On the occasion of the revival of La Bayadère at the Paris Opera, Octave magazine talks to Guillaume Diop. The dancer discusses the different roles he performs as a soloist as well as in the Corps de Ballet. He explains the particularity of being an understudy and the responsibility this entails. Finally, he tells us how he constructed the main character, the warrior Solor, during rehearsals with Bianca Scudamore and Dorothée Gilbert, his partners in this great ballet by Rudolf Nureyev.
This season you are performing several roles, both in the Corps de Ballet and as a soloist. Tell us about them.
Guillaume Diop: Well, I am one of Solor's eight friends and one of the twelve dancers in Act II. As far as the solo roles are concerned, I play the Slave and also, as an understudy, the role of Solor, the main dancer. That's a lot of work. There's a lot of information to gather, concerning positioning, choreography and performance. Being cast in several roles requires a great deal of autonomy and organisation because you have to take the time to build up a character, which is complex, whilst dancing on other evenings in the Corps de Ballet. It's a very dense rhythm but alternating these roles also helps me to better appreciate the other dancers' interpretations and to become more familiar with the stage space in which we perform. So we acquire a good knowledge of the stage and the sets, which is very interesting and enriching.
You were initially an understudy for the role of Solor. It is a rarely mentioned role but one which nevertheless involves a particular responsibility. How do you prepare for it?
G. D.: Yes, it's true there's a certain responsibility. Being an understudy is quite stressful because you never know in advance when you're going to dance, or if you're really going to dance. It requires a lot of work on your own, because we have far fewer rehearsals than the main performers. We always have to be ready. But it also gives us a form of freedom with regard to the interpretation because we choose with whom we work and it gives us time to think about what we want to do with this character. It's a more intimate process, different from working with a ballet master and a fixed partner. When I understudy a role, I always tell myself that I have to be ready for the dress rehearsal, because you never know what may happen. In fact, that's what happened with Don Quichotte, when I did a replacement at the dress rehearsal.
Let's go back to the character of Solor, which you have performed twice this year. How far in advance were you told about this replacement?
G. D.: I was informed a week before my premiere. However, this does not mean that we can afford to increase the number of rehearsals because we have to be in shape for the "big day". So we focused more on the technical aspects. My partners and I took the time to discover each other and to learn to dance together. So it was more about working on the pas de deux than on my variations or my interpretation, which I had already worked on myself. To do this, I drew on the video of Laurent Hilaire, a former Danseur Étoile, who danced in the 1992 creation.
Did you have the opportunity to discuss the role with other dancers of the Company?
G. D.: I get on very well with Germain Louvet. So he gave me advice on interpretation, particularly on mime. How to continue to bring the character to life even in more static moments, without dancing, without technical prowess. This is something that I personally find very difficult since I haven't had many opportunities to perform. It's difficult to embody your character when you're a soloist. When you're in the Corps de Ballet, you're constantly interacting with the others, you 'play' together. But when you are alone, you run the risk of ruminating, or of starting to think about your next variation. Germain helped me on this point by explaining his technique: for each performance, he acts as if he were discovering each scene of the ballet. He embodies his character, who himself does not know what is going to happen. In this way, the emotions are more sincere.
Irek Mukhamedov, our coach for this series, also explained to me that from the moment the performance starts at 7.30 pm, I am no longer Guillaume, I am Solor, from start to finish. These are important things to remember, especially when an understudy, because of course you want to be very attentive to your partner and not forget the steps. Then you risk returning to your natural self, which is not a good idea.
You just mentioned mime. The first act contains a lot of it. How do you prepare for it? Do you learn this at the Ballet School?
G. D.: Yes, we are introduced to it with the Ballet School productions. But it's really when we join the Company that we discover the art of mime. During the first years, when you are a quadrille, you are very much on stage. You don't necessarily dance, but you are always present. So you have to react to what's happening on stage. This is something we work on a lot when we join the Company, especially with Clotilde Vayer (editor's note: former Associate Ballet Master at the Directorate of Dance). She taught us how to embody our character, wherever we are positioned on stage, in the foreground or in the distance, how to make the movements natural without being exaggerated or showing unrealistic reactions.
As a soloist, you shared the stage with Dorothée Gilbert (Nikiya) and Bianca Scudamore (Gamzatti), how did you interact with these partners?
G. D. : With Dorothée, I had to gain confidence. She is a leading dancer in the Company. When she was named an Étoile, I had not yet started dancing, so it was impressive for me to dance with her. She gave me a lot of reassurance so that I came to the performance with as little apprehension as possible.
With Bianca it was different because we know each other well. We studied at the Ballet School together for a while. So it was a question of rediscovering each other and trying to put together a version that suited us both in order to perform as smoothly as possible.
What changes according to the partners are the port de bras, the epaulements, the way we hold the dancer according to our respective sizes. These are purely technical adjustments.
I will also dance the “pas de deux de L'Esclave” with Valentine Colasante. It' s the first time she's dancing the character of Nikiya, so we're learning together. The Slave appears in the second scene of Act I, when the Rajah introduces Gamzatti to Solor. On this occasion, the Rajah invites Nikiya and her slave to come and bless the union. This is a short role as there is only one pas de deux, but it is an important passage for Nikiya. It is a role that requires a kind of complete devotion to her. That's why the Slave always stands behind her with his head down. It's a very good role for working on adage and highlighting the partner.It's a great opportunity to dance with such experienced colleagues who have so much to offer.
Let's go back to the main character, the warrior Solor, who is he for you?
G. D.: The Solor I wanted to portray is more of a prince than a warrior, because I naturally relate better to that side. I see Solor as a character who is a bit of a coward. I don't really like to define him like that, but he is almost a gullible person. I think he's madly in love with Nikiya. In Act I, when he is with her, there is something almost childlike in the way they love each other, something very simple and pure. I find that very beautiful. However, I find Solor to be a two-faced character. On the one hand, he feels unconditional love for Nikiya, but at the same time he has to be proud, to be very strong and fulfil his obligations.
In Act II, the character evolves. I try to show him to be colder. Solor is torn between his arranged marriage to Gamzatti and the promise he made over the sacred fire to Nikiya. He is torn between his position and what he really feels. Instinctively, the feeling I had was one of unease. Certainly Solor is a warrior, a prince, but he finds himself in that childlike position when he realises that Nikiya's tragic fate is the consequence of his actions. He is a coward and this is reflected in an easily perceptible physical discomfort, a kind of unease, even a deep sadness.
And then in Act III, Solor finds Nikiya in his dream but it is as if he cannot touch her or look into her eyes, there is a kind of frustration. They dance together but don't really meet, a distance sets in, they can no longer look at each other. Nikiya becomes a kind of ghost. As far as interpreting this act is concerned, we didn't really discuss it with Dorothée, it came about quite naturally, I adapted to her performance by asking myself how I would have reacted personally.
The role of Solor is quite technical, with several variations and bravura moments. What are the main challenges?
G. D.: It's a complicated role because in Act I there are no variations. We reach Act II without having really warmed up. It's a ballet with a crescendo of intensity. I wasn't used to that. When I performed Romeo in Roméo et Juliette last year, or played Basilio in Don Quichotte this winter, the first variations were very physical, but as the acts unfolded, things calmed down and the choreography became more flexible. With La Bayadère, the Act II variation in particular is a real technical challenge with lots of leaps, but the real challenge comes in the final Act III variation, after more than two hours of ballet. You really feel the strain.
This is the third time you have been cast as a soloist in a ballet by Rudolf Nureyev.
G. D.: Nureyev is an essential choreographer for the company, especially for the male artists. In all the ballets he restaged, he brought a lot of interest, texture and depth to all the male characters. He is very present in our daily life, in the way we work, in the way we approach roles and in our technical skills. Last year, for Roméo et Juliette, I worked with Elisabeth Maurin, who is the last Étoile he named. Through her I could see this heritage that is more distant for the younger generation. The more time passes, the more complicated it will be for us to rediscover the original direction of his choreographies, which are so unique.