Interview by Alessandro Bizzotto was published in the issue 1/2019
That’s what the star of the Paris Opera Ballet wishes when he is on stage – to be in shape to deserve the roles he is given. Yet he likes taking responsibilities on his shoulders and, while being considered a dream partner, he expects the ballerina dancing with him to be helpful – «her work is essential», after all. Alessandro Bizzotto meets the French Principal dancer for a straightforward chat about good and bad memories, invitations abroad, ballet shoes and impossible wishes, such as having more time
I am quite punctual. While lead through the hallways of the Opera Garnier, I found them unnaturally quiet. Maybe it is only because it is early January, the run of performances of “The Lady of the Camellias” is about to end – Stéphane Bullion will dance the last one as Armand tomorrow.
I turn left and reach the end of a long passage. As he opens the door of his dressing room, he looks at me almost sheepishly, but with no embarrassment. «Stéphane» he only says as we shake hands. «Bonjour. Please come in».
He is an authentic star of ballet. I even think he is one of the male dancers that today can most honestly put something of himself in the characters he dances. Yet Stéphane Bullion does not speak much at the outset – I stand till he invites me to sit on the dark sofa and he takes a seat on the low, thick radiator under the window.
I can easily guess it won’t be a difficult conversation, though. The stage misleads – I expected an imposing Rothbart, a sharp-gazed Onegin, an unconcerned Albrecht. It is only now that I realize I was wrong, while Bullion looks at me with an almost curious gaze and patiently waits for me to ask my first question or say anything.
After joining the Paris Opéra Ballet at 17, he was promoted to the title of étoile, the highest grade of the company, in June 2010 after his performance as Solor in “La Bayadère”.
Often chosen by choreographers when their ballets enter the Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire, he is Chevalier of Arts and Letters and has even been the star of a book and a film, “24 hours in a man’s life”, in which he featured moving on a beach twenty-four hours in a row.
What is your first memory when you joined the Paris Opera Ballet after finishing the school?
It is about arriving in a place that I didn’t properly know. While attending the ballet school, I had come to the Palais Garnier just a few times for the défilé. When I joined the company, so, the theatre was not familiar at all to me. And at that time the company was not as well organized as today to welcome its new members – I didn’t know where the dressing rooms were, just as an example… though I was astonished by finding myself here, dancing every day, taking class with Principals and First soloists who had such a huge experience. Everything was to be discovered.
Had you had any ballet training before coming to Paris?
I joined the Paris Opera Ballet School at 14 and I attended only the latest three years here. I had attended a private ballet school in Lyon before… I still remember very well going to school in the morning and then having ballet classes in the afternoon. However, when I got admitted to the Paris Opera Ballet School, I felt I was in a place where everything was optimized in order to let us students focus on ballet and learn the best possible way.
Were you a good student?
I think I was, I had qualities, but I have never been the best of my class. I was a good student as I was both disciplined and self-demanding – when someone tells me it is necessary to do something, I go for that. In addition, I’ve always been someone who likes to try and to learn, I’ve always been happy to get corrections.
You are someone who has always combined classical roles and contemporary ones. Is it challenging to move your body in such a different way, as modern dance requires?
No, it isn’t. I never had that kind of problems. It might take time to make a style your own – switching from Forsythe to Mats Ek and then to the role of prince Siegfried inevitably forces you to adapt. Yet the classical repertoire is so tough and demanding that, then, I never had problem in doing anything else. Then I know there are contemporary styles that suit me and other ones that are not the best ones for my physique… just think about Forsythe – I feel I cannot give my best dancing his creations, there are dancers who dance them better than me. Other modern choreographers, instead, suit me and my qualities way better. Let me also say that contemporary choreographers are demanding as well! Jiří Kylián and Mats Ek are truly exigent, their ballets demand precision and stamina. Mats Ek is someone that can easily ask you to repeat a movement twenty times in rehearsal. It might be tough to get back to a classical ballet after a modern one, maybe! Particularly if you let yourself go focusing just on modern without taking class daily… but that’s something I never do – I always train my classical technique, it would be extremely difficult to get the body back into shape and it would mean a huge amount of extra work.
What makes a good partnership work on stage?
Some bodies easily understand each other, some bodies don’t. There are girls I have never touched and it is evident we are not made to dance together, and there are girls I can quickly find a connection with. Male dancers are nonetheless often considered good partners or poor partners, while you never hear anything like that for female dancers… but a girl can be a good partner or a poor one as well – some girls are very difficult to partner as they are not good partners. That’s all. People often forget that the female dancer’s work is fundamental in every pas de deux – you can find girls who are excellent partners and other ones that are all fingers and thumbs, that are awkward, that are difficult to handle as they simply cannot help their male partner and don’t understand when he needs them to stay or do something to help. What’s more, mutual respect is essential – it is a human relationship, after all, and if a girl thinks just about herself and not about the boy who stays behind her and the problems he may have… oh well, it simply cannot work.
Your most important roles. Not your favourite ones, but the ones that left a mark on your professional life.
How many shall I mention? A couple?
Two or even three if you want…
Jurij Grigorovič’s “Ivan le Terrible” is the first title role I ever danced, it made me understand many things – I was still a Sujet [a soloist, ed] when I danced it for the first time and I didn’t know if I was able to dance a leading role. I guess I realized I could do so thanks to this ballet and, at the same time, I realized I love to take some responsibilities on my shoulders too. Armand in John Neumeier’s “The Lady of the Camellias” has always been an important role for me as well, I keep dancing it with enormous joy.
The Paris Opera Ballet changed three directors in less than two years when Benjamin Millepied took over from Brigitte Lefèvre, then left and Aurélie Dupont replaced him. As a Principal dancer of the company, how did it work in your eyes?[He takes a breath and gets a two-second break, ed] It was not easy. I had worked so much with Brigitte Lefèvre, there were good habits with her and maybe also bad ones… but I had an excellent relationship with her – we used to talk a lot, even when we didn’t agree on something, even when she thought a role couldn’t suit me. I trusted her. When Benjamin Millepied was about to take over, I remember I spoke to Brigitte as I felt worried… She reassured me, she told me everything would be fine. Yet things went bad and wrong with him.
Do you mean for you or for the whole company?
I think he would have still been here if things had gone well for the company under his direction. But he announced he would leave just after fifteen or sixteen months… it was evident there were problems. In any case, as far as I am concerned, I had the feeling he didn’t want me here anymore, that he considered my professional life as a dancer over. Moreover, what I regret is that many things remained unsaid between me and him… I really felt we were not speaking the same language, we were not understanding each other. I remember he came to see me dancing “The Lady of the Camellias” with Agnès Letestu before taking over as a director, I met him in the elevator and the only thing he told me was «There are many lifts in this ballet». Was that really the only thing he had noticed? I simply replied, «I hope you saw something else besides the lifts». I had other bad moments in my life, I had a terrible year when I had cancer in my 20s, but even then I kept dancing. Millepied’s direction, on the other hand, did hurt me as I felt lost, I even felt I missed a kind of connection with my body. Confidence is very fragile, it is built step by step, but it can be destroyed very quickly and going on stage without confidence can become very difficult. I did not like what my relationship with Millepied made me become – I was sad, I was a constantly angry, revolted man, and that was not me. I think things are slowly getting back on track with Aurélie now. A new director needs time – no director can change things in one single season. After all, the company today is not the same one that Brigitte used to direct five, six years ago. Everyone has to take a step towards each other, the management and the dancers, and it takes time.
Last April the results of an anonymous internal questionnaire were leaked to the media, saying about 77 per cent of the dancers here used to experience bullying and were unhappy because of a substandard management. Was it unfair in your opinion? And above all was the situation that unbearable to your mind?
It was a survey made by dancers for dancers. I don’t know who sent the results to the French media and I think I’ll never know. In any case, I think that the people who spread it did hurt the company instead of doing something good – our team cohesion was broken, we filled the questionnaire thinking it would have been private and then someone of us sent it to someone else. Everybody lost confidence in everybody, can you understand? I seriously doubt it was something good for the Paris Opera Ballet, I really cannot see how spreading the results might have helped us.
How does it normally go when you are invited abroad, such as when you danced in Rome, in Vienna, in Saint-Petersburg as a guest? Is it more about a feeling of responsibility or joy?
It has always been about the joy of being there and of discovering other dancers, another culture, a new way to dance ballets I already know. It is plenty of fantastic dancers outside the Paris Opera and it is great to work with them, to be inspired by them and hopefully to give them something too. I love going to Russia, just as an example, some years ago I danced there three seasons in a row… I had a VISA each year. Their classical repertoire culture is huge! Additionally, I love finding out what goes on in other companies and how they work. In Vienna, as an example, when a repertoire ballet gets back on stage, they have no stage rehearsals – when I danced Siegfried in “Swan Lake” there, I had some in-studio dress rehearsals and I stepped on stage the night of my first show. I like dealing with such new situations, I even like finding myself thinking, «So that’s the way they work here».
What has ever scared you as a dancer?
Honestly, the scariest thing for me has always been the first rehearsal of a ballet with the whole company, after working just with my partner and our coach for weeks. You eventually meet all the dancers and present your work to professionals for the first time – trust me, it is difficult and still as terrifying today as twenty years ago.
Being a Principal dancer – is it about setting an example for others as well?
Yes, it is. It is mostly about my everyday behaviour – taking the class every single day and keeping in shape as much as possible so to deserve the roles I am given. As I really hope all my colleagues dancing in the corps can be proud of me when we are on stage together and I dance the lead.
What ballet shoes do you wear? Any preferences?
I have been going for the same brand of ballet shoes for many years. [He wakes up, takes a black ballet shoe and shows it to me, ed] I use a kind of shoes for rehearsals and another one for performances, and I don’t use the same shoe size for my right foot and for my left one – I need one of them to be slightly bigger. I tend to wear larger ballet shoes when I rehearse and tighter ones when I am on stage.
Are you politically committed? What else absorbs your energies besides ballet, when you leave the theatre?
I keep myself informed, of course. Furthermore, I have a family life that demands my attention and exertion – I have a daughter who is five and a son who is two. They force me to leave the bubble of ballet every day! When I get back home in the evening, they need attention. Not easy, but it is not easy for anyone I guess… both mentally and physically! It can happen I get back after finishing a hard afternoon of rehearsals or a performance and they ask me, «Dad lift me!» but I am just exhausted. Yet it is wonderful, they are the ones I want to spend my time with! When I am home with my family, I leave ballet out of the door. Of course, it can happen I talk about ballet with my wife who is a dancer as well, but I am with my children and… well, it is really a different world.
What would you like to own that you currently don’t possess?
More time. Time runs too fast. Everything seems to move at the speed of light and it is so hard to brake!
Your next holiday?
In two days I’ll go to Camargue with my family. It will be a relaxing holiday, no airplanes, no hurries, just time to spend with my children.