The school of the Paris Opera Ballet: exactitude, heritage and life in the bubble

In 2013, the École de Danse de l’Opéra de Paris celebrated its 300th year.

For much of the 20th century the school was located within the Palais Garnier, the beautiful theatre in the heart of Paris that is home to the Paris Opera Ballet.

But 30 years ago the management decided to move the school to Nanterre, 11 kilometres away from the centre of the city.

The ballet school opened its doors in 1987 and is now home to 130 students aged from 8 to 18.

In September 2011, the filmmaker, Françoise Marie, and her crew began following the students for one year for a six-part documentary produced by Arte France and Schuch Productions.

The documentary was released this year, screened in Australia on SBS and is now available as a DVD.

It’s remarkable that the crew had as much access as they did because there can be few institutions with more rules, more codes and more strict controls that the Paris Opera Ballet School.

Filmed within the bright white building in Nanterre, designed by architect, Christian de Portzemparc, some of the students were surprisingly frank in their view that they felt as though they were captured in a kind of bubble.

They are not entirely isolated as they return for the holidays with their parents and some are able to perform in Paris in ballets such as La Bayadere at the Garnier.

The students travel by bus into Paris where the documentary shows them at the Garnier on stage and in the wings as they watch the etoiles (the stars) of the company, their idols.

Very few students will ever join the company and even fewer will become an etoile, such are the demands for the perfect physique, skills and artistry.

The documentary is titled Graines d’etoiles (literally “seeds of stars”) but has been translated for English speaking markets as “Budding Stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, a year in the heart of the Ecole de Danse de l’Opéra de Paris, from September 2011 to July 2012”.

Central to the documentary is the importance of tradition and history. The Paris Opera style of dancing must not be contaminated by any outside influences and all the teachers in the school are former members of the company.

Every time the students make contact with the teachers in any part of the school they must bow or curtsey.

The Paris Opera Ballet School teachers claim that the school is unique in that everything is passed from teachers to students by the spoken word rather than the written word, as at the Vaganova school in Russia or the way the Bournonville technique is passed on in Denmark.

As in any school there are empathetic teachers and those who operate on the principle: “I’m being cruel to be kind”.

One of the more empathetic teachers tells the students that “the great artists are those who haven’t lost their child’s soul”, that “they must light up the room with their heels (“imagine a light bulb on your heel”) and that “the gaze is important. It gives you balance”.

A highlight of the documentary is a rehearsal taken by Violette Verdy of Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements.

Another is the way that one teacher explains how the students should walk in the défilé, when the entire company and school appear on the Garnier stage in a splendid display of exactitude.

She told the girls “reach your arm (up) to Prince Charming and the other as if you are holding your little sister”.

The camera crew was not allowed to film the final exams in front of a jury of 12, including Brigitte Lefèvre, who will retire as artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet in October next year.

The heartbreaking conclusion of the documentary is the year-end weeding out of the students. Of the 13 graduating students at the end of the year, two were taken into the company, a few into other ballet companies and two left the ballet world to go to university.

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Students of the Paris Opera Ballet School backstage at the Palais Garner, Graines d’etoiles, photographer unknown

Students of the Paris Opera Ballet School in the wings at the Palais Garner, Graines d’etoiles, photographer unknown

Students at the Paris Opera Ballet School, Graines d’etoiles, photographer unknown

Paris Opera Ballet School, Nanterre, photographer unknown