A Little of My Past at the Paris Opera Ballet School

Excerpt from the documentary, Etoiles, about the Paris Opera Ballet School.  Notice me around 5:30, 6:18, and 6:53!

So for my last blog I wanted to let everyone know about the ballet classes I teach throughout the city, but I, too, had to start somewhere.  I grew up in France and didn't have what would be considered, I suppose, the average childhood.  I started dancing when I was 3 after my mom decided she could keep both me and my sister occupied in dance classes.  My official step toward my professional path, though, started when I entered the Paris Opera Ballet School in 1991 when I was 11.  With this decision I chose to make a long term sacrifice, chose to give up on my childhood, all for the hope to one day become the perfect dance product.  I started so young that dance has been my entire life and what I know so well.  But I won't deny that it took years of hard work that I still continue to this day.

The Paris Opera Ballet School is the oldest ballet school in the western world, the world cradle of classic academic ballet, and will be celebrating its 300th anniversary in 2013.  It was founded during the reign of Louis XIV, which started and ended with two decisions that made ballet a sovereign art form: (1) the creation of the Académie Royale de la Danse in 1661 and (2) the creation of the Ecole de l'Académie in 1713 "to raise subjects capable of occupying employments that lack manpower".  The school's mission is "to train ballet dancers and provide dancers with professional training" (official decree dated February 5th, 1994 establishing the status of the Paris Opera).  By moving from the court to the theatre, dance became a professional activity.  It was necessary to train performers for the Opera.

For a long time, the school was housed in the Opera buildings, premises that were not particularly adherent with its teaching mission.  It was, in fact, the living conditions of the students from this period that resulted in the nickname for students at the school: "petits rats de l'Opéra" (little rats of the Opera).  It was not until 1987 that the school, then run by director Claude Bessy, was given a made-to-measure location, bringing together dance training, academic training, and a boarding school.  These modern, purpose-built premises, located in Nanterre, were designed by architect Christian de Portzemparc.
The Paris Opera was incredibly strict with rigorous training.  The school itself was 3 buildings joined together, a dorm room, a school for our academic training, and the dance building.  The  3 buildings were interconnected by a huge central glass roof: (1) the dance building, comprising ten studios, a multipurpose room and fully-equipped auditorium used by the students to prepare performances; (2) the accommodation building, including a cafeteria and 50 rooms over 4 floors for 2 to 3 students, each fitted with a shower room, washbasin and toilet; and (3) the general teaching building which included 12 classrooms and administrative offices.
The day began with school at 8:00 am until noon, I had 1 hour to eat lunch, went straight to ballet from 1:00-5:00 pm, and had to be in bed by 9:00pm.  The way the school is organized  ballet was taught at six levels, open to both boys and girls.  The school offered a multidisciplinary approach which, as well as the different dance lessons (classic, character, contemporary, jazz and folk), offered additional lessons in music, mime, theatre, entertainment law, history of dance, anatomy, and gymnastics.  General teaching (the national curriculum) was dispensed at the school from primary school to the baccalaureate (literary section), from 6th to the 1st Division.  As long as the student was enrolled at the ballet school, he or she must continue to study, even after the age of 16.  Course work during the year was of course graded, with a quarterly report sent home to parents much like report cards here in the States.  For us, marks represented half the points needed to move up into the next division, the other half came from the results of our end-of-year examination.  
When you finally reach the first division, you had priority recruitment to the Opera's corps de ballet.  There was an internal competition organized specifically for this.  Candidates having passed the competition and satisfying the general training conditions joined the corps de ballet in the company as trainee "quadrilles".  Students not joining the corps de ballet could remain at the Ballet School if they have not reached the age limit or could leave it with an end-of-studies diploma.
Obviously it is not typical to chose your career as early as 11, leave your family, and enter a boarding school that would hopefully transform you into a lifelong successful, professional dancer.  Yet it was an experience that shaped my entire life, instilled me with my work ethic, and gave me incredible knowledge I was to pass along to future generations of dancers.  Recognizing and honoring your past, understanding where you came from, and passing along the knowledge of those that came before you and trained you is a vital part of this profession.  I can only hope I have the opportunity to do just that, and hope that there are plenty of student out there ready and willing to learn.
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Overhead view of Paris Opera Ballet School in Nanterre

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  • It must be great to focus on dancing at such a place. Dancing requires total concentration -- I wish I could go back to Paris again as when I was young, to see all the history and tradition.

  • Thank you for this brief introduction. The sacrifice, as you call it, is really not a sacrifice. In a privilaged world, you have a rich life, and you've achieved a long range goal.
    It's a wonderful story. Thanks.

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