In his new book, Danser, Paris Opera Ballet étoile Hugo Marchand wanted to “show the flaws and the difficulties so that we feel less alone” in a career that is a minefield of emotional and physical danger.
In an interview with Le Figaro, he says,
I didn't feel worthy of writing a book about dance, but I liked the idea of recounting what it means to start a job so young and live it. I wrote it to share the emotional and intellectual journey of this learning curve. It took me more than three years to write Danser. The book was therapeutic as I delved back into memories, challenges, years that were difficult as well as beautiful… I cried a lot, laughed, and was overwhelmed by some very strong emotions.
In the book, the 27-year-old dancer remarks on the often negative effects of the company's strict hierarchy where dancers are “bullied, humiliated and subjected to disparaging remarks”.
[Younger dancers] are asking for a culture of respect. The ballet's hierarchy leads to a way of speaking to junior dancers in a way that most of us don't agree with. We should address a dancer from the corps de ballet in the same way that we address an étoile.”
Marchand says that humiliation and bullying starts from childhood and the younger generation of dancers want to see change.
We are no longer prepared to let this system continue and let dancers endure that which our predecessors were subjected to: little children of barely ten years old profoundly shaken in their hopes and ambitions by deadly comments like, “You're too fat, you're ugly, look at you, you've got the grace of a lump of lead.”
In 2018 the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet received a questionnaire asking about their thoughts on the theatre's management, in particular Aurélie Dupont, the director of the company. The resulting report denounced widespread bullying and cruelty. Ballerinas came forward to say they were often reduced to tears by brutal managerial methods.
Marchand speaks well of Dupont:
Aurélie is my current boss. She's the one who promoted me to étoile, and I'll be eternally grateful. She has a long-term vision, and she fights for our long-term development. She doesn't want shooting stars.
Dupont denied the allegations and former dancers came forward to describe today's generation as soft.
We were treated as though we were spoilt, ungrateful and whingeing children, but times have changed. Why do our predecessors brush aside our desire to change things? Why should we put up with the ordeals they faced? Are we less virtuous?
He is resentful at his career being put on hold after all the hard work needed to get to the top:
I started at 9, and became a professional dancer at 19. Becoming a dancer takes ten years, at a time when you can become a social media star in a few days and have millions of followers.
He feels that he's losing time with the pandemic resulting in theatre closures.
I'm angry. Closing the theatres is unfair! It is frustrating to he halted by a decision that has no rational explanation. Of course, I know I'm lucky: our company dancers are paid no matter what, while the dancers of the New York City Ballet have no money to live on. But I'm 27, and at 42 I'll be retired. I am at the peak of my fitness, and I feel like I am being robbed of the best years of my life.
Marchand dearly wants to return to the stage and get back dancing with his special partner Dorothea Gilbert:
From the first rehearsals, our two bodies became one. There was artistic connection. Dancing with someone is a bit like making love: you can smell their smell, skin, hair, sweat. During Romeo and Juliet, I was wounded by a sword. My hand was dripping with blood and my white tights were stained. Dorothea ended up dancing in that little red puddle. At the end of the ballet, she gave me her blood-soaked shoes.
Top photo Hugo Marchand © Graham Spicer
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.