Encounters

Recollections from the Chosen Ones in The Rite of Spring

Étoile dancers Eleonora Abbagnato and Alice Renavand tell all. — By Aliénor de Foucaud

On an empty stage covered only with a layer of earth, the dancers engage in a struggle as visceral as it is poetic to the point of exhaustion. The Paris Opera Ballet is the only company other than the Tanztheater Wuppertal to whom Pina Bausch entrusted her legendary work The Rite of Spring. This autumn, Étoile dancers Eleonora Abbagnato and Alice Renavand are performing the role of the Chosen One on the stage of the Palais Garnier. They look back on the ballet, their encounter with an outstanding artist and a choreographic experience which has left an indelible mark on both of them.


Eleonora Abbagnato
“I had the good fortune to be cast in The Rite of Spring when it first entered the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire in 1997. I had joined the Corps de Ballet the year before. I was still a quadrille at the time, and I was totally overawed to be auditioning alongside Patrick Dupond and Marie-Claude Pietragalla. During the audition, Pina wanted to see all the dancers of the company pass by in order to give each of us a chance, without differentiation for grade or seniority. Above all, it was the dancers' personalities that interested her. We began by rehearsing the circle, the starting point of the ballet and the major climax of the group. It is here that the work takes shape and coalesces on stage. Some very young dancers were selected. I myself was just eighteen at the time.

Eleonora Abbagnato dans le rôle de l’Élue, Opéra de Paris, 2010
Eleonora Abbagnato dans le rôle de l’Élue, Opéra de Paris, 2010 © Sébastien Mathé / OnP

Pina first chose me to perform the role of the young girl who finds herself in the middle of the group at two points in the ballet—the one everyone protects for being the most fragile. She detected that fragility in me right away when she saw me dance at that first audition. She identified a singularity in each of us, a personality trait which was then reflected on stage. Each role within the group was attributed in a highly precise and thought-out way. Nothing was ever left to chance.

In rehearsal, Pina made us run a lot. She asked us to mark out diagonals in the studios as we ran so that we would learn how to free ourselves and let go. So for me, her ballet was synonymous with vitality and freedom. That initial discovery had a major impact on my career as a dancer and on my life. She opened me to a new field of possibilities. By offering The Rite of Spring to the Paris Opera Ballet, Pina taught us to feel like a real group on stage. We spent entire days together in the studio. Strong personalities from the company mingled with the Corps de Ballet. It was as if we all belonged to the same family.

I then had the good fortune to dance The Rite of Spring each time it was revived. I performed the Chosen One’s solo for the first time in 2002 and at the time, I was able to rehearse it with Pina. In the studio and on stage, the technical difficulty combines with the psychological distress that this ballet puts us through. Each evening is a new metamorphosis which drives us into a corner and forces us to come out of ourselves. I remember a time when my mother no longer wanted me to dance this ballet, because she no longer recognized me. The state into which we are plunged even distances us from the audience. During the final performances of Rite of Spring in 2015, I couldn’t even bring myself to take a curtain call, I needed some down-time to recover and grasp what had happened in the theatre. It was as if the ballet had been suspended in time.

It’s probably the last time I’ll be performing this role and the last time I’ll dance in The Rite of Spring. I’m 40 years old and I can already see my retirement on the horizon! It’s always odd to rehearse without Pina Bausch. Despite the quality and immense generosity of the current dance coaches, they don’t have her eye. Pina didn’t differentiate between the dancers. We were all viewed in the same way. She managed to calm us and give us confidence in ourselves. Ever since those early days at the Ballet School, most of us have grown with the pressure of having to be the best in order to stand out from the pack and be noticed. Pina pacified us. Meeting her was a privilege—a great artistic and human encounter”.



Alice Renavand
“I first danced The Rite of Spring in 1998. The ballet had entered the Paris Opera’s repertoire a year earlier. I had just joined the Corps de Ballet as a quadrille and I’d also gained some weight. During the audition for the group of women, Pina Bausch noticed me. I was sure I wouldn’t be picked given my physique, not least because the costume was very revealing, but I do remember having a lot of fun. Pina came to look for me at the back of the studio. She took me by the hand and asked me to dance. From that moment on, an unfailing relationship took root between the two of us and in particular, with this ballet which has followed me throughout my entire career. It was the first time that someone had looked upon me so kindly; I didn’t correspond to the canons of the company at that time and Pina brought me new-found self-confidence. She taught me to channel my anxiety and inner anger and vent it on stage. After that, I was cast in The Rite of Spring every time the ballet was revived on the stage of the Palais Garnier or on tour.

Alice Renavand dans le rôle de l’Élue, Opéra de Paris, 2015
Alice Renavand dans le rôle de l’Élue, Opéra de Paris, 2015 © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Then, in Epidaurus, Greece, on the evening of my birthday, Pina solemnly said to me: “The next time “Rites” is performed in Paris, you’ll dance the Chosen One; that’s it, you’re ready.” Unfortunately, in the interim, Pina Bausch passed away.

Since I first discovered it in 1997, the ballet has haunted me. At the time, I was already listening constantly to Stravinsky’s score and I enjoyed dancing to it alone. When I performed the role of the Chosen One for the first time in 2010, the coaches and members of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, Josephine Ann Endicott and Dominique Mercy, were there to guide me. Back then, I was still a Sujet. I began working on the ballet using video footage and I immersed myself in the score to grasp the work’s musical quality. The Chosen One’s solo has something exceptional about it that is taxing both physically and emotionally. Whatever the case, this ballet drains us. Dancing in the soil makes performing all the more difficult. In the studio, the first thing I learnt was to master the technique perfectly before I attempted the solo trance sequence. That trance haunts the ballet. All the dancers are taken to a second, quasi-primitive state. On stage, bonds are created and a solidarity passes through the group. We aren’t given any specific direction other than to let our emotions show through. Each performance is different. We can’t always anticipate where it will lead us.

Pina Bausch was a great choreographer and a great artist of her time. She assigned specific roles to each dancer and by doing so managed to reveal the unique qualities in each artist, but also in each individual. With me, she detected a deep sensitivity and anger. In 1998, I danced the role of the running woman. As time passed, I performed different roles depending on my emotions and my development as a young woman. It was as if the ballet were following me as I grew within the company. This ballet is a progression, a new challenge every evening. It’s as if it strips you bare, compounding the technical difficulty and its inherent intensely emotional charge.

Today, it’s bound to be the last time I perform the role of the Chosen One on the stage of the Palais Garnier. I’m 37 years old and I have extraordinary memories of the woman and the ballet. Pina infused me with a new vitality. She taught me how to breathe again, as if my torso were embracing life. She encouraged me to draw on emotions within me that I didn’t even know existed.”

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