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Encounters

The Dancer Stripped Bare

When Bella Figura entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera — By Inès Piovesan

Fifteen years after its entry into the repertoire, Bella Figura by the Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián is once again on the bill at the Palais Garnier alongside two new productions: Tar and Feathers and Symphony of Psalms. Eleonora Abbagnato and Alessio Carbone, both of whom were present in 2001, evoke their memories and reminisce over a ballet that profoundly marked them.   


Bella Figura seen by Eleonora Abbagnato

I have many memories of Bella Figura’s entry to the repertoire.. Jiří Kylián spent a lot of time rehearsing with us, as he did for the first performance of Stepping Stones. The production included only the Premier Dancers and the Etoiles. I was the youngest and to have been chosen by Kylián was a very important moment for me. I have a rather uncomfortable memory of him. He knew what he could get from me and he wanted to see results straightaway. He pushed me to my limit to bring out the qualities he was looking for. I used to come out of rehearsals in tears; it was difficult to face such a grand personage who expected so much. With hindsight, I realise that I adored working with him. With Kylián, I discovered something other than the classical repertoire and I learnt to be myself, without seeking to please at any price.

It is rather strange to be reviving Bella Figura again today. Those strong personalities, like Aurélie Dupont, Jérémie Bélingard, Laurent Hilaire, Manuel Legris, Wilfried Romoli, Géraldine Wiart and Lionel Delanoë are no longer there. They were artists with a powerful energy and that made for a very high standard within the group. This year, we have to recreate those conditions with a new generation of dancers.

This is a ballet that strips us bare in every sense of the term. There is one passage where we are all in skirts with naked torsos. For all my usual modesty, I don’t think about it when I’m on stage, it just happens quite naturally, it’s very pure. This piece is feminine, sensual and personal. Kylián loves women, that’s obvious! In his work, physique and beauty are very important. It’s the first image we perceive, like the moment when two dancers brush against each other, touch without really touching. Almost nothing happens, it’s just the beauty of two bodies moving. At the same time, what he asks for is very personal, internal, it has to come from deep within us but with simplicity, without exaggeration. In rehearsal, he used these precise images. He said to me: “It’s as if you were a bird. You are flying and some one shoots you in the back.”

Répétition de « Symphonie de psaumes », Palais Garnier, 2016
Répétition de « Symphonie de psaumes », Palais Garnier, 2016 © Ann Ray / OnP

Symphony of Psalms was first performed at the end of the seventies, a period that corresponds to the beginning of Jiří Kylián’s career. His pieces from any one period are often linked. He himself comes from a classical school of ballet and this is more evident in his early works even if the “Kylián style” is already immediately recognisable. Symphony of Psalms is a rather spiritual ballet. There is an incredible scene in which oriental carpets are suspended above the stage, on which there are kneelers and a choir singing psalms … it could evoke a place of worship and at the same time, one has the impression that this is a universal prayer, destined for everyone. Kylián is a perfectionist and has an holistic approach to his work. For Bella Figura, we spent hours under the stage lights, without moving; the production had to be perfectly fashioned down to the last detail: dancers, lighting, blocking, movement, emotion… He is very demanding and made us work very hard. But he is also very generous and he gives as much as he expects from us.   

Bella Figura seen by Alessio Carbone

Kylián is a god… The first time I ever cried on leaving the stage was for Doux mensonges, which I was dancing with Miteki Kudo. Dance often provokes strong emotions, but on that occasion… The performance ended, there was a roar of applause, and after the curtain calls, I returned to my dressing room and burst into tears, sobbing like a child, I was so overflowing with emotion!

In 2001, I worked with him on Bella Figura. The only people left from that period are Eleonora Abbagnato, Muriel Zusperreguy, Laëtitia Pujol and myself. In this ballet, it is impossible to lie to the public. We are literally stripped naked and we can’t overplay anything. We are alone with our personality, completely stripped of all artifice. Two characters are completely denuded in the ballet, including the one I play. During rehearsal, he said to me: “Imagine you are in your mother’s womb. Sometimes you make slow gestures and at other moments you kick, you use your elbows, you make brusque gestures”. Obviously, no one remembers that foetal stage but one can imagine something like a “cocoon”, a protected form. Kylián plunges us into that state, his gestural style expresses what comes from inside: it’s just pure vibration. He expresses the inexpressible and manages to give the dancers the confidence to be themselves and yet still become part of the picture he is painting.   

Alessio Carbone lors d’une répétition de « Bella Figura », Palais Garnier, 2016
Alessio Carbone lors d’une répétition de « Bella Figura », Palais Garnier, 2016 © Ann Ray / OnP

In each of his ballets that I have danced, (Bella Figura, Doux mensonges and Kaguyahime), I have always found that same interior quality. He enables the dancer to refocus himself, to enter his inner self and find his true essence. When you have peeled away all the outer shell, the protective layers of outward appearances, you cease to be on show, so, inevitably, you become more vulnerable, which makes the dance even more sensitive.

With the title, Kylián seeks to stage “beautiful figures”. “Bella Figura” makes one think instinctively of a “beautiful physique”. Effectively, we do see beautiful bodies on stage. In Italian, we use the expression “cercare di fare bella figura” which could be translated as “seek to rise to the occasion, make a good impression, be pleasing.” To be honest, the title seems to me to be neither revealing nor sufficiently explicit. The idea that these are just beautiful bodies that dance is too restrictive, it goes much farther than that. His gestural style reveals the dancer at an intimate level.

I think he has always been preoccupied by his rapport with others on a physical level, with sensuality. His muse, the dancer who first performed the leading role in Bella Figura, has a sensuality that bowls one over… Kylián’s gift is to turn that sensuality into something elegant. It’s never direct but always suggested and subtle. Béjart was more explicit, his sensuality was touching on the sexual, it was physical, corporeal as in Bolero for example.

Kylián is a bit like the Beatles… everyone knows their songs and listens to them. They have left their mark on the history of music. In the same way, he will have made his mark on the history of contemporary dance…

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