Auguste Vestris


Interview with Jean Guizerix

A student of Marguerite Guillaumin, M. Guizerix was Etoile of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1972 to 1990, alongside his wife Wilfride Piollet.
He taught at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique from 1989 to 1998, and was then maître de ballet for the POB (1998 to 2000).
After a spell as advisor to the Ministry of Education (2000 to 2002), he is currently teaching privately, and at the Ecole Natonale des Arts du Cirque.
He is also engaged in research on the nineteenth-century Choreographic Notebooks of Michel Léon and Henri Justament. M. Guizerix has just been appointed interim Director of the Ballet du Nord.

M. Guizerix was interviewed in Paris on January 7th 2003 by Katharine Kanter. The French original is also available on this Website.

Q/   Would it be fair to say that classical ballet has taken to imitating the circus ?

A/   Things have now gone well beyond bravura. Bravura can, on occasion, serve a real expressive purpose, like those awe-inspiring fouettés that represent the black Swan’s will to conquer.

What classical dance does appear to have borrowed from, is rhythmnic gymnastics, which we call GRS, gymnastique rhymique et sportive ! Amazing, what those gymnasts do ! Amazing, and monstrous ! Leaves me cold as ice, and now that we’re on ice, let’s turn to figure-skating ! A blank, in terms of artistic thought and emotion. As for GRS, these may be feats to the greater glory of the nation, but they who practise it –and they grow taller and leaner by the year – are wrecked, smashed in their early youth.

Here at the Opera, we’ve had that with Sylvie Guillem, who comes from the GRS.

It has, of course, given her a quality of physical involvement, physical courage too, along with a kind of facility. For my part, I find it eccentric, in the strong sense of ex-centric, i.e. not in the centre of things, excessive, uprooted.

Was Rudolf Nureyev fascinated by her abilities for a time ? Or did he simply tolerate her, for publicity reasons best known to himself ? In any event, I’m not persuaded that he did approve of picking up the leg like that.

Nor is facility something that I personally would tend to applaud.

But Sylvie was not the first to go that way. Others had already blazed the trail ! At the end of the day, it’s an approach to classical dancing that I find commercial, these people must be fairly cunning. I’ve always allowed myself to think that there is nothing worse than an artist who gives the audience what it wants (il n’y a rien de pire qu’un artiste qui va vers ce que le public cherche de lui). An artist who wants to please (séduire).

Q/   As Advisor (chargé de mission) to the Education Ministry, your assignment was to study the options for teaching art in the state school system. You resigned in July 2002. Why ?

A/   I was appointed whilst Jacques Lang was Minister of Culture. I wanted to focus on what teaching the arts would involve, in terms of the actual curriculum. Instead, I became Corporation Man, overseeing layers of bureaucracy, without being able to push through any publishing projects, or create new tools for teaching. So I resigned.

What I do want to see, is « physical education » in the best sense of the word, for all students, not just those one hopes might become professional sportsmen. Unfortunately, at the moment, the emphasis is on performance, and on identifying people who may turn out to be top in their field.

Q/   Only very recently, you were maître de ballet for the POB ?

A/   Indeed I was. Although I’d been, basically, to rehearse with the Etoiles, I found that not enough. Worthwhile as rehearsing an Etoile may be, I nonetheless wanted to have a look in-on the ballets as an artistic whole, a look-in on what was going on with the corps de ballet, on teaching methods, and on scheduling the ballets. I found myself fenced off; teaching “tricks” to use for the show. At the moment, we have got into something of a commercial mindset (une logique commerciale), into consumerism, and into accounting. Productive art !

I had, moreover, demanded that a kinesiologist and a choreologist be brought in. A kinesiologist is, I believe, quite indispensable. To correct a movement, it has first got to be analysed, that is, if we really intend to help each individual.

I was told that a kinesiologist was not on, but I’ve just learnt that next season, the Opera will at least have a choreologist on staff !

And that is how I came to be what I am today, a free man.

Q/   I suppose you’ve heard of the chapter in the SOCIALCONSEIL Audit on the Opera School ?

A/   It had to blow up, sooner or later. It’s all to the good, that it’s come out.

In respect of the School’s selection criteria, based, as they are, on standards of « beauty » that are highly debatable, one would scarcely expect me to support that.

Q/   But no other School enjoys so high a reputation …

A/   I wonder what price the young have paid for performances we are now seeing ? Dreadful sadness (une effroyable tristesse), whether then, or now.

Speaking more generally, and not just about our own School, what is this business with picking up the leg to 310, or 395 degrees° ? Even grand jeté now is 395 degrees, way beyond the splits (grand écart) ! Ugly ! And what for ?

What ever has got into people, to pick up the leg like that ? Business mentality (un certain commerce). Fees have become indecent, as indecent as picking up the leg ! (Les cachets sont indécents, comme le lever de la jambe !)

Vulgar ! And indecent.

Gratuitous provocation. And lewd (C’est impudique). You know what Rudolf Nureyev used to say ? I have heard him say « danse gynécologique » !

Odile Rouquet, like my wife Wilfride Piollet, both of whom teach at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique (CNSM), respect the body. What they teach is based on knowledge of anatomy, functional analysis of the body, all vital, to safeguard not only the bone structure, but the soul inhabiting that body. Where there’s not that involvement of the mental entity within the mechnical, we’re puppets. What we need, are dancers who can think.

Q/   Where does the problem come from ?

A/   I’ve heard it said that violent children lack contact with other people, and that it has to do with television, which is two-dimensional, no depth to it.

Take a look at that leg being hauled up there into the air ! Designed to be seen, not face-on, but in profile, actually. No volume ! Like an open door seen sideways, no volume.

Nowadays, you go to an audition, and everyone’s standing there being looked at in profile, at the barre. Beware the bottom, beware the bosom, beware the nape of the neck– If it sticks out, YOU’RE OUT ! Anyone so reckless as to do épaulement, looked at from the side like that ?

Is there no-one out there who would care to deal with things NOBLY (de la noble façon) ?

It’s part and parcel of disregarding our real cultural background. The CNSM has dropped baroque dance from the curriculum, and since Francine Lancelot left the Opera School, Renascence dance is no longer taught there.

Q/   I hear you were recently in China ?

A/   I went, and visited the National Ballet School at Beijing. Huge ten-floor building, with ten or more studios per floor. But yet, one finds teachers working on a one-to-one basis with their students.

Here in France, unless one is injured, one is always in a group, unlike musicians who are almost always alone with a teacher. The individual is denied the right to adopt an analytical, professional approach to learning. Why should a teacher not give a private lesson from time to time ? The term corps de ballet has taken on rather a literal meaning ! A cast of thousands ! Ironing flat the relation between body and spirit.

Q/   How did you start dancing ?

A/   Very late, I was nearly eighteen years old in fact, and I started thanks to my two sisters. They were amateurs, working under a professor who also taught gymnastics. Her name was Denise Bazet, and she had been a pupil of Olga Préobajenskaya. Here was a woman of real spiritual wealth, to whom dancing was music, joy, and a playful means of expression.

As class pianist, she had Pietro Galli, who was a joy to hear ! Later, Raymond Franchetti’s pupils were lucky enough to inherit him.

As for yours truly, I had a great time playing the buffoon behind all those delightful young women. I was very fond of sports, and the advantage to dancing was that it allowed me to share the excitement of movement, while chatting up my sisters’ girlfriends !

At Denise Bazet’s class, I met a fellow called Pierre Duvillard, who then introduced me to Marguerite Guillaumin, the daughter of the painter Armand Guillaumin, who was a friend to Van Gogh. She had three or four pupils, almost private lessons in fact: Wilfride, who became my wife, Mireille Nègre and Patrick Frantz. Marguerite Guillaumin had taught Lycette Darsonval, though she never became as well-known as Maître Yves Brieux. Nothing escaped her gimlet eye, she could analyse and correct every gesture, every step, every position of the body. She had understood a great many things.

Mlle. Guillaumin was always a point of reference for Wilfride and myself.

And that is how, at the age of 19, I entered the Opera, where I worked with Gérard Mulys and, for many years, with Serge Peretti. Maître Brieux was very theatrical, and Serge Kalioujny was a treasure-house of steps.

I met Wilfride in 1967, and since then, we have worked together intensely. That has been our strength, and it has also kept us out of the system; at the Paris Opera, power relies on one’s being alone and vulnerable, and thus ready to be roped into the « family institution ».

Q/   The two of you have been studying a fresh approach to technique ?

A/   Quite. No barre, no looking-glass. We’ve cut the umbilical cord ! In earlier times, there was no such thing as a barre. Neither Blasis, nor Michel Léon, Arthur de Saint Léon’s father, used it. It was considered to be a convenience for tired folk to lean on in-between exercices !

When dancing in the centre, postural muscles come into play. Whereas, the barre sets up a dissymetry. Now, I can already hear the obvious retort, namely that one works first the one, then the other side, at the barre. But I maintain that there is a distorsion, very plainly, on both sides.

If the barre is really all that precious, why do teachers always say, “PLEASE everyone, don’t lean ! Rest the hand lightly like a flower”, and so forth.

Before 1973, I had never done the big roles. It was afterwards, that I danced them, in other words after I stopped pressing down on that barre. Siegfried, Albrecht, Ivan, Manfred etc., all those roles were prepared without the help of a barre.

As for the looking-glass, yet another myth. Have you ever truly seen a dancer correct himself by looking into the glass ? How can one possibly be expected to correct an entrechat that way  ? Peering into a mirror is a bad habit. One has got to develop a feeling in the body for what’s wrong.

You know, I teach tiny tots, five, six years old. At their age, they’re already glued to their image in the glass, because, worse luck, the studio’s got one. So I tell them, « kiddies, go on, take a good stare ! Look at your hair, your ears, your fingers ! Drink it in ! Once you’re sated with your own image, just stop looking once and for all”. The dancing goes on quite beyond the looking-glass !

Q/   You and Wilfride also have people work with the legs parallel ?

A/   Let me stress here, that this is no dogma, but we do work in parallel to build up certain fasciculi of muscular chains. We use it for some exercices, and even dégagé, plié, frappé, rond de jambe, battement tendu, and some adagio work. It gives a sense of directionality, and speed as well. For example, when you do jeté devant, your sense of direction cannot properly be described as turned-out. You don’t trace a giant ellipse with your rond-de-jambe, only to swing round front and suddenly - jeté ! No, you move smartly ahead !

Q/   Tell us about your research on the Notebooks of Michel Léon and Henri Justamant.

A/   Those Notebooks represent a written expression of the steps.

Michel Léon was father to Arthur de Saint Léon, the author of « Coppélia ». Michel Léon had been maître de ballet at Stuttgart, and he had originally written down those Notebooks for the Wurtemburg Princesses. They are astonishing. The very choreography dictates how the body shall move. That way of moving, and the épaulement, is inherent in the approach.

For example, there are exercices for his son Arthur, then about ten years of age, and they call for four or five tours attitude. How ever did they do it ?

Were they à l’italienne, with a little bounce, or were they real tours attitude, in which case, for a ten year old, how very technical !

The first three or four bars of music have been written beneath each enchaînement, and they refer back to the scores, as they appear in the Annex. But Michel Léon does not say how many measures one should take, to do this or that step.

On the other hand, Henri Justamant did write down the number of bars for each step, as well as the time signature, though he’s attached no scores. Marie- Françoise Bouchon, the historian, has found his manuscript Notebooks from 1888 for Wilfride at the Opera Library, none of which have ever been worked through; they are extraordinarily worthwhile.

Henri Justamant was a Frenchman who choreographed « Faust » for the Opera in 1869; the enchaînements he has set down are very unlike those of Michel Léon (the latter, incidentally, has pencilled in sketches here and there). I find Henri Justamant even more original, bolder, and exciting in his inventiveness.


Both are noteworthy in many ways.

Firstly, in those days one danced fast and fluently. That can be proven very simply, either against the score (Michel Léon), or against the time signature and the number of bars (Justamant). And, since people did not pick up the leg – not to speak of the rest of today’s excesses – it moved.

Secondly, any professional trying to dance through the aforesaid choreographic studies, will soon realise that the dancers had épaulement. Unless one has épaulement, it’s next to impossible to perform many of the combinations cleanly, and with the required speed in changing directions (orientations).

Somehow, I don’t know exactly how or why, épaulement went lost, sometime early in the Twentieth Century. Perhaps it was the Italian influence, Cecchetti ? You can see it on the films of Carlotta Zambelli, namely little or no épaulement.

One cannot say precisely how they danced, precisely how Petipa, for example, might have wanted it, because so many things have changed in the meantime: the floor, our shoes, even the tights, not to speak of morphology. But we can respect the depth with which they created their ideas.

Q/    In the generations now on the Opera stage, might it not be the case that lack of épaulement is what is leading to faltering technique, after about the age of 35 ?

A/   To my mind, yes. People refuse to acknowledge that being stable, does not mean being stiff. Stability means mobility. Dancing is spiral motion, not poker-like stiffness.

Q/    Speaking of épaulement – you’ve heard of the cuffuffle over the “sujet” E. Thibault ?

A/   Yes. Why, I’ve no idea. But there’s a dancer for you, a real dancer, who does get the joy of dancing across.

Q/   Which choreographers interest you at present ?

A/   Oddly enough, seen from the standpoint of directions, oppositions, supination, pronation, volumes seen from « within » and « without », the inter-play of the body‘s levels, the inward- and outward-rolling spirals, for a while I found Mr.

Forsythe intriguing. But in recent years, in terms of the poetry, I don’t quite see his point. One does wonder whether that excessive, “ex-centric” side, might not have something to do with his having been uprooted, since he’s an American, who’s come to Europe, and perhaps lost his roots here. Does the body suffer ? Perhaps. What I do know, is that there is something truly excessive to it. He simply cannot put up with “nothing”, a neutral moment. An extreme sort of individual, with a remarkably forceful nervous system.

On the other hand, with Merce Cunningham I come across a style, which he has been wise enough to keep, difficult and rewarding combinations, which require control, mastery, as well as rigorous work, from the inside, rather than a showier sort of gesture. I do wax quite passionate about Merce’s intelligence, his research, the paths he’s gone down, a well-spring of poetry !