Laurent Hilaire, former étoile with the Paris Opera, and since 1st January this year, the artistic director at the Stanislavsky Ballet in Moscow, has spent a lifetime with leading figures in the world of ballet. Promoted to étoile under Nureyev, and having worked alongside Brigitte Lefevre in the Paris Opera Ballet administration, his experience spans both stage time and management roles. Hilaire’s elegant manner recalls a French nobleman of a bygone era: tall and graceful, he emits a quiet yet magnetic energy that is uniquely endearing. We sat down to discuss his career and his new role in one of Russia’s leading ballet theatres.
How did you begin dancing?
By accident! I was doing a gym club and national gymnastic competitions at a young age. My parents moved to the suburb of Paris, and I had to quit the gym club, but oddly in our new residence the gym club was not very good. My parents had heard that dance classes were very good so they sent me there. But for me it remains a mystery, I don’t know why they chose ballet.
I took ballet classes for one year, then the professor of dance thought I was ready to audition for the Paris Opera Ballet school. I went, auditioned, passed, and was accepted. I was 12 years old at the time and remained in the school for 5 years until I was accepted into the company as a member of the corps de ballet.
And you skipped the rank of Premiere Danseur?
Yes, I went from coryphée to sujet and from that to étoile, Nureyev made me directly an etoile.
Were you shocked?
No, I was very happy! (Laughs) but it was unusual. I think it was the first time that had happened in the troupe. At the time I didn’t consider whether or not I was nervous, I had the conscience of youth.
Before becoming étoile in 1985, I had already danced big roles in Raymonda, Giselle etc. I remember Nureyev had chosen me to dance both the peasant pas and Albrecht in the same series of performances. So I did the corps de ballet and the soloist role and the prince role. And he said at the time, you are not an étoile so you dance everything!
Nureyev informed dancers about their upcoming roles at the very last minute. What did you learn from working from him?
I learned never to economize, not in work, the movement should always be fully done, and in the correct style, regardless of the length of the performance.
Then, the definition of movement and the quality of movement: to compare this to writing, it’s like a movement expresses and explains something, a condition, or a thought, or nostalgia, it could also be sadness or joy. The movement itself, the choreography itself explains the emotion. If you consider the variation at the end of Act I of Swan Lake, it is a variation that expresses the nostalgia of this prince who was not happy in his life who seeks an ideal; he seeks what he doesn’t have. In Nureyev’s version one wonders whether the swan exists in reality or if she is an ideal female, that’s also something that is not necessarily in reality but in the imaginary world.
Nureyev asked for strong will. What are the other qualities that he asked for from dancers?
Courage. Tenacity. Will. Stringency and “going to the very end” of something, finishing it. He expected you to develop your own interpretations, he never gave me an indication about the nature of the character, how it should be. Never. Never when I worked with him did he say, “Yes, the character should be this or that.” And that was for two reasons. First, because he thought the vocabulary and the choreographic phrases explained the history, the story itself. And second, he thought there was a certain form of talent in an artist… What we call an artist is someone who has the power to tell a story. And that is what I love in the artists here at the Stanislavsky — that they have the ability to tell a story and when they do it, it’s marvelous. If there is no resonance in you, if there is no internal life that nourishes the character that you bring to life on stage, if you do not have that inside you first, then no one will do it for you. That is part of an artist’s talent, that is what an artist is – a being who shares his emotions — not simply living them. You have dancers who live through their emotions but they are all alone on the stage, you don’t feel them, it’s empty. It’s what we call theatricality in fact.
What are your strongest memories of your years as étoile?
Wow – I would say first, the nomination of étoile, when I saw Nureyev came on stage and announce it in public, that is a strong memory. And apart from feeling immediate joy, the first thing I thought was, “And now what? What do I do with all this?” It’s like when you are given something you have waited for your entire life, you immediately feel “Well, what now?” So I thought, “I will decide on my own.”
I ask the dancers that here every day: what do you want, if you look at an artist, what do you want from them? What do you want to tell, what story and how do you want to tell it? What manner of dancing do you want to show the public?
There are “moments of emotion” in the life of a dancer, and all my moments of emotions were in fact moments of life in time. By that I mean, when you’re in a role, if you have worked enough that the story tells itself, there’s an internal part of the story somewhere in you, and you’re surprised that emotions emerge during the performance that you did not plan, and these emotions correspond to the character. They may upset you and surprise you, but they are spontaneous. In that moment, you become the character, and that requires a lot of base work, a certain experience of course too, but it is a magic moment, you do not have to “do” it, the transformation happens on its own. It’s as if your body and spirit become controlled by something else, you are a conduit for this other energy, you experience emotions that you’ve never imagined. I believe this is something like the razor’s edge, and you can fall to one side or the other.
For me that is where the moment of magic is: when the public is with you, when the danger is total, and you have to control it, and you have to stay in the role, not leave it, but at the same time I think that’s when you touch the public the most, because you are recounting part of yourself. You are no longer something that was created, you are something that exists, it is a combination: your emotion and your history become something universal, you did not consciously decide. At this moment, magic becomes deeply human. If we speak in terms of psychology, this is the point where one joins the other: love, hate, joy, passion, it is the culminating point. I think everyone recognizes the emotion there, because you are in a profound truth and that is magical.
I tell the dancers not to be afraid. You have to take a risk and not be afraid. That is what I want to teach the artists here, that they should not fear themselves. It is not necessary to fear letting yourself go. There is a point in a role when you are a vehicle of service for something larger that exists, you’re a conduit. And you have to accept that you are of service to something and not fear losing control, not to be afraid of that.
But back to memories: I think emotions that I had in creating Bayadère, and when Nureyev walked downstage during a standing ovation and he fell and I caught him — that is a moment I will never forget.
Did you have partners who were easier to work with?
In order to be a couple that functions well on stage, you have to have a certain type of … not intimacy, but a relationship, a link has to exist, it can be a connection, it is a form of complicity. What is needed for alchemy to function? It can be physical, emotional, seduction, almost artistic and professional, there are people who are capable of surprising you who have a relationship of truth in relating the story. I was very lucky with my partners, since I had many great ones and many opportunities. Both French and Russian.
I see a great generosity here in Russia, a pleasure in performing on stage. That is not to say it doesn’t exist in France as well, but it’s very consistent here. For example, I cast someone in a role, and their enjoyment of performing is more important than the fear of doing something wrong. I think that is fantastic because it is generous. I’m talking about this permanent pleasure and enjoyment, there is a lot of investment here, a certain lightness in the good sense of the word.
In France we have an approach that is more rational.
And yes, there is a Russian style but–and I say this in complete sincerity–it is the Russian soul that defines that style. That is the component that differentiates the dancers here from anywhere else.
I was speaking to a pedagogue the other morning about the Russian style and Russian school, and I think that the Russian school is characterized in that one can learn things from others, one can change something, adapt. Because to preserve a style you can’t just freeze it you have to know how to evolve it. Russia has a great history in dance, Petipa and history are elements that comes out of the dancers here, they are something that protect and identify Russian dancers. You always recognize a Russian dancer when you see one, but it’s not due to the strong technique, because the ballet positions are the same throughout the world. But there is a manner of doing it, and also a manner of thinking and that is important, that is what differs.
I’ve learned a lot from Russia. I learned a lot when I worked with Nureyev, and he in turn he had worked a lot with the Royal Ballet and the American school and Martha Graham — he was a product of all that. I also learned from my Russian partners, I was also always was watching something and that enabled me to become the person who I have become
You became associate artistic director in 2005 at the Grand Opera. Was that an expected move?
At the end of my dancing career I began to feel the need to transfer my knowledge. At the time it was Brigitte Le Fevre who asked if wanted to help reset La Bayadêre. And I felt I wanted to share something. We as dancers are all in front of the mirror forever, and I wanted to give something back and also to see how the organisation of management works. So during that period, I was Le Fevre’s right hand, I participated in all the placements, casting, daily work, organisation, preparation with new choreographers, etc., all the challenges, the consequences on the entire system, costumes, sets, many organisational moments. So for 4 years I lived that and it taught me a lot about the profession of being a director, because I helped her in all this.
I left the Paris Opera in 2014 after the arrival of a new director, and I travelled, setting ballets. It was a period, not necessarily for pause, but I had time to think and reflect a bit more quietly about what my professional life could be.
And then Anton Getman, the General Director of the Stanislavsky, flew out to see me in Paris to offer me this position.
How did you react the offer to work at the Stanislavsky?
My reaction at first: I was surprised, because I could never have imagined directing a Russian company as beautiful as the Stanislavsky. And then if I took time to reflect quickly, I was immediately seduced by the artistic project at hand, and the possibilities of the Stanislavsky Theatre. Because here you have an opera, an orchestra, a ballet, a theatre and stage. And then the reputation of the theatre is one of great maturity with many productions, proposing new performances to a public that is faithful. This is a great company with lovely people. And all of this requires a lot of work, but I see a great appetite in these dancers, and that touched me, seduced me, and incited enthusiasm in me.
It’s a big move to come to Moscow from Paris. What is the biggest challenge for you here? Either in the theatre or on the street?
In fact I have a lot of ambitions for this theatre. I am very happy here, I live here very well, though I must admit that I spend 10 hours per day in the theatre. I’m very well adapted, I feel at home here. The world of dance accompanies a dancer wherever they go. I can’t say it’s exactly same thing everywhere, but it is almost the same thing everywhere, a dancer is a dancer every day, what are his motivations, what ballets will he dance, how will he work every day?
So my ambition is my main project, and that ambition is fully directed to the Stanislavsky, the success of this company and theatre is what interests me most of all. My career as a dancer fulfilled me, I was very happy, I had many opportunities, so I have no nostalgia for my career, I’m quite happy in what I am doing now. My greatest pleasure is to see a performance, to see a dancer who has created emotions and shared them with the public, to see dancers who are capable of taking risks and who have something to give, because the artist’s role is to question the limits of his personality and to learn how to better know himself… I’m here for that, truthfully, and not for any reason. And I feel quite at home in Moscow. (smiles)
Did work in the past with Nureyev help you transition to your position here?
I learned a great deal from Nureyev and at the school, and with Brigitte Le Fevre. I think it is important to know what you have learned from life. What is the sum of your life experiences, what are the lessons you draw from life, from various personalities? For example, the people with whom I worked, some of them I liked, there were others I admired less, I can’t say everything was always marvelous, but you know what you like and what you don’t. Also, we always make mistakes. In fact, I will play with the word a bit further, and I will say that the more I advance in life, I have no certainty, but I have a lot of conviction. I know where I want to go with this company not to change the qualities of dancers, but to move forward. An artist’s work aims to achieve a certain perfection, an ideal that we will perhaps never achieve, it but it is beautiful interesting and motivating. And it’s important during this process to always keep an open mind.
I want to offer the public different proposals. A choreographer is an individual meeting with a dancer, and a ballet is a meeting with the public. I want to show the public different things and enlarge the repertoire offerings of this company for the public. It is like a bouquet of flowers: there are roses but also peonies and in order to know which ones you like you have to also know what you like less, but in order to figure that out, you have to smell them all.
Do you choose the pedagogues here?
I arrived here alone without a team, the pedagogues at the Stanislavsky are a team that existed before me. I work with them now to learn and benefit from their experience, history and work.
But we also have pedagogues who come from the outside. We have a professor, Gibert Mayer, who is from an institution of the École Francaise, he is a representative of it, and he was just teaching classes here for 2 weeks. I also invited professors from various countries to work with the Stanislavsky dancers.
In rehearsals we have Noah Gelber, who will come to set the Forsythe piece, and I will be setting Suite en Blanc along with Claude Bessy who was the director of École de l’Opera de Paris and who worked with Serge Lifar.
Are there any dancers who you recommend?
I recommend everyone. I watch classes, rehearsals, all performances here, and on the stage everything interests me, whether it is the corps de ballet or the stars, etc, everything is important. Even the corps members at the back are very important.
Is it difficult to retain or attract an audience given the Bolshoi’s Proximity?
No, I don’t think so. Moscow has 20 million residents. And every performance I am here, the Stanislavsky house is full. I think for a city as large as Moscow there is room for both. There a lot of theatres, and in the world of theatres there is a very intense artistic life in Moscow. I think for the public what matters is good performances and the quality of the productions.. But I think the Stanislavsky has a following, and it also has a varied audience, I see everything from children to those in their 70s. It’s a very wide range of the public.
You said you wanted to enlarge the repertoire, how? more classical or more contemporary?
I think anything we call contemporary is dance of today. For me, I just don’t understand the dance called “modern”, that word, I do not know what it is.
What is important for me, for example, the Stanislavsky danced Balanchine for the first time last year and will do Forsythe for the first time this year. We are doing an evening of creations of choreographers as well. The company has both classical and contemporary repertoire from the 20th century.
The entire history of ballet speaks of Petipa but it goes through Balanchine, Paul Taylor, and Forsythe as well. The history of ballet is nourished by all these choreographers and so it is important for the Stanislavsky to nourish itself with all of these choreographers as well. We have a responsibility at the head of a theatre like this, with a repertoire of classical ballets, to continue to keep them alive and to also add new works. It is important to work to keep the classics alive and not let them become museum pieces.
For me, contemporary ballets of today are required for the good continuity of the entire classical tradition.
We will have an evening of young choreographers next season, it is called the Point of Interception and has existed for one year now. It will incorporate four young choreographers to come work here and create black box works with Stanislavsky dancers. This is important and necessary for the choreographers to create and show something to the public, and for the dancers to have the possibility to work on something that enriches them and that they can share with the public.
Creation in a dancer’s life is extremely important. A large theatre has to give the means to new talent to show their work. We will have Russian choreographers and others, it’s not something fixed. I have a draft list of who the four will be, but it is not finalized yet because some of them are artists or young dancers in other companies so I have to receive approval first. But I would also like to develop this idea of Point of Interception to do two additional performances with works from previous years because there is a demand from the public for this.
Are you planning any company tours?
We toured to Munich already, and we have plans for the future. For the year after next.
Do you believe in a diet for dancers?
Yes, I think that it is necessary for a dance, because dance is the body’s work, so you need good food and vitamins. I view the body of a dancer is for me the equivalent of Formula 1. It is a race car, and the dancer asks a lot of it, so he has to take care of it. It’s very important. But of course you have to live to! An artist should know how to live well. Dancers require a lot of discipline, but in generak, dancers are always disciplined, they have to find a method of using their own body to maintain it for the long term. Because all performances are like a competition, you give your best every night, you are no longer training. We try to dance it for as long as possible but the career of a dancer is only 20 years long so, it’s important that the body is well fueled and well taken care of.
Do you miss French food?
We eat very well here. (he smiles)
But it’s a different cuisine…
Yes, but you have Japanese, Italian, Armenian — no, I don’t miss it. Not all Parisians have visited the Eiffel tower and it’s the same with food. Moscow has every type of restaurant. And I adore this period of summer when all the outdoor patios are open. It’s so lovely when the weather is nice.
It is a big shift to move here from Paris. Are you comfortable in Moscow?
I think Moscow is a capital of movement. I think it is a capital, an artistic platform, whether for dance or theatre or music, it is a capital that is very significant and which will become moreso in the future. There are many festivals and companies that come through Moscow. I don’t have the time to explore all of its possibilities sufficiently, but there are many places that are up and coming, in fact it is a capital of artistic movement. I think Moscow is “the place to be” now.
Portrait of Laurent Hilaire © Batyr Annadurdiev.