Tuesday 24 June 2014
L'envol du fils prodige
Nicolas Le Riche
On july 9, Nicolas Le Riche takes flight for a special evening dedicated to him and intended to share a career of over thirty years at the Paris Opera. A great dancer and performer infused with a spirit and seemingly infinite energy, the doyen of the étoiles opens up to Guillaume Gallienne.
What does the date july 9 represent for you ?
Nicolas Le Riche : The more time passes, the more I have the impression that it’s a liberation in so far that I’ve been anticipating this moment for some time now. I’ve spent nearly thirty years in this House and July 9th marks my departure. But it’s a planned departure. As such, I have the feeling that it’s a transition, like a ritual, that’s going to give rise to a new Nicolas… One who is still protean for the moment and who, I hope, will remain so to an extent. Can you tell us about your career at the opera?
Nicolas Le Riche: I joined the Paris Opera’s ballet school at the age of eight, which back then was located in the Palais Garnier. I came for that, in fact, I came for the entire community – the Étoiles, the stagehands, the musicians… all bustling about with a single purpose in mind: the performance.

Do you recall the étoiles who mesmerized you at the time?
Nicolas Le Riche: Back then, Patrick Dupond was probably the House’s brightest Étoile. I also remember Cyril Atanassoff who was an extremely charismatic dancer, and Nureyev and Baryshnikov...

Which of your teachers left an impression on you?
 Nicolas Le Riche : Christiane Vlassi was my first teacher in the 5th division. She was very sweet, almost “maternal” with her pupils. Her lessons were a genuine support process, a shared discovery. There was also Gilbert Mayer, teacher of the 2nd division, when we began to tackle "la grande technique". For me, he epitomized “brio,” virtuosity. Serge Golovine also left a great impression on me but I only realized as much afterwards. He was a great guy, very detached, with a quasi-spiritual view of dance. And last but not least, there was Serge Peretti who taught at the School after my time there but with whom I private classes outside.

And then you joined the Corps de Ballet…
Nicolas Le Riche : I entered in 1988 as a supernumerary.  I came last in my year! Unlike me, all my classmates had a contract. I was a little shaken by that… However, once I was in, I was happy because I suddenly became responsible for my work. It gave me the determination to succeed. Each year, I went up a grade and then at the age of 23 I was made an Étoile after a performance of the traditional version of Giselle which was then on tour in Nimes. There was talk of a nomination but I wasn’t really tuned into any of that. There’s no doubt I was over the moon, but I was more focused on the present and what I was going to be doing the following day: I had to dance Mats Ek’s Giselle and then I had to go back on tour to Japan with Élisabeth Platel...

In terms of responsibility, did you feel like a leader during a performance and vis-a-vis the company?
Nicolas Le Riche : A little bit at the end, but for a long time not at all. i quickly felt responsible for my work though i didn’t feel i needed to show something to the company. i had the impression that i was part of the company.

At what point did you feel that you could coach?
Nicolas Le Riche : Probably when I became the doyen of the Étoiles…

As a dancer, what do you think you have brought to dance?
Nicolas Le Riche : I think that today, the idea that a dancer has several repertoires is now accepted in the House. Even so, I hope I have contributed a certain idea of dance and how it can be  natural rather than forced. I believe that there is a time for everything: a time when it is good to lay down rules—when we learn, when we need to set parameters—and a time when one has to have faith. As for training and the learning process, I was never alone during all those years. There were several people who gave great feedback and whom I genuinely listened  to.

Béjart wrote his letter to a young dancer. if you had to write a letter to a young dancer, what would you say?
Nicolas Le Riche : My advice would be to consider all possible avenues, including the ones yet to be explored. Dance is an expressive art with huge potential and we shouldn’t think that everything has already been done. Secondly, dance is a living art so the living aspect is important. It’s also an art rooted in freedom which demands unhindered execution. And patience. There is a time for everything, for different repertoires, for different roles. A dancer’s career takes time to build, it is a work in progress.

Can you deconstruct sometimes?
Nicolas Le Riche: Deconstruction can help. On the other hand, I think you need genuine masters. Even though much of our work is solitary and personal, artistic support around a work or a choreographer, is a necessary motivation.

During your career, there was a pause,. was that a deconstruction or a reconstruction?
Nicolas Le Riche: I’ve always felt that I was like a funambulist on a tightrope. And I try to be on the finest of tightropes possible. On the edge of a razor-blade. I’ve always felt that being comfortable was not a part of what I should experience when I dance.

Still, haven’t you felt comfortable or been affected by fame from time to time?
Nicolas Le Riche: Feeling comfortable? I don’t like it. And I rapidly cut myself off from fame. I was lucky to have people around me who brought me back down to Earth. Different events in my life made me realize that it was not really what I was looking for. Today, I’m able to say to myself “I was a bit of a fool, I should have worked a little harder on this or that… It would have helped me make an easier transition.” But I don’t regret it. It spared me from attempting too many things at once and being less uncompromising with the choices I made.

If you were to list your greatest encounters with choreographers, who would they be?
Nicolas Le Riche : Jerome Robbins, Mats Ek, Roland Petit… The first ballet we created with Roland was called Camera Obscura. It was followed by Le Guépard then Clavigo. With Mats Ek, we created Appartement. With Robbins, I never danced any new works. However, he created Suite of Dances for Mikhail Baryshnikov and when he offered me the role it felt like he was giving me a gift. Throughout the entire training, I felt I was sharing a very special moment.

Just like Sylvie Guillem who stood out as the black swan, do you think there were roles which marked a turning point for you? Were there any that you invested more effort in than others?
Nicolas Le Riche : For each role, I’ve tried to give a 100% of myself, and from time to time even 110%. Since I’ve been offered a lot of roles, I think that there would have been no point in just dancing them and marking them off on some score card. I hope I have brought a spirit, a vivacity, and emotion to them. I love the theatre for the emotions it brings.

I remember seeing you dance the Boléro and having the impression that you were just movement and body alone. what was your own impression?
Nicolas Le Riche : I’ve always felt that on stage, two very distinct areas cohabit and interact with each other. There are the things which happen on stage, in other words what I am going to imagine and propose; and then there’s the way in which it comes across. Personally, I never appreciated artists who told me what I had to think. Each time I’ve interpreted a role, I’ve tried to offer some leads. For Bolero, I played on a highly masculine side as well as a more feminine side to express the idea of everything that we could be composed of. I was also very interested by the communal, fraternal side, to be an individual in a group towards whom, at a given moment, everything converges..

Are you aware of your sex-appeal on stage?
Nicolas Le Riche : Occasionally, yes, I can sense it.

Tu en joues ?

Nicolas Le Riche :(Smiling) Yes. But I like to do so subtly… It’s more or less the idea behind dance itself: execute a triple toe loop, but in a way that seems effortless because that triple toe loop is just the expression of what we hope to communicate rather than a performance in itself. The latter has never appealed to me.

We actors have mental blocks. it’s an ever-increasing concern. the older we get, the more we’re afraid. what is your own ever-increasing fear?
Nicolas Le Riche : A physical injury. When I was younger, I could sense when I was going to hurt myself. Today, it comes much more quickly, the margin has become extremely slim. I’ve had several  work-related injuries—some of which took a long time to heal. It’s intense: you’re in the process of performing a task, you’re enjoying the moment and then suddenly, there’s a break. It’s no longer about leading the moment somewhere. It’s simply over.

Did you ever think it was over and consider doing something else?
Nicolas Le Riche : Yes I did, but I couldn’t envisage doing anything else. Precisely because to be stopped in the middle of something, it’s a little like being a butterfly pinned to a board. It doesn’t lead on to another form, the journey along the road is completely halted. I took it as a hiatus. I had to wait, and so I waited. A little like a cat: when a cat is ill, it rolls up into a ball and waits.

What kind of animal could we compare you to?
Nicolas Le Riche : I’d like to compare myself to a cat. In my advanced dance classes, Serge Perrault told us that. We’d arrive for his class, usually in a state of fatigue. We’d gather around the piano and he gave us some marzipan. Once we’d eaten it, we’d discuss dance in the wider sense of the term. He told us: “Boys, be like cats, I don’t want to hear you. Leap and then  arrive softly”. And we worked on the softness, the landing, the impulse. Among the dancers I liked, I remember Jean Babilée who had a unique feline quality whereby he would move rapidly, then hang there, suspended in the air, and then suddenly move rapidly again.

Did you have the impression that you were consumed during all those years?
Nicolas Le Riche : Not at all. I felt like I was developing, like I had learned. That’s why I hope to have the chance to give all that back, I feel that it’s the meaning of dance.

What are you going to give back to us on july 9?
Nicolas Le Riche :I hope that July 9 will be my party, in that I hope to make the most of everything that’s going to happen and of the people who will be there. The evening will begin with a question: “Where to go?”. For three years now, I’ve been in something of a transition. I didn’t necessarily think I would dance until the very end because I didn’t want to wear down my love for dance. The most beautiful thing is the desire to dance and I didn’t want to meddle with that driving force.

There’s the surprise, the question, and then?
Nicolas Le Riche : Then, there’ll be the entrée from Les Forains, one of the first ballets by Roland Petit that I danced. For me, Roland Petit was more than just a teacher, he was almost “my dance father”: a dance revelation behind that encounter. And then he watched over me in a way that would develop over time. Next, there will be an extract from Le Bal des cadets by David Lichine, with a young student from the Ballet School who will perform the role of the drummer which I myself danced when I was at the School. Then there’ll be an extract from Raymonda, the debut production of which I followed at the Opera. It was the first major ballet that Rudolf Nureyev restaged for the Company. Back then, I was an extra and I have some wonderful memories of it. It was also the first time that I danced on the stage of the Opera as a member of the company. There’ll also be Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune , Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, and extracts from Suite of Dances, Caligula, and a pas de deux from Appartement and Bolero. It’s going to be a great evening with many surprises. It’s less of a congratulatory gala and more a desire to share a journey, to look back at some encounters with people, the works and what this House has been for me.

What does “where to go” signify? It’s not an obituary after all...
Nicolas Le Riche : Non ! Du reste, on parle souvent d’« adieux » mais je n’aime pas du tout cette idée. D’abord, ce n’est pas un adieu, c’est un contrat qui s’arrête et on célèbre ce moment. L’Opéra est un théâtre, j’espère que je ne vais pas lui dire adieu, que je pourrai venir voir des spectacles. Et puis après qui connaît la suite… Aujourd’hui, j’espère pouvoir mener des projets personnels. À terme, j’aimerais diriger une compagnie, participer à l’enseignement de la danse. Ce qui m’intéresse, c’est la création, le travail avec les danseurs, les élèves…

I remember once when I was on stage, I was supposed to recite a poem and you passed by me. I had a mental block due to the energy that you exuded. That energy wasn’t aggressive, it was just extremely intense… Where did that come from?
 Nicolas Le Riche : I think that the essence of work during rehearsals brings us totally alive on stage, making the shared moment on stage unique, precious, and fulfilling. Each time, I have the impression that it’s a life or death story.

Interviewer : Guillaume Gallienne *

* Actor, scriptwriter and director, Guillaume Gallienne is a member of the Comédie-Française. He created the dramaturgy for Caligula by Nicolas Le Riche and Lost Illusions by Alexei Ratmansky for the Bolshoi Theatre Ballet.