A Conversation With Nicolas Le Riche

Ballet Summer School
Palucca School
Dresden, Germany

July 27, 2017

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2017 by Ilona Landgraf

The corridors of Dresden’s Palucca School were buzzing with students waiting for their next class. While the school’s regular students enjoyed their holidays, young dancers participating in the annual Ballet Summer School were populating the campus for two weeks. Marina Antonova and Guy Albouy, organizers of the summer workshops since 2009 and ballet teachers themselves, have always lured a roster of renowned teachers to Dresden. This year Nicolas Le Riche came before heading to Stockholm where he takes over as artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet in mid-August. I met him at the Palucca School to talk about the time since his farewell from Paris Opera Ballet in 2014 and his plans for Stockholm.
Le Riche’s answers are in italics.

Three years ago in July you stood under a shower of golden confetti after your last performance with Paris Opera Ballet. How did you feel back then?
It was a very emotional moment. But there is a kind of paradox in it, because everybody is there to feed the emotion except for one person – the one who is leaving and who cannot be overwhelmed by emotions. Otherwise one couldn’t dance. But I was really happy to have, let’s say an appointment at one moment of my life, a set date, to conclude, “Well, this is what happened during all those years and now I enter a new part of life. It is related to what I’ve done before.” I was really happy to be at the Opéra Garnier for this moment and I was happy, too, to create a special evening, not just a date

 with one long ballet and this would have been my farewell performance then. I wasn’t sad at all. I was ready to leave this house. I spent many years there and it was important for me to say, “Now I open the window and something else will happen.”
So on my last day with the company I was happy, but not happy in the sense of being euphoric. It simply was the right moment. Like when you’re waiting for the cherry tree to blossom, and when you see the flowers the moment has come.

You danced for 26 years with Paris Opera Ballet. Many of today’s dancers change to another company after a while, call two companies their home, or are freelance guest dancers. What was beneficial in spending your career with one company, what was less so? If you could turn back the clock would you decide differently?
I started in 1988 and left in 2014, but if you add my school period it is six years more. The Paris Opera School used to be in the same building as the company. It is not like that anymore. Meanwhile the school moved to Nanterre.

If I could turn back the clock I wouldn’t change anything. To me it was very important to have a structure, a skeleton, that enabled me to pursue artistic projects. Not a commercial ones, which would have been to sell myself to different places. Having clear artistic projects was more substantial for me. When you arrive at a new place you usually have to perform. But is performing really working on your material? I’m wondering… So I was really happy to have this time to work on what I thought I should be or could be, happy to work quietly and take time for working with choreographers. Time to really work, not just to perform, to reproduce something in one place or the other.
But, of course, being able to dance with other companies from time to time – not all the time – but here and there, was also important. I guested at, for example, the Bolshoi Ballet, New York City Ballet, the Royal Opera House London or the company of La Scala.

What kind of plans did you have for the time after the last curtain call?
When I started to dance I never planned to have a career as a dancer. I was taking one day after the other. I was just answering to my motivation to dance. That was it. So I had no plan to become a professional. I wanted to follow my desire to dance and it appeared that I wanted to dance every day. Looking back I feel that I was meant to dance. As a dancer I mostly planned only one day ahead.

But for the Royal Swedish Ballet you’ll have to plan in advance.
Which is a big difference. And I already have done so. In 2014 when I left the Paris Opera Ballet I went back to my studies. I studied cultural politics and management and several other subjects at Sciences Po [L’institut d’études politiques de Paris] for one year, to get the tools for building something new. After this first year I founded LACC, L’Atelier d’Art Chorégraphique, a new art / ballet school. It is a private school based at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. We have 130 dancers there, so I was totally into planning and management. We work in the theater and with the administration of the theater for productions and for teaching the students.

LACC is a project of yours and Clairemarie Osta. What is the idea behind LACC?
Clairemarie was étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet and directed the Conservatoire National de Musique et de Danse in Paris (CNSMDP). She is perfectly skilled for this new project. It is very important for me to work with somebody as professional and inspiring as her. In LACC, we offer different programs for the students – students who want to become professionals, and amateur dancers who dance for sheer passion. We invite teachers and choreographers and work with eight different musicians. We have many artistic projects, but the students don’t have to follow a prefigured annual schedule.
Among our cultural partners are the Louvre Museum, the Foundation Louis Vuitton, the Conservatory of Aix en Provence and others. The students also performed several times, because just before I founded LACC I had started to work on a new creation, “Para-ll-èles,” and in the course of choreographing many students got involved in the piece. I didn’t impose a prefigured choreography on them, but tailored the parts on each one. It was very important for us to have a vivid program.

The website of LACC say that you follow a “360° approach to dance.” What do you mean by that?
For a long time people have been thinking that there is classical ballet and next to that, contemporary dance. But to me there is only one thing these days, which is dance. There is no difference between contemporary dance and ballet. You are a dancer or you are not. When I’m dancing a ballet from the 19th century, I’m dancing it today. I’m not dancing it like it was done back then. I have to approach it in a contemporary way. During my whole career I’ve been working with living choreographers, contemporary choreographers, and it was important for me to feel alive, not like a tool used to reproduce a historic way to dance.
Already in 2001 Maurice Béjart was talking about that in a little book he wrote, “Lettres à un jeune danseur” – “Letters to a young dancer.” He was concerned about the topic, about not having different countries of dance but to have one country which is dance.

What do you think about Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstructions then?
One could see them as a museum approach, an attempt to reconstruct what was at a certain time. Others think of those ballets as of universal themes that are still very interesting for us. In any case, those ballets need to be linked to our time. For me, trying to restore a ballet that is two centuries old seems really hard. We have some text, some notation about it, but text is not dance. If I notate dance and give my notation to someone to translate it into a performance, the result will differ from my initial idea.
Many choreographers have talked about that in the history. Only think of Nijinsky, for example. When he wrote down “L’Après-midi d’un faune” in 1915 – that was three years after he had created it – he found that it was too hard to do and didn’t know whether he could continue. Because it was not really the same. Do you think the first version of “L’Après-midi d’un faune” and the last one were the same? I’m sure they were not. So why trying to fix something? It isn’t the nature of dance. The nature of dance is to be incarnated and alive. That’s what I think. Otherwise, we have wonderful tools today; let’s take a video and it will be dance.

You mentioned “Para-ll-èles” that had its premiere at the Theatre des Champs Elysees in March 2016. This year you choreographed “Sur la grève…” for the National Opera of Bordeaux.
Could you please describe both pieces?
We started “Para-ll-èles” with two dancers [Nicolas Le Riche and Clairemarie Osta] and ended up with a cast of fifteen. But it is quite hard for me to describe the pieces. When choreographing a ballet I’m following an artistic idea. I’m not trying to fill a style form in the sense of, “I did this ballet like Mr. xyz.” I’ve some subjects that concern me and on which I want to choreograph, because I see the necessity to do so. 

I try to adapt the vocabulary to the subject and not to put the subject on acertain vocabulary. In both ballets I was choreographing for specific dancers, not for any dancer.

What I can say is that I like to work with live music. So in each case, for Bordeaux and for “Para-ll-èles,” I did work with a composer [“Para-ll-èles”: Matthieu Chédid; “Sur la greve…”: Nils Petter Molvaer]. For both productions I collaborated with the same costume designer [Olivier Bériot], who also designed the costumes for “Valerian,” the latest Luc Besson-movie.
“Para-ll-èles” tells the story of two people meeting and sharing the same path for a while. Then, suddenly, one disappears and each one tries to keep the respective other alive. Either you can understand the story on the first level as a romance – two lovers and what’s happening when one loses their beloved one – or as a metaphorical story. Let’s say the first one is a dancer, the other one symbolizes the theater, and the dancer is leaving the theater. How does he keep the past alive by himself? How could they meet?

So you were reworking your farewell?
I don’t know. [he laughs]
No, my reflection was on the traces the other one left in you. Even if this person is gone, he or she is still alive somewhere inside you.
But when our students joined the project the initial story changed. It became one in which the young dancers joined the, let’s say more mature ones. The ballet finished with the younger generation. It showed how the new generation of dancers remembered the former one.

How was the piece received in Paris?
I don’t really know, because I don’t pay attention to reviews.

It would change my approach to choreographing and not necessarily in a good way. When you write for the press and you have five thousand characters and the text has to be a certain length, then smaller parts might be dropped and the final article might be different from what one actually intended to write.
But I do pay attention to the feedback from the audience – immediate feedback and feedback after the performance, and the feedback on “Para-ll-èles” was so touching! People came to us and talked about their lives. Watching the ballet had made them think about their own situations. I was really happy about that, because I had wanted to have a kind of discussion with the audience in this project.

How important is choreographing for you?
It has been very important since the very beginning of my career. I was working with choreographers as a young dancer so I was wondering what they wanted to express and how they wanted to do it. I was there to serve their ballets, their visions. Plus, of course, my vision. I’m a human being and I didn’t want to be just a tool in a costume. That was what made dance really interesting for me and that was what I meant by an art form really being alive. Even when watching the second act of “Swan Lake,” for example, where you have twenty-four ballerinas as swans – they have to be together, but still I want to see each swan, each personality. Everything else is boring to me. If they all dance like machines … actually

we do have machines and they are technically much better than we are. But that isn’t what I’m interested in.
Francois Cheng, a French author, wrote a book titled “The Way of Beauty: Five Meditations for Spiritual Transformation.” He talks about singularity amongst others. Singularity does not mean to be one special individual opposite all others. It means that one special person is watching another one, who is also special and unique.

Have you felt you were perceived as an individual during your time in the corps de ballet?
I spent only three years in the corps de ballet. After those three years I was promoted to principal. But it didn’t just happen.. In the Paris Opera Ballet we have a competition every year and one has to graduate every year. In these three years I had to discover the repertoire, work with my colleagues and with choreographers, and be able to partner the ballerinas. So actually I’ve never been asked this question about whether I was seen as an individual in the corps.

I remember, for example, choreographers and ballet masters talking about the peasants in the first act of “Giselle.” Even when you are in the background you need to be alive, a unique person. Even if you don’t have to do several entrechat six at the front of the stage, you have to tell a story. I remember how important it was for Kenneth MacMillan that in “Manon,” every single character existed on its own terms. Or take Nureyev’s pieces. They are really hard… many steps! You actually didn’t have time to wonder whether somebody could see you, because you had to do chassé, glissade, grand jeté, coupé, double changement, passé, fouette, tombé pas de bourrée.

In addition to choreographing and teaching dance you’ve been working as an actor, playing the guitar and the clarinet and painting watercolors. You also love motorcycles.
I wanted to have a life besides dance. Not because I had to escape from dance, but to stay open-minded. I did focus on ballet and dance, but what I experienced elsewhere improved my dancing. Playing music, for example, was a way to find myself when I was guesting abroad. When I was in my hotel room, just by myself and waiting for the next day, simply playing the guitar was very enriching. Think, for example, of “Romeo and Juliet.” Many other artists thought about this story and expressed their interpretations of certain aspects of it.

It is nice to know what they have done on this subject. One shouldn’t forget that dance is art and art is about culture. If you don’t have culture what is ballet then? Gymnastics? I think I don’t do gymnastics.

A couple of weeks ago you were appointed as artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet. You’ll take over the reins from Johannes Öhman this August. What is left to accomplish to make you feel fully prepared?
I think I’ve spent the last thirty years preparing for this job. I attended a ballet school; I took class; I watched the others; I learned how the school was working; what the teacher told me; how to take it and make it my own. I soaked up all that. The same applies to the years with the company. How the company was working; what came off, what didn’t; how to stage a production and which ones are interesting; how to work with a choreographer; what works with this choreographer, but not with the other – I went through all those experiences.
I built LACC from nothing, from scratch. It is a private school. I’ve been responsible for everything from the budget to the costumes. Basically I’ve been working on this project for two years. So I’m familiar with administrative duties.

You danced Mats Ek’s “The Apartment,” and Roland Petit’s “Le jeune homme et la mort” is in the repertoire in Stockholm, but apart from those, the repertoire you danced is largely different from what has been performed in Stockholm and what is familiar to the Swedish audience. At Moscow’s Stanislavsky Ballet, for example, Laurent Hilaire has started to give the repertoire a more French direction. What are your plans for the Royal Swedish Ballet?
My artistic project will be part of the global project of the Royal Swedish Opera House. I will work to be sure that Sweden will have its place in the art of dance and reveal its own choreographic culture.

(The interview has been edited for clarity.)

Links: Website of the Ballet Summer School / Dresden
Website of the Royal Swedish Ballet
Editing: Julie Bradley