Posted on August 27, 2019
In 2013, French television broadcast a six-part series titled Graines d’Étoiles (Budding Stars), in which the director Françoise Marie documented a year’s activity inside the Paris Opéra Ballet School. Housed in gleaming premises in Nanterre, seven miles from Paris, the school numbers about 130 pupils aged eight to 18, nearly two-thirds of whom board full-time. Whether they live at home or in the dormitory, the daily schedule treats them identically; they receive their academic education from 8.00am every morning and study ballet and everything related to performance in the afternoon.
The “classical dance teachers,” all of whom have been members of the Paris Opéra Ballet company, teach by example and from experience without reference to any fixed syllabus. Nothing has been written down, and the continuity that links those instructors to Louis XIV, generation after generation, includes the children from the day they arrive in Nanterre. Immediately absorbed into an historic tradition, these so-called “petits rats” must greet every adult with a bow or a curtsey. They also enjoy the privilege of opening the défilé that itself opens every season of ballet performances at the Palais Garnier. A formal parade of the entire “family,” students to étoiles, it represents, as one teacher comments, “a summary of a dancer’s career in just a few minutes.”
Marie’s camera roams freely from cafeteria to rehearsal and through the full range of classes, from contemporary dance and folk dance to dance history, nutrition and anatomy. Isolated by choice in the protective restrictions of discipline and constant criticism, the pupils speak directly to the camera about their ambitious dreams. “There’s so much at stake,” one 14-year-old girl declares, fully aware that the selection process is relentless and each year some students leave.
Shown in 2018-19, Marie’s follow-up series, Graines d’Étoiles… 5 Ans Après…. (Five Years Later), returns to the same students, now 17 to 23 years old, as they step into the future they could only imagine earlier. Again we watch them work and discover what they have learned as time has passed. A long way from star-struck wannabes, these dancers discuss their progress candidly while assessing their rigorous training and the challenges they confront as young professionals.
I took another look at those fascinating DVDs after the recent performances by The Royal Ballet School (RBS) and English National Ballet School (ENBS). Naturally, the children who evolve into dancers all over the world reflect their teachers’ individual methods and the values they hold in highest esteem. The basic ballet vocabulary is the same everywhere, but it acquires different intonations in different countries; the French school, according to the film, embues it with elegance, refinement and charm.
Teachers in the UK may emphasise other qualities in their pupils’ movement, so I never expected the students here to resemble those in Paris. In the film, however, I found the one element of dancing that eluded nearly all the young hopefuls I saw here. Addressing the school’s youngest students, age eight, nine and ten, Scott Alan Prouty, the professor of musical expression, told them, “The moment your feet touch the stage, I want to see the transformation between a normal child and an artist. I want to see that change in your eyes… Show me eyes that sparkle, smiling with happiness.”
The students who took the stage at Covent Garden and the Wimbledon Theatre acquitted themselves well, with ENBS’ women unusually sensitive to port de bras. Aside from Hanna Park, who obviously has a bright future, the young men of the RBS easily outshone the women, particularly in Petal Miller Ashmole’s dashing Bottega and the excerpts from David Bintley’s Flowers of the Forest. In his original solo, Start Again, Kele Roberson proved himself a choreographer in the making, as did ENBS’ musical Katharine Lee in her solo, Curiously Haunting.
Yet few eyes sparkled. The RBS ensemble delivered Frederick Ashton’s La Valse as if simply executing the steps could be considered a triumph, and both schools presented excerpts from Marius Petipa’s Paquita so carefully that neither the work’s stylish atmosphere nor the dancers’ energy and presence ever crossed the footlights. My guest at Covent Garden, a trained musician who is unfamiliar with this ballet and its intended impression, complained that she couldn’t find anything interesting to watch in it.
The last episode of the initial Graines d’Étoiles examines the system of decisive end-of-year exams that advance the students through the school. One 12-year-old boy captured the annual danger succinctly, saying only “You can lose your place overnight.” If students here feel the same passion about their training and the same devotion to their ultimate goal, perhaps they will eventually absorb Prouty’s suggestion and reveal their joy in performing. Only then can they transform their physical effort into artistry.
The boxed set L’intégrale from Arte Editions contains both series of Graines d’Étoiles.
Pictured top: Students of English National Ballet School in Act II of Giselle. Photograph: Tim Cross.
Pictured bottom: Students of The Royal Ballet School in La Valse. Photograph: Tristram Kenton.