Initially scheduled for December 2019, Eleonora Abbagnato's farewell to the stage had to be postponed. After twenty-eight years at the Paris Opera, the Dancer Étoile will thus take her leave on 11 June at the end of a performance of the Hommage à Roland Petit. The Italian who was born in Palermo did not initially intend to join the Paris Opera Ballet but a key encounter with Claude Bessy changed her mind. Pina Bausch, Roland Petit and John Neumeier would follow. Now the dancer talks to Octave about a few emblematic photos from her career and evokes the ballets, choreographers and partners she has encountered along the way.
I first met Claude Bessy in Venice when I was 13 at a dance internship on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in the presence of Serge Golovine. At the end of the internship, I joined the Paris Opera’s Ballet School on a six-month scholarship and then entered the 4th division. When I became a student in the 2nd division, Claude Bessy selected me to perform the principal role in Daphnis et Chloé, one of the leading roles in her repertoire (and a role she created in 1959): It was a symbolic handover. After that, she continued casting me until I took the entrance examinations for the Paris Opera Ballet.
I joined the Paris Opera’s Corps de Ballet in 1996. A year later, Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring entered the company’s repertoire. That encounter changed the course of my career. The auditions lasted for a month. I and Laurence Laffon (who had joined the Company around the same time as me) were surrounded by the great Étoile dancers of the time (Marie-Claude Pietragalla, Patrick Dupond…). Pina chose me even though I was just 18; she cast me in the role of the dancer who performs a grand plié in the centre of a circle, to symbolize femininity, sensitivity and group protection: I was still young and fragile. By passing on that work to us, Pina Bausch instilled a true group spirit in the house which is still evident today in ballets such as those by Crystal Pite. It marked an important step in the history of the Company. When Pina returned in 2005, she cast me in the role of Eurydice. I had several partners including Kader Belarbi. Preparing for the role required a considerable amount of work which was often cerebral. It was an intense stage experience with the presence of singers on stage but it also afforded a great deal of freedom: a great work of dance and opera.
I met Roland Petit at the age of 11 when he created the Ballets de Marseille (later renamed the Ballet national de Marseille-Roland Petit). I was cast in Sleeping Beauty and continued my training, first in Monte Carlo and then at the Rosella Hightower Dance School in Cannes. I met Roland Petit again at the Paris Opera Ballet during a revival of Notre-Dame de Paris in 2001. Then, each time he returned, he would cast me in his ballets: Le Jeune Homme et la Mort and Carmen of course—a role for which they made me an Étoile dancer in 2013. The first time I danced Carmen, I was asked to replace Étoile Dancer Clairemarie Osta at the last minute after she injured herself. Roland Petit never cast a substitute or an understudy but I’d watched a lot of his ballets and I knew them by heart. For me, Carmen is one of the most difficult ballets that I have ever had to dance. I went on to perform most of his ballets in the repertoire, including Clavigo and L’Arlésienne… It wasn’t always easy finding your place among all those men. Roland was very close to his male dancers. He was less outgoing with the women and sometimes even a little hard on them.
When I think of Rudolf Nureyev, I immediately think of Étoile dancer Manuel Legris. He quickly took me under his wing and he put me to work: Meeting him was a watershed moment and he became an important partner in my career at the Paris Opera. Thanks to him, I danced in the great classical ballets of the repertoire. During rehearsals, he would sit down and make me practise all my variations. As a dancer he is extremely professional. He is also a man of great generosity. I was later cast in Cinderella, Swan Lake, Raymonda, and Don Quichotte.
Benjamin was a friend before he became a partner. Brigitte Lefèvre brought us together on stage for the entry of La Dame aux camélias into the repertoire in 2006. In my mind, it’s one of the most beautiful ballets and I could dance it endlessly! My repertoire also includes Sylvia, A midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler: John Neumeier helped to mould the dancer and the artist which I would become.
I was cast in Le Parc for one of the ballet’s revivals and I worked with Angelin Preljocaj in the premiere production of Le Songe de Médée in 2004. Angelin is a generous, humane person and artist. I really like dancing Le Parc it mixes freedom, incredible precision and a degree of sensuality. Preljocaj has a very particular choreographic style which is comprised of tightly composed phrases and a unique musical language that really appeals to me.