So you want to be a ballet star?

Dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet can fast-track to stardom through a unique yearly competition. John Percival sits in as the judges make their choices
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The Independent Culture

Six-thirty in the morning is an unusual time for dancers to be taking class, but the day of the annual competition of the Paris Opéra Ballet is an unusual occasion, and one on which careers depend. From 8am until after 6pm, in the grand but half-empty auditorium of the Palais Garnier, they will take turns performing solos before a jury, and this will win some of them promotion. There is a small invited audience, mostly professionals, but strictly no applause. Everything is very formal, including the announcement of each dancer's name and chosen solo. To increase the intensity of a day that is fraught as well as arduous, some had been performing until 9.50pm the previous evening, when the curtain came down on a programme of four works by Jerome Robbins, and as soon as the competition is over preparations begin for another performance starting at 7.30pm. That schedule does not leave too much time in between for taking off or putting on make-up, changing, eating, getting home and back, not to mention sleeping

Six-thirty in the morning is an unusual time for dancers to be taking class, but the day of the annual competition of the Paris Opéra Ballet is an unusual occasion, and one on which careers depend. From 8am until after 6pm, in the grand but half-empty auditorium of the Palais Garnier, they will take turns performing solos before a jury, and this will win some of them promotion. There is a small invited audience, mostly professionals, but strictly no applause. Everything is very formal, including the announcement of each dancer's name and chosen solo. To increase the intensity of a day that is fraught as well as arduous, some had been performing until 9.50pm the previous evening, when the curtain came down on a programme of four works by Jerome Robbins, and as soon as the competition is over preparations begin for another performance starting at 7.30pm. That schedule does not leave too much time in between for taking off or putting on make-up, changing, eating, getting home and back, not to mention sleeping.

If it's such a strain, why bother? Thereby hangs a tale. This competition is almost unique to the Paris Opéra Ballet. I know of only one other company, the Belgian Ballet de Wallonie, that has copied it. And yet the idea is well considered and valuable. It was devised, as long ago as 1860, by the internationally celebrated former ballerina Marie Taglioni, the greatest star of her time (creator of La Sylphide among other roles), who was then teaching the "class of perfection" in the company, together with Bernard Sciot, head of the ballet school. The aim was quite simply to have a clear, open and fair system of promotion, without fear or favouritism.

Each year, any permanent member of the Paris Opéra Ballet wanting promotion to leading dancer, soloist or coryphée (a kind of demi-soloist) can apply to take part. More than half of them do so. This year, men appeared in the morning, women in the afternoon. They are divided into groups according to their present rank, starting with the lowest ( quadrilles) and working up. Each competitor dances two solos, one prescribed for their group (these are mostly from the classics), the second their own free choice from the company's repertoire. Order of appearance is alphabetical, but starting with a letter chosen by lot: it was E this year.

For their set solos, the men all wear white tights with a white shirt, the women a white tutu and a tiara, so they can all have confidence in looking smart, and for the solos of their own choice the appropriate costume is provided. The entrants are coached by members of the teaching staff, all of them former dancers mostly of the highest rank.

After each group has performed, the jury of ten - five selected by the management, five by the dancers - retires to vote by secret ballot on their placing. Whoever comes top gets 20 marks, the second gets 18, and so on down to 10 marks for number six. But the management has already given each competitor a mark, up to 10, based on their assiduity and conscientiousness during the year. It is the total of these two marks, from the jury and the direction, that determines the final order within each group, and those who come top get any promotions according to the number of vacancies previously announced.

Simply watching the competitors all day long is tiring. For the jury it can be more exhausting than for the dancers - I speak with some confidence on that point, having been a juror myself a few years ago. I also discovered then that there can be a problem if, as usually happens, no candidate gets a clear majority on the first round of voting. The rules provide for a second ballot, and a third if needed, so you have to calculate whether your own choice seems likely to attract more support, or whether you would do better to influence the result by switching to your next preference.

At most levels, with an average of 10 candidates in each group, the jurors are likely to be clear about their choices. But there were 27 female quadrilles competing this year, taking about two hours, and since there is only a moment between entrants for jotting down any notes about them, it must have been almost impossible to remember all of them in detail.

So does all this prove as fair as was hoped? For the most part, I think so; but there are some complaints, and this year they were vociferous. We can ignore the fan who posted on the internet that the failure to promote her particular favourite was a scandal: he seemed to me no more than mediocre. But I believe that almost everyone was surprised that Emmanuel Thibault was put only third among the male soloists competing for the two places as leading dancer ( prÿmier dans-eur). How can this be? He has been getting rave notices and tremendous applause for a long time now, stopping the show, for instance, at the recent premiere of Paquita. Most people I spoke to would have put him first, or at the very least second, for his dancing at the competition.

Insiders suggest that other factors came into play: maybe the candidates' supposed qualities as partners, or their consistency. This seems more plausible than the theory that it is fixed by the management; after all, the dancers' representatives have half the votes. Whether knowledge that jurors bring in with them ought to have such influence is another matter, but the only way I can see of preventing it would be to have more outsiders on the jury - as used to be the case.

The other curiosity concerned the women at the same level. Few would dispute the promotion of Eleonora Abbagnato to premiÿre danseuse. But how odd that the jury could not agree on second place. The problem seems to have been that there were several runners-up of roughly equal merit who all attracted some support but not enough to be decisive. If three rounds of voting bring no result, there is provision for a fourth ballot confined to the two leaders, and then, if necessary, a casting vote by the chairman, but apparently the votes were too equally spread for that to work.

Did Abbagnato's pre-eminence dazzle everybody? She has won attention ever since joining the company, with a radiant personality and assured ease that make her, at 22, a strong candidate for early appointment as étoile, or star. This is an extra rank at the top of the hierarchy, carrying status, privileges and responsibility, too, and it is not subject to competition, being awarded by the director of the opera house on the recommendation of the ballet director.

That could seem an anomaly, but I must say that over the years I have not observed any dancer who deserved to become an étoile and failed to achieve it. On the contrary, I can think of one or two who made the grade without really having, in my opinion, the exceptional qualities that ought to justify it. Maybe sometimes there would be a case for leaving a vacancy at that level.

Do this year's problems justify changing the system? I think not, because it has two great advantages. The first is that dancers at every level have even more incentive than in other companies to show themselves at their best all the time. The other is that merit can rise to the top very fast: Sylvie Guillem and Nicholas Le Riche, étoiles at 19 and 21 respectively, are only the most prominent of recent examples. I cannot see our British companies taking up the system, but I can't help wondering whether there might not be something to be said for it.

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