30 years on: the Bastille adventure

5/5 - Agnès Letestu

A look back at the birth of an opera house

By Aurélien Poidevin 01 July 2020


© Christian Leiber / OnP

5/5 - Agnès Letestu

Trained at the Paris Opera Ballet School, Agnès Letestu joined the Opera's Corps de Ballet in 1987. Promoted to sujet in 1989, she was awarded a gold medal at the Varna competition the following year. "Première danseuse" in 1993, she was named Étoile on October 31st 1997, following a performance of Swan Lake. She bid her official farewell to the stage on October 10th 2013, in La Dame aux camélias and went on to pursue her career independently. Alongside her career as a performer, Agnès Letestu designs and makes costumes for ballet and opera.

Aurélien Poidevin: You entered the Ballet School in 1983. A few months earlier, the President of the Republic, François Mitterrand, had announced that a new opera house was to be built on the Place de la Bastille. Do you feel as if you grew up at the same time as the theatre was being built?

Agnès Letestu: During my education at the Ballet School, no particular attention was paid to the project of the new opera house. On the other hand, there were already plans for a new building at Nanterre and we often heard them talking about the work of rehabilitating the former Salle Bailleau at the Palais Garnier.

It was only when I joined the company in 1987, that people started talking seriously about Bastille. The technical departments were getting ready for the move and I remember that this project greatly preoccupied those who worked in costumes, for example.

For my part, my memories are of a year of expectation... Although we had been highly trained at the Ballet School, we were dancing very little once we had joined the Corps de Ballet and it was rather frustrating. I therefore spent a lot of time backstage at the Palais Garnier and I never missed a single show. I observed Sylvie Guillem, Monique Loudières and Rudolf Nureyev. I learnt a lot and, in retrospect, it was a useful period!

Later, I finally visited the Opéra Bastille which, at the time, was reserved more for opera. We were taken aback by the number of escalators, the automatic doors and the huge lifts. On first sight, it all seemed cold and austere.

Salle Gounod
Salle Gounod © Christophe Pelé

A.P.: You imply that this theatre was not as disagreeable as it seemed. How did you appropriate these new spaces?

AL: The Opéra Bastille is an extremely comfortable and well-equipped theatre. The rehearsal rooms are immense and numerous. The cafeteria is pleasant, the dressing rooms are well-designed and the premises are generally functional.

However, one has to learn to use this tool, notably, to get to grips with the stage. Indeed, everything is on such a huge scale that, on a sensorial and acoustic level, it can be difficult to find one’s mark. Because of the dimensions of the orchestral pit, the audience is a long way from the artists: one can’t see the spectators at all even if they are sitting in the front row and one has great difficulty in getting an idea of the atmosphere in the house. In some ways this is an advantage as one doesn’t feel nervous and, as a result one feels quite at home. On the other hand, one must be wary of foundering on the reef of artistic blandness.

Nevertheless, this is a wonderful tool! The size of the backstage areas makes scene changes very practical. And the Gounod Studio means that we can rehearse in ideal conditions. It is a rehearsal room designed as a stage with spotlights, rows of seats and the possibility of integrating scenery. What's more, this new opera house has allowed the number of productions to be greatly increased and audiences and performers benefit alike from that.

Agnès Letestu (Gamzatti) dans La Bayadère, Opéra Bastille, 1992
Agnès Letestu (Gamzatti) dans La Bayadère, Opéra Bastille, 1992 © Jacques Moatti / OnP

AP: The project of a new opera house was justified by the need to increase the number of productions offered to the Parisian public. In what ways did this transformation change the organisation of the Corps de Ballet?

AL: The Paris Opera changed its course fairly progressively. I took my first internal competition in 1988 and, at this time, the exploitation of the second performance space was not yet on the agenda. Finally, the ballet's real beginnings at the Opéra Bastille coincided with Rudolf Nureyev’s departure: we then lost the collaboration of an exceptional director who had provided the Ballet with prestigious foreign tours as well unanimous recognition from an artistic point of view.

So it was the year 1992 that, in a way, marked the beginning of the new era. An original production of Swan Lake was on the bill at the Opéra Bastille: Robert Platé’s sets and Tomio Mohri’s costumes were very Japanese in style and this surprising approach immediately created a controversy. A page was in the process of turning... It was both another repertoire and another vision of dance that was, little by little, being imposed at the very moment when, as had happened in the Orchestra, the Corps de Ballet was divided into two groups (yellow and blue), so as to spread the talent between the two houses.

I remember this period of change very well: I had been chosen by Rudolf Nureyev to perform the role of Gamzatti in the creation of La Bayadère and I had the opportunity to dance this magnificent role at Bastille and Garnier at very close intervals. Dancing the same ballet in two places that were so different and at such a brief interval, I couldn’t help comparing them, even though I think it’s a mistake to compare the two theatres with each other, as they’re so complementary. All the same, I had the feeling that the ergonomics of the stage at Opéra Bastille was better for this ballet and I think the majority of ballet masters share this diagnostic.

Salle Balanchine, Opéra Bastille
Salle Balanchine, Opéra Bastille © Elena Bauer / OnP

AP: You speak of better ergonomics: in what way do facilities at the Opéra Bastille better respond to the dancers' preoccupations?

AL: Generally speaking, the Opéra Bastille is a marvellous tool because the site provides the opportunity, a rare thing, for a multitude of working possibilities thanks to its spaciousness and facilities as well as its design. I have the feeling that the technical teams are also much more relaxed. I’m thinking particularly of costumes, wigs and make-up where the work can be carried out in a comfortable and serene atmosphere.

As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been a bit surprised when dancing at the Opéra Bastille: you can arrive at the theatre at 6pm and not meet a soul until at least 7 o’clock, the spaces are so big. Then things come to life at last, from 7pm onwards when the technicians (stage hands, electricians) and the stage managers arrive... But beforehand, nothing: this feeling of solitude, which one only gets at Bastille, is rather precious as it is conducive to relaxation and the elimination of stress. It is only at the John Neumeier Ballet in Hamburg that I’ve been able to feel the same atmosphere. However, one must be careful not to feel too comfortable and take too much distance from the situation.

Finally, at the Palais Garnier there is considerable effervescence, in both the positive and negative sense of the term. Whilst you’d never know there was to be a performance the same evening at Bastille, you can sense it immediately at Garnier for instance...

Loge d’Étoile, Opéra Bastille
Loge d’Étoile, Opéra Bastille © Elena Bauer / OnP

AP: Let us briefly give in to the temptation of drawing a comparison. Not from the point of view of the performing space or of the theatre in general but rather from the point of view of its relationship to artistic activity. What, in your view, differentiates dance at Bastille from dance at the Palais Garnier?

AL: The Palais Garnier is a genuine place of work: the Dance Department and dance management team are located there, as is the costume department for the Corps de Ballet. In short, this place is ours, which has never been the case at the Opéra Bastille where we always have a vague impression of being on tour... It’s an ideal place for tours where everything is designed for the benefit of the artists and technical teams but which dance has never been able entirely to appropriate. Indeed, common parlance betrays this state of affairs: when you say “I’m going to the Opera”, everyone knows that it means the Palais Garnier; otherwise you say “I’m going to Bastille...”

The Opéra Bastille is a theatre we pass through, whereas we live at the Palais Garnier. We leave few of our personal possessions, or none at all, at the Opéra Bastille, whereas we settle ourselves in for a long stay at the Palais Garnier, beginning by arranging our dressing rooms with minute care.

The example of the dressing rooms is, in fact, rather eloquent. When one is made première danseuse at Bastille one goes down five stories from the eighth to the third floor. The boys are located stage right and the girls stage left. In other words, you have to go round the stage area to find your partner before the performance: everything is a long way away. To such an extent that the dressing rooms near the stage have been fitted out in order to facilitate costume changes during performances!

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