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by Patricia Boccadoro

ARIS, 22 May 1997 - The dance world here is bewildered. The critics, the teachers, and the dancers, particularly the corps de ballet, of the Paris Opera do not understand who or what is blocking the long-overdue nominations of premier danseurs Agnès Letestu and José Martinez to the status of étoile, the most coveted title in the dance world.

For over a decade, the Paris Opera Ballet has been universally recognised as the finest classical company in the world, a pre-eminence which dates back to 1983 when Rudolf Nureyev became director and completely revitalised the French troupe. Inspiring the dancers with his own passion, he transformed the level of teaching, gave the company an exciting and imaginative new repertory and above all nominated his étoiles at the age of 20 or 21, when they were barely out of the corps de ballet.

Then as now, the company was divided into a hierarchy: étoiles, premiers danseurs, sujets, coryphées and quadrilles. The étoiles had risen through the company's strict ranking system, their promotion depending on a competitive examination to the next grade when places became available. Only étoiles were, and still are, directly appointed by the General Administration on the recommendation of the dance director.

Nureyev broke through all that, blasting away the last traces of influence and favouritism which Serge Lifar (director 1930 -1958) had done his utmost to abolish. He rewarded talent and hard work with promotion, nurturing a new generation of superbly gifted young dancers including Elisabeth Platel, Sylvie Guillem, Laurent Hilaire and Manuel Legris - the stars of today. All were nominated étoile by the age of 22.

The policy of Brigitte Lefèvre, artistic director since July 1995, is to continue the project he began. Be that as it may, the question being asked in Paris right now is why Letestu, 26 years old, and Martinez, 27, both winners - like Baryshnikov, Makarova, Patrick Dupond and Sylvie Guillem - of the Varna competition (the most prestigious in the world) in 1990 and 1992, remain premiers danseurs, the accolade of étoile seemingly beyond their reach.

Choreographer John Neumeier, whose ballet Sylvia closes an exceptional seaon on 16 July, was particularly happy to discover the talented Martinez, whom he chose to dance the three principal male roles of his ballet on alternate evenings, either Endymion or the double role of L'Amour / Orion.

Martinez was first acclaimed for his performance in Le Tricorne in 1993, making his debut in Swan Lake the following year partnered by Agnès Letestu - a couple both on and off stage. Letestu and Martinez, who had never danced a full-length classic together in Paris, created that rarity in dance: the beginnings of a true partnership.

The Paris-born Letestu has always said that she owed everything to Rudolf Nureyev, who plucked her out of the corps de ballet to dance the role of Princess Gamzatti in his 1992 production of La Bayadère, believing that she should rapidly be nominated étoile. But after his death, under the directorship of Patrick Dupond (1990-95), she was passed over in favour of older, more experienced dancers who lack both her breathtaking technique and unquestionable dramatic gifts.

She has been chosen not only by Nureyev for the classical works, but also, like Martinez, by such contemporary choreographers as Roland Petit, Jerome Robbins, Jean Grand-Maitre, William Forsythe, Daniel Larrieu and Mats Ek. Letestu is one of the rare ballerinas who can dance Balanchine because she allies the extensions of a dancer of today with the speed and precision of the 1930s, when many of his ballets were written. She is, in fact, a ballerina of the future who combines an infallible technique with grace and softness, always serene and unruffled on stage.

Invited to international galas with increasing frequency, dancing Swan Lake in Florence, Romeo and Juliet in Amsterdam, Giselle in Zagreb, all to standing ovations, and with a project to dance Nutcracker in London, the charismatic couple of Letestu and Martinez are rapidly becoming stars in every company except their own.

Josette Amiel, their teacher in the company who considers each of them outstanding separately, says that together they are simply sublime. In an interview she spoke of their quest for perfection: "they have the humility inherent in all true artists, the technical brilliance and the intelligence", qualities reiterated by Florence Clerc ( étoile 1977-1991). Clerc coached them for The Sleeping Beauty last February when they were cast to dance two out of twenty-seven performances. "I was amazed by their individual gifts," she said. " They are the ideal interpreters of the Paris Opera repertory, pure and radiant with a very special quality."

The Opera hierarchy being what it is, namely that the category of premier danseur is rarely given the opportunity to dance main roles in the classics, étoiles must be nominated young so they have time to forge their own personalities. Nominated later, ravishing and graceful though they may be, they often remain little more than soloists leading the corps de ballet and not stars in their own right.

Several questionable nominations were made by Dupond at different levels in the company, the consequences of which are all too evident today, notably in Nureyev's own ballets which are not always danced as well as they were. The problem with the French company is that the position of première danseuse seems not to be considered an honour in itself but merely a stepping stone to greater things. Dupond in his eagerness to reward dancers for services rendered had at one moment nine female stars.

Brigitte Lefèvre, who complained that the Paris opera ballet had more étoiles than premièrs danseurs, regards the position of étoile as a consecration, which only increases speculation as to why one of the most luminous and radiant couples in dance today is not recognised as such. The director of the Paris Operas, Hughes Gall, remains mute on this topic despite a written request for elucidation last February.

Clearly, these two dancers are in a sphere of their own and if art alone were the only consideration their nomination would not only crown an exceptional season of dance, but remove all hints of the power of influence which has plagued the Paris Opera Ballet for so many years.


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