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By Patricia Boccadoro

ARIS, 8 November 1997 - Agnes Letestu There are certain privileged occasions when an audience knows that what it sees is a magical moment to be treasured forever, because it can never happen again. Such was the performance of Agnès Letestu on 2 November as Odette in Swan Lake at the Palais Garnier in her first appearance as an official étoile of the French company.

Past performances have repeatedly proved her outstanding qualities, but now she has gone beyond technical perfection; it is simply there to serve her to interpret a role. She adds those incandescent small touches which enable her to become the character she is interpreting.

On Friday 31 October, Agnès Letestu, première danseuse of the Paris Opera Ballet was finally nominated étoile, the highest accolade for a dancer in France by Mr. Hughes Gall, director of the two operas. This highly deserved promotion, announced backstage after the ballet, has taken a long time and was becoming an issue in the dance world. (See Culturekiosque feature of 22 May 1997 on Agnès Letestu and José Martinez).

Agnès, now 26, and born in the Paris suburb of Saint Maur, was seen as an exceptional talent from the day she joined the local Conservatoire for a weekly lesson. Her teacher, Mr.Bertin persuaded her to audition for the Opéra school which she joined when she was 10.

"I was enthralled from the very minute I saw a ballet on the television, " she told me." I used to skip around in front of it. I just had to dance ".

I remember seeing Agnès dance for the first time when she was only 15. The school's end of term production at the Salle Favart was suddenly illuminated by the appearance of a girl as vulnerable and shy as a graceful young foal. Technically perfect, it was less her tall slenderness that made her stand out than her unmistakable star quality. To observers, including myself, it seemed quite obvious that time would carry her to the top of the company.

"Agnès was the best pupil I had", Claude Bessy (director of the school) told me later. "I chose her for Gourouli in The Two Pigeons because she possessed the freshness and purity for the role as well as the technique. She and José Martinez (now danseur étoile) are the future of classical dance not only in France but throughout the world."

First in her class, Letestu joined the Opéra Ballet as quadrille in 1989, the last year of Rudolf Nureyev's directorship. She was rapidly promoted coryphée then sujet, and won both the Eurovision competition and the gold medal at Varna (the most prestigious dance competition in Europe).

After her first important solo role as the Courtesan in Balanchine's Prodigal Son, she was chosen by Roland Petit to dance Le jeune homme et la mort and by William Forsythe who cast her in the principal role of "In the middle". But the turning point in her career came with the return of Rudolf Nureyev who insisted that she be cast as Princess Gamzatti in his sumptuous new production of The Bayadère.

"He was out in the Opéra courtyard one day and crooked his finger to beckon me over to ask me if I would dance Gamzatti for him," Agnès recalled at a celebration dinner afterwards. "I couldn't believe my ears because it was a role for an étoile and I would get into trouble with the others. But how could I say no to Nureyev? I was also supposed to be dancing in the corps de ballet of "Swan Lake" somewhere else. Ill and weak as he was, he argued and fought for me, an absolute nobody, and I danced Gamzatti. I owe everything to him".

"I used to watch him on stage all the time out of the corner of my eye," she continued. "I remember what he used to say, how he wanted things done, and his directions to everyone. I learnt how to dance Odette/Odile from watching him."

She was subsequently given the opportunity to dance Swan Lake in Florence by Genia Polyakov (director of the Opéra there), who had been Nureyev's assistant in Paris. Just before his untimely death last year, Polyakov told me quite simply that Letestu had been born to dance Swan Lake. He described her interpretation of Odette as "sublime".

The following year, partnered by Martinez, she made her Paris debut in the role and the young couple were rapturously acclaimed by the public. Their performance was one of astonishing maturity. Indescribably poignant as Odette, shining but never hard nor brittle as Odile, Agnès almost revelled in the technical demands of the ballet.

Wayne Eagling, director of the Dutch National Ballet, spoke of Letestu's extraordinary limpidity in Romeo and Juliet at the Muziektheater of Amsterdam on January 1st. 1996.

"Agnès dances with unusual grace and softness" he said." She is such a very special dancer, so natural yet so beautiful. She has the unique gift of translating her emotions into movement".

Since then, Letestu has displayed her versatility in such works as Etudes (Lander), L'elu, in the Rites of Spring (Nijinsky), Le Palais de Cristal, Apollo, and Serenade (Balanchine). Frequently referred to as a ballerina of the future, she adds something extra to what was danced before. Her partner on and off stage, José Martinez is convinced she would have been Balanchine's last muse. "He would have written ballets just for her", he said. "But her greatest quality", continued Martinez, "is her ability to communicate her incredible enjoyment of dancing. She makes the person watching share her happiness. You remember her exquisite feet, her beautiful arms, but most of all her joy. When she dances there's no place she'd rather be".

Intelligent and level-headed with a quick sense of humour, Letestu commented that she had always done her best. "The main difference now ", she said 'is the way other people see me. My work has been recognised at the Opéra. I was fortunate to dance roles normally given to the étoiles before, but it was only for one or two performances. As an étoile, I'll dance more; it's my life".


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