She was diagnosed with double scoliosis and was told she was too tall to dance. But she defied the odds to become a prima ballerina at the Paris Opera Ballet. On the eve of her retirement from the stage, Marie-Agnès Gillot talks to FRANCE 24.
It’s a freezing day in the French capital and Marie-Agnès Gillot, 42, wants to sit outside in the snow and smoke. No matter that she’s got the flu and a hacking cough. She briefly thought about cancelling but it’s not her style to call in sick.
Throughout her illustrious career, she’s danced with broken bones, battled double scoliosis and continued to rehearse while seven months pregnant.
“Discipline is the cornerstone of freedom,” she says over tomato juice and cigarettes at a café in Paris’s seventh arrondissement (district). Luminous and charismatic despite suffering from flu, she’s quick to laugh, sometimes aloof and exudes a fearless intensity.
Dancing, for Gillot, is a “passion” that began when her mother enrolled her in ballet classes at the age of 5.
“I loved it immediately,” she says. “But it wasn’t about tutus or posters of ballerinas. It was the physicality, the discipline, the sweat and the grace.”
Growing up in the northern French town of Caen, she’d never even heard of the Paris Opera Ballet. She was far more interested in animals and the countryside. But her ballet teacher was quick to spot her potential and at the age of 9 she joined the Paris Opera Ballet school as a boarder.
Life as a ‘little rat’
The cloistered life of a “little rat”, as the ballet students are known, is notoriously grueling. Dance classes are juggled alongside schoolwork: Pupils who fail their brevet (high-school certificate) aren't allowed to join the dance company. Students are put on a strict diet, designed to give them the energy to perform all day without gaining weight. The size of a chignon is closely scrutinised and, Gillot recalls, there was little in the way of compliments or praise.
Gillot acknowledges it was “very hard” and pulls a face when I ask if she made friends there easily.
“Too much rivalry, too much competition,” she says.
All the “little rats” dream of becoming a star. But only a dozen will rise through the ranks to become “principal dancers” and just a handful of these will become “danseuses étoiles” (prima ballerinas), the highest accolade the Paris Opera Ballet can bestow. (There are currently 19 étoiles and 11 principal dancers in the company of 146 dancers.)
But at the age of 12, she grew 12 centimetres in a year and was diagnosed with double scoliosis. Fearing an operation would leave her handicapped, she chose to wear a neck-to-hip corset for six years instead – only removing it to dance, and hiding the corset from her fellow ballerinas.
So did she ever waver in her ambition?
She swats away the idea like a mosquito.
“There were other tall dancers,” she says with a flash of steely resolve. (Gillot stands at 5 foot 9 inches, or 175 centimetres in her bare feet.) “They just liked to give the tall dancers a hard time. In any case I was always the best. If you’re tall and you’re rubbish that’s one thing, but if you’re tall and you’re good that’s OK, no?
She continued to prove her detractors wrong, joining the ballet company at the precocious age of 15, the youngest-ever dancer to do so, juggling an adult Paris life in a flat alongside seven-hour days of dancing.
Critics praised her flawless technique, emotional intensity and wild energy. Her broad-shouldered athletic performances drew comparisons to American dancer Suzanne Farrell.
“I was completely transfixed when I first saw her dance,” said Frederick Wiseman, who directed the documentary “La Danse” on the Paris Opera Ballet. “She dances, what – 28 pirouettes in a row? It’s a cliché but she’s just a great dancer.”
Dancing with a fractured leg
Such was her drive and dedication that she once performed with a 12cm fracture in a bone in one of her legs.
“I couldn’t walk," she says with a wry smile, “but I still danced".
After such a meteoric start, she was made a prima ballerina at the relatively late age of 28.
“I’d been waiting for it for so long,” she says of the honour, but it was “special” to be given it for a contemporary ballet – “Signes,” by the American choreographer Carolyn Carlson.
Indeed, it was only after dancing the contemporary ballets that Gillot began to land the great classical roles.
She worked with choreographers such as Pina Bausch, who was “extremely precise, thorough and demanding”, as well as Carlson, Maurice Béjart, William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor.
“She can do anything choreographically that you throw at her, and then more,” British choreographer McGregor told the New York Times in 2012. “She is amazing creatively – really works with you to generate a language and is totally unafraid. In ‘Genus,’ I had her dance on a rake in both directions, inside a huge wooden moving box on point, dancing a complicated solo with lots of precarious balances. Totally no problem.”
At the age of 36, she became the first in-house prima ballerina to choreograph a ballet at the Opera Garnier.
“I was always being chosen by the choreographers – by all the geniuses,” she says. “But I wanted to create ballets myself.”
With the artistic reins in her hands, the unconventional Gillot continued to subvert traditional roles. In the well-received “Sous Apparence,” all the women, and men, dance on point for the entire piece.
I ask her if it’s harder for a woman in the arts. She shrugs and explains that she mainly had to fight against being pigeonholed as a dancer.
“In France they don’t like you to have more than one string to your bow. They like to put you in a box. They think if you do several things, you can only do them half-heartedly or badly. But I am a bit like a harp.”
When asked about sexual harassment, she goes quiet – before adding with a sudden burst of laughter: “It’s not really a problem anymore, though. There aren’t many straight guys there these days.”
Dancing while pregnant
As a young ballet student, she was primarily inspired by British and American dancers, by Darcey Bussell and Cynthia Gregory. Her career highlights include working with Rudolf Nureyev, Bausch and McGregor.
But she says the most magical experience of her career was dancing while pregnant with her son, Paul, now 4. She continued to rehearse while she was seven months pregnant and went back to work just five weeks after giving birth. She’s particularly animated when talking about Paul, whom she’s chosen to raise on her own.
“It was just amazing to introduce him to the world of ballet in that way. I will never have that experience again. He’s grown up with music 24/7.”
What advice would she give him if he wants to be a dancer?
“Don’t let people know that I’m his mother!” she says with a laugh.
Retirement at 42
For a woman who once said her idea of perfect happiness was dancing on stage, it must be particularly difficult to stop. An étoile has to retire from the Opera at the age of 42, a rule she thinks is “stupid”.
“Some women’s bodies are finished by 42 but usually it’s men’s bodies; women can often dance until they’re 45,” she says.
Although she admits it will be “very hard” to leave the Opera – her official farewell ceremony takes place on March 31 – she won’t be resting on her laurels anytime soon. She plans to work with McGregor again and is looking forward to playing the part of a “madwoman” in a forthcoming ballet of “Titicut Follies” adapted from Wiseman’s documentary on the patient-inmates of an asylum for the criminally insane.
Recent projects include choreographing for a hip-hop group, judging a television dance show, performing with live swans and bottling her sweat after a performance of Ravel’s “Bolero”. The bottled sweat is on display on the roof of the Palais de Tokyo.
She writes poetry and wants to take up singing lessons, in the hope it might stop her smoking, she says, as she lights another cigarette.
She also loves to teach classical ballet to “normal people” and gives classes all over France and Italy.
“We can’t all be danseuses étoiles,” she says. “The main thing is that they love to dance.”