On February 20th,,
after more than ten years as an Étoile (he was appointed in 2005), Benjamin
Pech will bid farewell to the stage with an evening of dance including Tombe by Jérôme Bel, Les Variations Goldberg, In the
Night by Jerome Robbins and an extract from Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj which he will perform with Eleonora
Abbagnato. Dominique Simonnet meets
the artist before the final curtain.
His gestures are fluid, his carriage princely and he has that extra something, a kind of magnetism characteristic of the dancer Étoile that immediately captures one’s attention. She, his partner, advances unsteadily on spindly legs, so frail, so fragile, bent beneath the weight of her 84 years. He takes her by the hand like a child, leads her on stage, lifts her delicately, twirls her round with care, risks a porté then returns to sit with her to among the spectators… For his farewell performance at the Opera, Benjamin Pech has chosen to perform this unusual pas de deux (imagined by Jérôme Bel) with Sylviane Milley. A regular ballet-goer for the last sixty years, Sylviane Milley has been waiting for him at the stage door after every performance … The artist with his greatest fan… A moving tribute to the public bringing a magnificent thirty-year career to a fitting end. Benjamin Pech still remembers life before dance when, a carefree small boy, he flew through Agde on his red bicycle. Sun, sea and blue skies … he could simply have spent his entire youth in this Mediterranean paradise but for one thing – ballet! Ballet was there, as if stalking its prey. “It was dance that found me,” he remembers. One day, instead of sitting quietly at the back of the jazz dance studio waiting for his mother’s class to finish, he decided to join in. When he began to contort himself, a cute little blondie amongst all those women, everyone was flabbergasted by his virtuosity. Already a virtuoso! The kid had talent and dance just snapped him up.
At twelve, there he was
with a place at the Paris Opera Ballet
School, alone in Paris, a full-time boarder, far from his family, far
from the Mediterranean. Lessons every day, in every domain. The discipline of
excellence is harsh. “ The hardest part was being separated from my family.”
But in the world of dance, you grow up very quickly. “It was dance that raised
me,” he says. Benjamin passed his ballet exams without incident and found
himself in the Holy of Holies, the Ballet of the Paris Opera where he was soon
to experience his first set-back: he failed to get promoted at his first
internal exam. Disheartened, he made a few excursions into the outside world
and entered a competition organised by the prima ballerina, Maïa Plissetskaïa.
He was rewarded with first prize and renewed self-confidence. At the Opera, he
rose in the ranks and at twenty-five he won his stripes as a Premier dancer. A
soloist at last! Over the years, he spread his wings with elegance in both the
classical and the contemporary repertoire, in ballets by Nureyev, Kylián,
Preljocaj and Roland Petit. Fame was his, but time was slipping by and still
the title “Étoile” eluded him. He considered going to New York City Ballet or
to London, or creating his own company and touring privately whilst remaining
at the Paris Opera. Then, during a performance in Shanghai in 2005, he stepped
in to replace José Martinez who was injured, in the role of Frédéri in L’Arlésienne. He was outstanding. When
the other star of the evening injured himself in his turn, Benjamin was ready
to take over in the principal role in Giselle
for what was to be a four-hour marathon performance. At the end of the
evening, Brigitte Lefèvre made him an Étoile. At last! Eleven happy years were
to follow with a wide and varied repertoire that brought him the admiration of
fans like Sylviane, the old lady who was regularly transported by his
performances, for the space of a few hours, into a brighter world and whom he
gazes at now with infinite warmth, as if thanking all his spectators through
Not easy I imagine to say good-bye to the Palais Garnier where you have performed so many roles…
Benjamin Pech: For me, the rupture occurred two years ago when I injured my hip quite badly. That was in fact my real adieu, and a brutal one, alas. But I wanted to carry on until I reached the age limit of 42. During the last two years, I’ve experimented with another way of dancing, performing character roles and I’ve had more time to think about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. When I became Benjamin Millepied’s assistant, I explored other paths like management, something I enjoy. I hope one day to run a company as artistic director.
Balanchine, Cranko, Forsythe, Kylián, Lacotte, MacMillan, Le Riche, Martinez, Neumeier, Nijinsky, Preljocaj, Ratmansky, Robbins – the list goes on! What a rich palette of roles!
B.P. : Yes, it is, isn’t it? I feel completely fulfilled! They have all been significant, these roles. I remember my first Giselle, in Brazil: in the mad scene, Elizabeth Maurin was transfigured, I thought she was genuinely going mad. She was no longer playing Giselle. She was Giselle. I lost the thread of my own character. And my first Swan Lake… Waiting in the wings, when I heard the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s music I said to myself: “This is amazing! Am I really about to dance this mythical ballet?” My most beautiful memories are often linked with music. Two years ago, in Le Parc by Angelin Preljocaj, my hip was so painful it brought tears to my eyes and then, I heard the first bars of Mozart and I just went for it. And Maurice Béjart’s The Firebird! I endlessly watched videos of Maïa Plissetskaïa interpreting the death of the Swan to try and capture her port de bras…
Not forgetting L’Arlésienne, of course, which along with Giselle, brought you the title of Étoile. That evening, in China, after your final leap into oblivion, there was a stunned silence. The audience was enraptured.
B.P.: I know every gesture of L’Arlésienne and every single note of music. For a dancer who likes theatricality, Roland Petit’s ballets are fascinating. I could talk about each of my roles for hours. I love them all, every one of them!
Classical ballet, contemporary dance… you have blurred the frontiers.
B.P.: Cyril Atanassoff once told me: “You are like me, you’re a demi-caractère, (i.e. not entirely classical, not entirely contemporary) and you’ll see, they make the best classical dancers.” There is, in effect, a kind of rupture in my body that creates a certain modernity. Take the prince in Swan Lake for example: one thinks of him as tall, willowy, blond and slender. I’m not like that at all and yet it was one of my finest roles. Ever since I was little, I have adored disguising myself and pretending to be someone else, probably in order to express through a character the things I couldn’t say myself. A dancer’s career is short and I was voracious. I would have loved to have stood one day on the table in Maurice Béjart’s Bolero and danced to the music of Ravel. It never happened, but it doesn’t matter.
Étoile is a rare and prestigious title… What does it mean for you?
B.P.: The title might make people smile but I’m attached to it. An Étoile is someone like Cyril
Atanassoff, who just bursts with charisma, even when he’s not dancing. He has
an aura, something that fills the space around him. We are the only company in
the world to maintain this tradition and this structure: Quadrille, Coryphée,
Sujet, Premier danseur and Étoile. Today, we could maybe do without the
Coryphées but that’s all. The hierarchy is essential, it’s part of the dancer’s
training. The annual internal exam, it’s our yearly bill of health. For my
part, it stimulated me and allowed me to demonstrate facets of my personality
that the ballet masters were unaware of.
An Étoile can only shine with his or her partner.
B.P.: Élisabeth Maurin really initiated me to the Nureyev ballets; she gave me the key to understanding them; she was the one who ‘made a man’ of me. And then, there was my own partner, my friend, Eleonora Abbagnato, with whom I have a bond that goes far beyond the limits of the stage. We understood each other instantly: I could always sense exactly what she was going to do next. We could even have a row, as we did one evening in the middle of the love scene in La Dame aux camellias, even though we were acting out the most torrid, the most devastating passion.
You have been dancing with the company now for more than twenty years and seen various directors and several generations of Étoiles come and go and witnessed numerous changes… How did you feel about these changes at the time?
B.P.: The Paris Opera is my home. I can only talk about it in superlatives. We had the same director for twenty years. Now we have to change and create a new generation of Étoiles. Benjamin Millepied undertook the task. He’s someone who adores choreography and is trying to create a kind of osmosis with visual art. But he only stayed a few months and you can’t form an opinion after such a short time. The Company, it’s true, needs to reinforce its classical vein. The dancers have to go to their classes every day and the repertoire needs to be programmed. Classical dance is cruel! The least imperfection shows up instantly. To remain at the peak of your form, you have to maintain it, just like a singer practising vocal exercises; you have to practise over and over again. Our ballet heritage is just as vital as innovation. You have to know where you’re coming from in order to move forward. Both are necessary.
Even if you give up performing, will you still need dance?
B.P. I need
life. I’ve realised that to be a dancer, you have to concentrate on yourself
all the time. It’s not egocentricity, we are obliged to focus on our bodies,
our injuries, our nerves… Going on stage is sometimes very violent and it
necessitates this preoccupation with self. Now I’ve had enough. I want to look
after others instead. Like in Jérôme Bel’s Tombe,
I’m no longer a man who dances but a man who walks and talks. I’ve got closure
on my dancing career. It’s good-bye to the stage! There, it’s the final
curtain… I’m making my adieux and I’m happy!
Dominique Simonnet is writer, editor and former journalist with L’Express. He is the author of some twenty or so essays and novels. He has recently published Les Secrets de la Maison Blanche (Perrin, 2014) and Délivrez-vous du corps (Plon, 2013).