Isabelle Ciaravola: It certainly brought me peace of mind because that nomination—proposed by Brigitte Lefèvre—showed a recognition of my talent and it boosted my self-confidence. I was realizing a childhood dream. As a Première Danseuse, even if I would sometimes perform the roles of an Étoile, the question always remained as to whether one day I would ever attain such eminence… There was still something for me to prove. Each time that you reach a new threshold and you open a door, it’s like a new beginning: you rely on that foundation to continue and to keep building, and perhaps also to keep boredom at bay. I’m curious by nature and eager both physically and emotionally for new discoveries on stage. As an Étoile, I was able to play some magnificent characters: The Dame aux camélias, Juliette, Manon, Giselle, Tatiana… Those roles require hours and hours of work but they fulfilled me both as an artist and a woman. It was a highpoint of my career.
You entered the Paris Opera’s Ballet School at sixteen, after winning First Prize at the Conservatoire national Supérieur de Danse et de Musique in Paris. Was that training path an asset or a handicap?
Isabelle Ciaravola :With hindsight, I think that particular path was a strength, in that it allowed me to enrich myself with experiences that I would not necessarily have understood at the Ballet School. For me, nothing was assured. I’d arrived from my native Corsica where I had begun my dance training. While I was attending lessons on the mainland, I was noticed by a talent scout. I was thirteen and a half. For three years, I attended the class of Mlle. Vaussard, who invested a great deal in her work at the Conservatoire. She monitored our progress over the long term and knew us well. She formed us and passed on her passion to us. She also taught the first division at the Paris Opera’s Ballet School, so when I entered straight into the second division there, I already had some points of reference. Nevertheless, I arrived with a slightly different stock of knowledge and perhaps some different ideas as well. The Paris Opera’s school was like a community behind closed doors. All the pupils had grown up together. I was like a foreigner, fresh off the boat, I didn’t know anyone. I had to fit in quickly and adopt more of an “Opera persona” but I was extremely happy: for me, to enter into that prestigious institution which was synonymous with excellence, it was something right out of a fairy tale. When I was little, I saw pictures of it on television and in books. It seemed so inaccessible to me… I was proud that the Conservatoire had led me there. I even loved the boarding aspect—to live enclosed with all those dancers, even if it did include the requisite hard work and the ultra-strict discipline, and sometimes even a little intimidation. But all in all, that strictness made us stronger and it taught us the skills.
What did you dream of at the time?
Isabelle Ciaravola: As a child, I was fascinated by fairy stories and the magic of ballets, those magnificent tutus, the dazzling tiaras… These days, I do more to seek the emotion that I feel through the characters and I try to share it with the audience. I adore stories that are moving and tragic. I’m an inveterate romantic! I like to draw on what is deep inside of me to express powerful emotions and to make them burst forth from my body, soul and spirit. Of course, I externalize my experience as a woman. To feel the attention of the audience in a state of emotion, to feel the secret energy that binds the stage and the theatre… it brings me a joy of extraordinary intensity…
For a long time, you remained in the Corps de Ballet . How did it feel to wait like that?
Isabelle Ciaravola : Those were difficult years, interspersed with long periods of doubt. So I dreamt a lot… I have several personalities. I have a strong disposition, but I also have a shy side. Astrologically, I’m a Pisces; I spend my time remaking the world, daydreaming. My rise was slow, because I often had injuries, particularly in my knees. Above all, the annual competition was a terrible ordeal for me. I would have a severe attack of nerves and I’d have great difficulty tempering my emotions. I was unable to relax on stage. As a result, I wasn’t at my best. Fate also played a part. The Ballet has around 154 dancers and just nine female Étoiles. Spots at different levels would open up as people retired or were promoted. The move up the ladder is more difficult when your generation includes a lot of talented individuals. And so I remained Coryphée for seven years. I was a good student, very reserved, not the kind of person to go and demand a better role. As a result, I couldn’t facilitate my discovery with roles that would have enhanced my status and put me in the spotlight. At one point I almost left the Opera to go to the San Francisco Ballet for a year as a soloist. In the end, I stayed. I had endured the worst and I didn’t want to miss my chance here. In all, I took part in 11 competitions… me, the one who doesn’t like that! As soon as I made the rank of Sujet, my career began to take off. What a relief it was when I became Première Danseuse, to no longer have to pass that annual ordeal. However, when all is said and done, I don’t regret anything in my career. I learnt patience. It takes time to reveal the artist inside you.
What built your artistic personality?
Isabelle Ciaravola : My promotion to Première Danseuse liberated me. To become a soloist conferred an additional responsibility on me compared to what I had felt as a Sujet because I was not under the same kind of supervision. I was left with greater artistic freedom. It’s not a question of respect, because you are respected at every rank. But from that point on, I was able to make suggestions. There was a dialogue. And so I began to search within me for what I truly wanted to give and feel. I was motivated by the ballets and the music, which was so essential for me. In particular, I’m thinking of Roland Petit’s Clavigo,John Neumeier’s La Dame aux camélias and Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler, John Cranko’s Onéguine,MacMillan’s Histoire de Manon, Nureyev’s Roméo & Juliette, and the William Forsythe variation In the Middle… With maturity, I also understood that the true wealth of my talent was inside me in the most intimate part of my own being, there with its pains, its joys, and its scars of love gone awry. I’ve learnt to make use of my personal experiences to give an inner strength to the character whom I’m portraying, especially since I don’t consider myself to be a great technician. Besides, technical prowess in itself scarcely interests me. I’m a realist, I don’t have a powerful muscular frame. Instead, I work on the quality and refinement of the movement. Nevertheless, by sheer determination, I concealed my flaws and highlighted my qualities: suppleness, fluidity of movement, the expressive power of the feet, legs, and arms; interpretation on stage.
How do you approach a role?
Isabelle Ciaravola: Obviously, the work begins with a learning phase. You practise the steps, the gestures and the movements with your partner. Of course. I read. I glean pictures, films, and videos on You Tube, to understand the historical context, the issues and the different interpretations of the ballet. This material gives me some visual reinforcement. But the time comes when I call a halt to the documentary research and I “concentrate” it all within myself. It needs time to sink in. I place a lot of trust in the coaches. Once the steps and the framework are in place… I dance! I want people to “understand” the story. I remember what Ghislaine Thesmar said: “I don’t understand what you are telling me. The audience up there in the rafters needs to understand what is playing out in the variation, so let the movement be broad enough for them to understand what is being told.” A gesture must be decipherable without the use of words, by the emotional impact that dance imparts. I increasingly find myself approaching a role as an actress using the language of dance. I enjoy creating a dialogue between the movements. Each step is induced by the narrative thread, the fervour of a sentiment… The movement must have a musicality and a consistency in the ballet. No doubt that’s why I feel more fulfilled when I perform a ballet based on a synopsis with characters. I slip into the costumes, maybe a wig, which are as much a support of the acting… I feel freer in the classical or neoclassical repertoire than in an academic or abstract style in which the sequence of movements follow a strict mechanical progression. I like it when a potential for freedom exists in the movement: we know the positions through which we need to pass, but it is inspiration which brings movement.
The repertoire that you’ve explored is more classical and neoclassical than contemporary.
Isabelle Ciaravola: William Forsythe taught me a great deal. His body language pushes the body to the extreme and makes it move in three dimensions, unlike pure classicism where dance almost seems to be framed inside a cube. Now I adapt that approach into the ballets to introduce respiration into the movement, as if a mysterious power has passed through my body. The energy has to circulate and renew itself at each performance. Forsythe said to me: “Each performance is different, don’t try to redo the same thing. Explore”. Those words have stayed with me. They are valid for all works. Every ballet, and every movement in the ballet can be different. Each evening, you have to approach it as if it was new. You need to explore the position, the posture, to introduce a slight variation, and sometimes, to have the nerve to put yourself sufficiently in danger—though not too much—to see the limits of your body.
Music also seems to be an essential component in your approach to movement.
Isabelle Ciaravola: It’s true, I’m very sensitive to the music. I like that it carries me and sweeps me up in its tumult. My parents ran a musical instrument shop in Corsica, so I was immersed in a musical environment. Chopin, Schubert, Mozart, Liszt… they were all regulars in our house. Perhaps that explains my romanticism! I studied the piano for three years but I had to stop when I arrived in Paris. Sometimes, I imagine certain pas de deux as an act of love with the music, as if the melody had permeated me to become alive through me, as if I were the instrument. Balanchine compared each dancer in the Corps de Ballet to a musical instrument. Each movement of his choreography corresponded to a note. As a result, one needs to be extremely precise on the note.
How has age changed your preparations and your relationship with the body?
Isabelle Ciaravola : I went through an awkward period when I refused to accept that my body was ageing when in my head and in my spirit I felt like I was in my prime. You have to listen to your body and manage the rehearsals and performances throughout the week and not be ashamed of your age. Each morning is different. I know my weaknesses, so I devote more time and attention to warming up certain parts. My back, for example, has become a little recalcitrant, especially when I call on it to perform arabesques, especially since I have a small chest. You also pay a little for the accidents. The pain can become a burden and it can weigh on your morale. I practice yoga and I do stretching and suspension exercises, I take care to eat well. I try to heed the signals that my body is sending me.
You’re about to leave a place that has been your home since 1990. That’s 24 years, in an extremely demanding, extremely time-consuming house. How do you envisage that moment?
Isabelle Ciaravola : For a start, I’m going to try to prepare myself for my farewell evening, because it will be extremely intense emotionally. I don’t dwell too much on what comes after. For four years now, I have devoted myself to teaching. I offer group instruction and I teach repertoire classes both in France and abroad. It’s interesting to see the variety between the different countries; between Japan for example, and Europe. I have a passion for teaching. I’d like to share what I have learnt over the years from all the teachers I have met and through all the roles that I have performed. More particularly I want to introduce that musicality which I care so much about and pass on the torch to the next generation…
Words recorded by Gwénola David *
Read the article in En Scène!
The Paris Opera magazine
* Coordinator of “La Belle saison”, a national programme to nurture the creativity of children and youths, Gwénola David is the theatre and dance critic for Mouvement, La Terrasse and France Culture. She is also the author of numerous works and has recently published Quel cirque? a collection with Actes Sud,