Dancing Balanchine

In tune with the music

By Inès Piovesan 24 October 2016

© Julien Benhamou / OnP

Dancing Balanchine

Étoile dancers Mathias Heyman and Myriam Ould-Braham are performing two of the three ballets that comprise the George Balanchine programme: the revival of Brahms-Schönberg Quartet and Mozartiana a work that is entering the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire. In a tribute to Violette Verdy, they will also be dancing Sonatine, performed only during the first five performances. During the photo shoot to capture the image that would ultimately appear on the production poster, Mathias Heyman gives his impressions on this poetic, truly musical, and highly demanding repertoire.    

You and Myriam Ould-Braham are performing Sonatine, in tribute to Violette Verdy for the George Balanchine programme. Did you know her and what legacy did she leave you?

Mathias Heyman: I knew her briefly from the dance classes she gave the Company when she was a guest artist here. I had just joined the Ballet. Of course, at the Ballet School, I’d already heard a great deal about her: students tend to turn towards the dancers who have left their mark on their era. Violette was a pioneer: She left France to pursue her career in the United States. She became one of Balanchine’s muses... I was curious to meet her and, like many, I was completely charmed by her. She had such a joie d'être and took such pleasure in handing down her experience and skill.     

What did she teach you about Balanchine?

M. H.: In her dance classes, she emphasised musicality, it was very important to her. There were a great deal of rhythm changes in her barre exercises. She also passed on to us that characteristic of Balanchine’s language which opens new roads in the classical technique, certain epaulements. The basic technique is the same but the angles vary, as does their intensity. When you’re a young dancer, you tend to think more about the finality of the movement. Violette on the other hand, taught us to appreciate it, to take our time, to “soften” it in order to convey it in a more agreeable way for the body. Personally, I tended to tackle certain things with force and I remember her telling us over and again: “Relax! Cool, cool! The movement is there, you have it, you’re dancers, there’s no need to search any further.” Efficiency, simplicity… those were her watchwords and it’s what I remember most about her.    
Myriam Ould-Braham et Mathias Heymann dans « Sonatine »
Myriam Ould-Braham et Mathias Heymann dans « Sonatine » © Sébastien Mathé / OnP

Today, we’re rehearsing with Bart Cook who comes from the Balanchine Trust. He says Violette was a mixture of musicality, freshness, simplicity and grace... Sonatine was created around her and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous who was an Étoile dancer at the Paris Opera. The pas de deux in it is a demonstration of Balanchine’s vision of French elegance.

It is more than just a pas de deux: the presence of the piano on stage together with Ravel’s music—which is a focal point of the piece—in reality makes it more of a trio. There’s an interplay between the dance and the music. You need to achieve a symbiosis which means that we no longer can tell whether it is music or dance which initiates the movement.    

You underline the importance of Balanchine's musicality. How does that translate in his ballets?

M. H.: With Balanchine, the music takes pride of place. It’s the basis of everything. I make every effort to familiarise myself with it before learning the steps. Despite everything, when it comes to his repertoire I’m still something of a “novice”. I haven't tackled many of his pieces, but each time I do, it’s a discovery. Of course, choreographic elements and musical elements can create an atmosphere and a tone, but in most of his works there’s no storyline or narrative. These abstract ballets leave a place for the imagination and a freedom of movement.    
Myriam Ould-Braham et Mathias Heymann dans « Brahms-Schönberg Quartet »
Myriam Ould-Braham et Mathias Heymann dans « Brahms-Schönberg Quartet » © Sébastien Mathé / OnP

You mention different atmospheres for each work. In the end, what do the pieces in the evening’s programme have in common and what differentiates them?

M. H.: There’s no doubt that they all share this special relationship with the music. In Brahms Schönberg Quartet, there are four movements which stand out through the music. Each movement brings a different dramaturgy. Myriam and I perform the third, “romantic” one. The atmosphere is calm, I’m surrounded by ballerinas only and there’s something very fluid about it. The movement which follows, on the other hand, is a real firework display—it releases an energy which suits the ballet’s finale.
Sonatine is more like a ballad. There are numerous references to water in Ravel’s music. It’s bucolic. When Balanchine created Sonatine, he was focused on Violette and he gave her male partner the role of a sort of spirit who accompanies the thoughts of the ballerina. Often, in a classical pas de deux, the man is in control. In this case, he has to allow himself to be guided; to find with his partner a means of letting go, going with the flow.
Finally, Morzatiana makes me think of the royal courts. There’s something majestic and noble about the ballet. It’s one of Balanchine’s last creations and the culmination of his career: He was nearing the end of his life, he had amassed a vast body of knowledge. Technically, it is brilliant. The dancer has some very demanding steps from a technical point of view that require a certain virtuosity.

Myriam Ould-Braham et Mathias Heymann pendant la séance de prise de vue pour la réalisation de l’affiche
Myriam Ould-Braham et Mathias Heymann pendant la séance de prise de vue pour la réalisation de l’affiche © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Looking at those photographs, we get the impression there’s a huge complicity between the two of you, and at the same time gentleness and discipline. Are those the qualities needed to dance Balanchine?

M. H: Myriam and I share a genuine mutual trust. We’ve been dancing together for a long time. Working together every day we end up anticipating each other's reactions or simply adapting to what the other has given us. Myriam has a sensitivity and a fragility which impels me to be even more attentive. There’s also something naturally radiant about her. These are dances for couples. There’s a genuine exchange between the two partners. From start to finish, Sonatine is a succession of questions and answers, a continuous interaction between her and him. You have to manage to come on stage as if you don’t know the steps in advance and are responding as naturally as possible to your partner's proposition. Of course, the choreography is far more complex than it may seem, but a performer who soars and who takes pleasure in dancing is priceless. And I will continue to strive towards that simplicity and naturalness.

Myriam Ould-Braham & Mathias Heymann dansent Balanchine

  Interviewed by Inès Piovesan

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