lully and Molière ‘s opera-ballets and comedies-ballets arose from the court ballet tradition.
In France, ballet gained acclaim as an art in its own right at the court of King Louis XIV who was passionate about dance and determined to reverse the decline of this art, which began during the 17th century. Louis XIV created the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661, then in 1669, the Royal Academy of Music. This would be the birth of the prestigious company known today as the Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris. In 1681 in The Triumph of Love by Jean-Baptiste Lully, Mademoiselle de La Fontaineis the first professional dancer there. Pierre Beauchamp, a dancer and choreographer at court, codified the five classical positions and devised a system of dance notation.
The 18th century saw a profound evolution in the standards and technique of ballet and positioned itself as a form of artistic spectacle alongside opera. The work of Jean-Georges Noverre and his Lettres sur la danse (1760) are no strangers to the evolution towards ballet d’action (or ballet-pantomime), in which the movements of the dancer express the feelings of the character that it is meant to represent and aid in the understanding of the story. The very first action ballet in the repertoire will be the Don Juan(1761) by Gluck, written according to Noverre’s instructions. This major work is the direct ancestor of the great ballets of the 19th and 20th centuries.
At that time, women, encumbered as they were by baskets, corsets, wigs and other high heels, played only a secondary role (whereas they predominate nowadays). The intercalary ballet, inserted in an opera, then became a specific feature of French opera. This can be seen by attending performances of the tragedies lyriques of Lully and Rameau. Noverre ‘s reform (action ballet) and Gluck ‘s also retain this practice.
Modern ballet comprises a succession of episodes which follow one another in a continuous manner. This type of ballet developed at the beginning of the 19th century in an autonomous setting. And Wagnerian conceptions, illustrated by his performance of Tannhäuser in 1861 at the Paris Opera, will make the practice of intercalary ballet obsolete in the Grand Opera.
Heir to the “beautiful dance” practiced in Western Europe since the 17th century, classical dance has as its founding principles the “outside”, the five reference positions, aplomb, rigor and neatness. His technicality has continued to develop since the Royal Academy of Dance and his vocabulary has been constantly enriched, always in French.
In 1832, Marie Taglioni danced at the Paris Opera the ballet La Sylphide choreographed by her father Filippo Taglioni, where both the romantic tutu and the pointe technique appear. It was at this time that the tutu made its appearance and completely uncovered the ballerina’s leg.
With La Sylphide, a great turning point takes place: the romantic ideal overwhelms the stage and the dance becomes airy, precise, elaborate, and essentially feminine. This impression of lightness comes from the use of ballet shoes called ” pointes ” (used for the first time in 1801) and whose reinforced toe allows the dancer to stand on her tiptoes. She is then at the center of all the romantic ballets, the male partners serving more as “fosters” and “carriers” for the ballerina. The aplomb, the pas de deux and the elevation symbolize the new technical qualities, as well as the quality and rigor of a corps de ballet which supports the soloists.
After 1850, enthusiasm for ballet began to wane in Paris but found flourishing in Denmark and Russia thanks to ballet masters and choreographers like Auguste Bournonville, Jules Perrot, Arthur Saint-Léon, Enrico Cecchetti and Marius Petipa. Orientalism became fashionable towards the end of the 19th century.
While France contributed to the rise of ballet in its early days, other countries, particularly Russia, adopted this new form of the art. It was Marius Petipa, a Frenchman who spent most of his life in Russia, who is one of the great explorers of classical technique. Petipa is above all famous for his ballet choreographies and left us many masterpieces such as Swan Lake, from European folklore to music by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty or Casse- Hazelnut, which are the foundation and basis of classical dance as it is today.
The word “classical” made its appearance with the Ballets Russes (1910) and never left dance. Marius Petipa appealed to popular enthusiasm by also producing La Fille du pharaon in 1862, then La Bayadère (1877) and Le Talisman (1889). Colonialism then brings knowledge of Asian and African cultures, but distorts it with misinformation and a lot of fantasy. The Orient is then perceived as decadent. It is nevertheless the time of the constitution of large Western private collections concerning these cultures.
Serge de Diaghilev revived public interest in ballet when he founded his Ballets Russes company. It is made up of dancers from the community of Russians exiled to Paris after the 1917 Revolution. Diaghilev and Stravinsky joined their talents to bring Russian folklore to life through The Firebird and Petrushka. A controversy arose for The Rite of Spring, which offended the Americans. This paragraph requires a reference.
Michel Fokine began his career as a dancer and choreographer in Saint-Petersburg while that of Petipa declined. Fokine left Russia for Paris where he worked with Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. In France, with Serge Lifar, and in the United States, with George Balanchine, creator of the New York City Ballet and founder of the Balanchine Method, the ballet is renewed giving rise to the neo-classical style.
The Ballets Russes continued to develop under the Soviet regime. There was little talent left after the Revolution, but enough to form a new generation of dancers and choreographers who would appear on the scene in the mid -1930s. Technical perfection and precision are demanded by Agrippina Vaganova, director of the dance school of the Mariinsky Theatre.
Ballet was and remains very popular in Russia. The companies of the Kirov (currently Mariinsky Theatre) and that of the Bolshoi Theater are very popular. The ideology of the time forced the two companies to program pieces imbued with Soviet socialist realism, most of which were little appreciated and later removed from the repertoire. Nevertheless, some ballets are remarkable such as Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.
Flammes de Paris (1932) makes extensive use of the corps de ballet and requires astonishing virtuosity in its execution. The Bakhchisarai Fountain (1933), a dance version of Alexander Pushkin ‘s poem choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov to music by Boris Assafiev, is an undeniable success and was first performed in the United States by the Kirov on its 1999 tour. Cinderella is also a production of the Soviet Ballets. These coins were little known in the West before the collapse of the USSR.
History of the Paris Opera Ballet
The Paris Opera Ballet has always been an integral part of the Paris Opera, which was founded in 1669 as the Académie d’Opéra (Academy of Opera), although theatrical dance did not become an important component of the Paris Opera until 1673, after it was renamed the Académie Royale de Musique (Royal Academy of Music) and placed under the leadership of Jean-Baptiste Lully. The Paris Opera has had many different official names during its long history, but since 1994, it has been called the Opéra National de Paris (Paris National Opera).
The Paris Opera Ballet had its origins in the earlier dance institutions, traditions and practices of the court of Louis XIV. Of particular importance were the series of comédies-ballets created by Molière with, among others, the choreographers and composers Pierre Beauchamps and Jean-Baptiste Lully. The first was Les Fâcheux in 1661 and the most important, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme in 1670. Many of these were also performed by Molière’s company at the public Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris, which was later to become the first permanent home of the opera company and the opera ballet.
Also in 1661, Louis XIV had founded the Académie Royale de Danse (Royal Academy of Dance) in an effort “to improve the quality of dance instruction for court entertainments”. Members of the academy, as well as the dance teachers who were certified by it, and their students, participated in the creation of the ballets for the court, Molière, and later the opera. In 1680, Beauchamps became the chancellor (director) of the Académie Royale de Danse. Although the Académie Royale de Danse and the Opera were closely connected, the two institutions remained separate, and the former disappeared with the fall of the monarchy in 1789.
The School of the Royal Academy of Dance was founded in 1713. It is the oldest dance school in the Western world but also the cradle of classical academic dance worldwide. The two centuries following its creation saw the Opera ballet change location eleven times.
Initially, a large troupe, exclusively male until 1681, danced in the entertainments and interludes of operas. In 1776, Jean-Georges Noverre, then the brothers Maximilien and Pierre Gardel, imposed the action ballet there, which was already flourishing on other French stages.
Since 1875, the Opera Ballet has been based at the Palais Garnier. The ballet school is now called “the Paris Opera’s dance school” and moved to Nanterre in 1987 near André-Malraux park, ten kilometers from the Palais Garnier.
Little by little the ballet freed itself from the opera and, at the beginning of the 19th century, a repertoire of pure choreographic works was built up, up to the apotheosis of the romantic ballet. This is where the greatest classical works were created, such as La Sylphide (1832), Giselle (1841), Paquita (1846), Le Corsaire (1865) or Coppélia (1870).
At the end of the 19th century, the European center of dance was no longer Paris but moved to Saint Petersburg, under the leadership of Marius Petipa. Most of the great dancers of the Paris Opera have won Russia and the Opera ballet mainly calls on Italian dancers trained in the school of Carlo Blasis and Enrico Cecchetti, such as Aïda Boni, Pierina Legnani, Rita Sangalli or Carlotta Zambelli.
In the 20th century, the revival was initiated by Serge de Diaghilev ‘s Ballets Russes, which presented six of their seasons at the Paris Opera. Serge Lifar amplifies the renovation movement, to which George Balanchine and George Skibine contribute.
From the 1970s, the ballet gave itself a dual vocation: maintaining tradition and opening up to modernity. This is how, alongside reconstructions of works from the 18th century (by Ivo Cramer or Francine Lancelot) and pieces from the romantic repertoire (Petipa and Nijinski revisited by Nureyev), the ballet approaches the contemporary repertoire by inviting choreographers like Carolyn Carlson, Merce Cunningham, Maguy Marin, Angelin Preljocaj, Dominique Bagouet orPina Bausch.
Throughout the 1980s, the troupe’s history was marked by the figure of Rudolf Nureyev, who held the position of dance director from 1983 to 1989. Rudolf Nureyev was able to build up a repertoire of classical ballets which still forms the heart of the troupe’s repertoire today, ensuring both a significant part of the performances and its greatest popular successes.
It was another star dancer who succeeded Nureyev in 1990: Patrick Dupond, unlike the Russian dancer, came from the troupe and had no claim to choreography. His mandate ended early in 1994.
In 1995, Brigitte Lefèvre became director of dance at the head of the ballet of the Opéra national de Paris. It pursues a policy of openness which results in performances by great guest choreographers, including William Forsythe, Pierre Lacotte and John Neumeier.
September 2004, Gérard Mortier took over from Hugues Gall as director of the Opéra national de Paris until 2010, when he joined the Teatro Real in Madrid. Under his leadership, nine star dancers were appointed, some of whom were relatively old for the profession, Wilfried Romoli, Delphine Moussin and in 2009 Isabelle Ciaravola.
After a short period with Benjamin Millepied as dance director of November 2014. July 2015, it is Aurélie Dupont, the former star and grande dame of the ballet of the Opéra national de Paris who takes over the management.
Hierarchy of dancers
As of 2021, the ballet has 154 dancers, including 16 stars and 12 first dancers, almost all from the Opéra’s dance school. They enter by annual competition and end their career at 42 and a half.
From entry into the corps de ballet to consecration, the Opera Ballet has established an immutable hierarchy among dancers:
5th level: quadrille
4th level: corypheus
3rd level: subject
2nd level: first dancer
1st level: star
The hierarchy of the Paris Opera Ballet is very strict. For a dancer, it is virtually compulsory to enter first the Paris Opera Ballet School. More than 90 percent of the candidates don’t pass the Ballet School entrance examination, and 20 percent of its pupils have to leave at the end of the year after failing the annual competitive examinations (“les concours annuels”) in May. Only 5 to 20 percent of the Ballet School graduates are accepted in the Paris Opera Ballet, initially as dancers on trial (the “stagiaires”).
Levels 3 to 5 together form the “corps de ballet”. Promotion to the next grade is done through an internal promotion competition, whose jury is made up of members of the Opera’s management, dancers from the Paris Opera ballet and outside personalities from the world of dance. This competition takes place every year in November.
Only the stars do not come from this system: the nomination of a first dancer (more rarely a subject) as a star is decided by the director of the Opéra national de Paris on the proposal of the director of dance after a performance. The appointment procedure has varied over time; since 2004, it has been performed in front of the public.
Paris Opera School of Dance
The Opéra national de Paris dance school trains future ballet dancers for the Opéra national de Paris, one of the most prestigious classical dance companies in the world. Founded in 1713 by Louis XIV, the school is now considered the best in the world. This dance school has become an almost obligatory passage to evolve among the stars of the ballet of the National Opera of Paris.
The School was first located on rue Saint-Nicaise, then in the Palais Garnier (1875). In 1983, Claude Bessy received the support of Jack Lang, then Minister of Culture, for the construction of an independent building for the School. Following an architectural competition organized in 1983, Christian de Portzamparc was awarded the project. The School moved in 1987 to this new building located in Nanterre, near Parc André-Malraux.
Traditionally, students are divided into six divisions. These divisions represent the progress of the studies. A student thus begins his first year in the 6th division and completes his training in the 1st division. From 1970 to 2001, Gilbert Mayer, considered the god of pedagogy, was a professor in the corps du ballet at the Paris Opera and at the École de danse in a dual function.
The teaching is multidisciplinary. It includes, in addition to various dance classes (classical, character, contemporary, jazz, folklore and baroque), complementary classes in music, mime, comedy, entertainment law, dance history and even anatomy or gymnastics. Most of these courses and events are created by Claude Bessy in the 80s. Since 1995 school classes have also been compulsory for all pupils up to the baccalaureate.
In 1987, the Paris Opera Ballet School moved from the Palais Garnier (where most of the Paris Opera ballets take place) to a new building located 10 kilometres west of the centre of Paris, in Nanterre. The new dance school building was designed by Christian de Portzamparc. Since 1995, the Paris Opera Ballet School has been a boarding school. Nowadays, from 8 a.m. until noon, all pupils attend school classes leading to the obtention of the French baccalauréat (the bac), the general qualification for university entrance in France.
The selection is very rigorous. In order for a young dancer to enter the school, they must first be chosen as one of 30 to 40 approved students out of 400 girls and 150 boys. To do this, the candidate must pass two entrance exams: a physical exam and a dance exam.
The physical examination criteria require that the height and weight of the candidates each vary between two determined values. We thus ensure that the proportions of the candidate are good and we try to see if he will continue to develop in this direction physically. The selected student is then continuously subjected to various assessments. Each division culminates in an annual competition that takes place at the end of the school year in May.
Finally, at the end of their studies, the students see their learning sanctioned by the competitive entrance examination into the corps de ballet. the best of them join the ballet of the Opéra national de Paris as trainee quadrilles. In the event of failure in this final examination, repeating a year is authorized only when the pupil concerned is under 18 years of age. First division winners receive the National Higher Professional Dancer Diploma.
Among the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet, 95 percent have attended the Paris Opera Ballet School. To describe it differently, for a young dancer to be accepted in the Paris Opera corps de ballet, it is virtually obligatory to enter the Paris Opera Ballet School and attend at least the final two classes (deuxième et première division). More than 90 percent of the candidates do not pass the entrance examination. Even some of the dancers who have later become premiers danseurs (first soloists) or danseurs étoiles (principal dancers) of the Paris Opera Ballet passed the entrance examination only on the second attempt, or were accepted only as fee-paying pupils.