Interview with Mathilde Froustey, the new SFB Principal
Mathilde Froustey, soloist "("Sujet") at the Paris Opera Ballet (POB), is leaving the company. The dancer decided to take a sabbatical leave to become, from July the 1st, the new Principal Dancer at the San Francisco Ballet. I met her a few days before her departure.
When did you decide to leave?
I took the decision last January, after dancing Don Quijote (she danced Kitri twice on December 2012). Don Q. has been a stage in my career. It was my first three-acts ballet, incredibly difficult yet awesome. It was a beautiful moment. But, after dancing Kitri, it was very difficult to get back to the corps, both physically and mentally. When you are a soloist and that you are given a principal role, you don't have the opportunity to rest the day after your show, you go back to the corps to dance small parts. Now, I have done this since I am seventeen, when I got my first Principal role and to be honest, it is tough. I didn't want to become angry and bitter, and if I weren’t promoted again, it would have been the case so, I had to take a year off. I felt that in the bottom of my heart. My goal has always been to dance Kitri at Paris Opera Ballet. Since I was a kid, I wanted to dance this role, on this stage. I did it and I think it wasn't bad; I felt I could leave now.
If you had been promoted Première danseuse* after the last internal contest, would you have left as well?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, my plan was to leave after being promoted. So my decision is not a consequence of the last contest result. There are so many things one can learn by going abroad! At POB, I arrive everyday at 9AM and leave at 11PM. Even if, as a dance geek, I try to watch as many dance videos as I can, it is difficult to find the time to open your mind to other realities. This is why I like the international galas so much; you get to see different choreographers and other ways of dancing. I always wanted to travel for that reason.
*When you are "Première Danseuse" at POB, you can dance both principal and secondary roles or pas de trois, you are not yet with the corps. When you are "Etoile" (Principal Dancer), you only dance principal roles. The annual corps de ballet contest allows dancers to move up the echelons of the hierarchy: Quadrille, Coryphée, Sujet, Premier Danseur/Première Danseuse. The Étoiles are appointed by the Director of the Opera on the basis of recommendations made by the Company Director. Mathilde Froustey was Sujet.
Did you try to leave earlier in your career?
I have always wanted to use this possibility of taking a year off POB also because travels are my second passion. I once approached a few other companies, ABT, the Royal Ballet, but it wasn’t the right time. I could have gone to Vienna where Manuel Legris is doing a wonderful work. We actually spoke about that after La Fille mal gardée last July because he came to watch it. He told me to stay a little bit more… well, I didn’t wait too long.
Didn’t you think about waiting for Benjamin Millepied, the new director, to start in 2014?
No, for me it was the right time to leave and anyway I didn’t have the chance to meet him before taking my decision.
Why did you choose the San Francisco Ballet?
Since I was a kid, I have been following this company. At that time, I hadn’t been accepted at the Opera School and I didn’t know that you could get in later. I thought I was done with Paris Opera Ballet but eventually I could get in POB later at the age of 15. SFB is a special company, I find it more classical than ABT or NYCB. You can see that by only watching at the girls’ body. I guess this is why they hired me. And they have almost the same rep than at the Opera. They dance Onegin and Suite en Blanc, pieces by Wayne McGregor, Raymonda and Giselle. They also dance Balanchine and Robbins but their technique is not so different. It is a good balance between something radically different and the things I have been doing at POB. Helgi Tomasson, the SFB director, likes POB work.
How did you meet Helgi Tomasson?
He saw me dancing in 2006 during the Young Dancers Night. I danced Delibes Suites, a Pas de Deux by José Martinez, and Helgi bought the choreography at that occasion. We were introduced to each other, he told me that he liked me and I always kept this in my mind. Last January, I sent him an email and then a few videos amongst which there was the Don Quijote video that had been recorded only a couple of weeks ago along with some extracts from Serenade, Coppelia and Tchaïkovsky Pas de Deux. He offered me a contract as Principal Dancer. I told it to Brigitte Lefèvre right after and then it slowly spread out.
You are a Soloist and suddenly you become Principal Dancer, that is not a small change…
It is going to be tough. I’ll arrive in a new country, in a new company with a new language… and a new job! At POB, I was lucky to be distributed quite often in Principal roles. But dancing roles as a soloist and as a principal are two different things! As a soloist you can always miss things. As a principal, you don’t have this option. You are here to do the job. It a lot of pressure but it is great.
What will happen for you in the first weeks?
It is a whole new rep so I won’t be able to dance everything right away. I’ll have to work a lot. The director asked me if it was a problem but, on the contrary, the more time I have to rehearse, the better. I’ll have so many new things to learn, it is an awesome impulse. I don’t have a flat yet but they’ll put me up at the hotel for the first two weeks.
How do you imagine the ambiance to be at SFB?
I had a lunch a few days ago with Helgi Tomasson. The relationships seem to be simple and direct. We had a very honest chat. I told him my anguishes and he tried to explain how everything would happen. We really want it to be a nice experience for both sides. It is quite a big deal having someone brought from out of the US; if they did it, they’ll probably want me to dance as much as possible and this is exactly what I want. So, on the paper sheet, everything seems perfect; of course, I guess there will be some difficulties but it is such a deep desire for me to go dance there…
What will you dance?
We’ll start rehearsing a mixt program; I might dance one of the leads in a Wayne McGregor’s piece and a new creation by Alexeï Rtmansky. After that, we’ll have to get prepared for the New York tour that happens in October. Then, there will be Nutcracker during Christmas, like in every American company! In January, it will be Giselle. I hope I’ll be on creations as well.
You often said that you wanted to dance more contemporary pieces. Will you have the opportunity to do so?
I would be very happy to discover new choreographers I have never worked with before. At POB, I was more distributed on the classical programs. SFB has a very wide rep, it really is the most contemporary company out of all the classical ones. They really are open-minded.
You will be in competition with seven other female Principal Dancers, amongst those some are very famous like Maria Kochetkova. How do you prepare for that?
It is very exciting! Yet it is very different than at the Opera; SFB is used to welcoming new Principal Dancers coming from abroad. I like Maria Kochetkova, I am a fan of her, I saw all her videos and I know them by heart (laughs). I am very happy to be able to work alongside with her, I am pretty sure I will learn a lot only from watching her. I have to adopt a different point of view: at POB we all come from the same school and go through the same contests. At SFB, the dancers are all very different. There is some competition of course but we are all so different, we come from such different schools, there are interesting things in any of us. It is a different kind of pressure and I am sure it is going to be a wonderful experience.
You took a sabbatical leave which means that you can still come back and be a soloist again at POB. But honestly, after one year as a principal, do you picture yourself coming back as a soloist and having to face the contest again?
I don’t know… I’ll try not to think about it and enjoy this year as much as I can. By the end of May 2014, I want to be able to ask myself this question with calm. I have to make my mind clear and dedicate myself to the SFB to be able to make a clear choice.
But on Facebook, your message let us think it was a farewell…
People get what the want to get. I just said that whatever happens, I will always love POB.
You career started very fast with a Principal role given to you when you were only 17. And you became Soloist in 2005, yet ever since you were blocked at the contest for being promoted. Was this break difficult to deal with?
I don’t agree with that, it was not a break in my career. I have been distributed in principal roles almost every year and, at the end of the day, I am the only soloist to be given this opportunity. Concerning the contest, there was none during 4 years! Besides it was the most difficult thing to deal with, it is even
worse than not being promoted. Not being promoted is bad luck but no ontest is no luck at all! You don’t even have the opportunity to be promoted. Those roles I was given, they really helped me to hold on.
People always think that I am a fast mover because I had fast debuts but it is wrong. I am slow, I needed time to understand many things about my work. During the last years, I could learn many things thanks to a few people like Noella Pontois or Guillaume Charlot who was my coach during six years. I could also mention Florence Clerc, José Martinez, Monique Loudière or Manuel Legris that made me progress… and I had a life too, I mean, outside POB!
Still, after the last contest when you were not even ranked, we could feel how frustrated you were by reading your posts on the social networks…
I don’t agree either. I was not frustrated; I was disappointed. But who wouldn’t be after failing at a contest? I have worked for months, it is a huge investment… and I am not even ranked, so I am disappointed. My words weren’t motivated by any kind of frustration nor than any grudge.
So you are not leaving angry with the direction?
I am not angry. I am very close to Brigitte Lefèvre who always supported me. She was the one who decided to give me those principal roles. I know some people complained about it because there were some premières danseuses that should have danced before me. Brigitte answered them: “She dances Kitri because I want it to be that way”. Since Ivan le Terrible, she kept encouraging me. She gave me the will to leave POB.
What do you mean?
If I hadn’t been distributed in principal roles every year, I could have told to myself that it was fine being a Soloist. But dancing those roles regularly and hearing the audience clapping made me keep on believing that perhaps I could do it, that perhaps I deserved it. I had the chance to be applauded on a
stage as an Étoile… Brigitte helped me to stay hopeful. Then, maybe I cannot be a principal in Paris because I am not as good as I should be on the contest… this is why there is no frustration. I am leaving because I want to discover something else.
Did you give up your dream to be Étoile?
I try not to think about it. I don’t know… I am not gone definitely; I could still come back. When I got into the company, it all happened so quickly. Of course, the dream remains inside of you but, first of all, you have to win the contest three times before being promoted Étoile. So, when you are not promoted during 7 years as I have been, you end up thinking you’ll never be Étoile. Your child dream kind of smashes against this barrier that is the contest.
Do you think this system doesn’t suit you?
I don’t know, maybe. We all have our weaknesses and I do panic a lot during the contest. I tried almost everything, including hypnosis (laughs). The thing is: every time I am rather happy with how I danced but then they say to me that it wasn’t good… I guess I am too stressed.
Still, you won the Varna golden medal…
Varna is completely different. People are standing on their feet on the bleachers. They yell every time you make a dégagé, it really is like a show. And I was 17 too.
So, you keep missing the contest but they keep casting you as a principal dancer, that is paradoxical. How did you live that?
It happened several times: I got a principal role in December just a few weeks after missing the contest. Once, I danced Nutcracker and another year I had a stage rehearsal as Kitri the day after not even being ranked at the contest… Where do I belong? I don’t deserve to be ranked in a contest to be Première danseuse but still I can go on stage as an Étoile? Sometimes, I felt desperate.
Did you talk with Brigitte Lefèvre about it?
Yes but she would always stay very diplomatic. She only has one vote at the contest, just like anyone else in the jury. After the contests, I often went to see her at her office to ask her if it was the right time for me to leave because I guessed I would never been promoted since I wasn’t even ranked; I told her that a new generation was coming and that maybe my turn had passed. She always told me to stay and she kept on giving me roles. This year, it was Kitri but I couldn’t go through all that again.
Do you think you are underestimated as a Soloist?
I don’t know… It is very difficult to have a look at yourself, it is impossible. The only thing I know is that, every time I danced principal roles, it happened quite well. My career is too paradoxical between those roles and the contests that I missed. And, when I see Ludmila (Pagliero), Dorothée (Gilbert), Myriam (Ould-Braham), I tell myself that I won’t ever be able to dance like they do. I find them so beautiful that sometimes I think it is normal for me to be a soloist.
And yet, a famous company is offering you a contract as a Principal…
I’ll be principal in less than a week; this is crazy!! When I say so, I feel like I am not talking about myself, it’s a dream that comes true… I don’t think about it too much though and I keep repeating myself that their director doesn’t look like he is crazy, so it probably means that he actually believes in me (laughs). It is such a huge challenge, and so many anguishes at the same time. We’ll see what happens.
Do you think the results of the contest are wrongful?
I am not the best person to ask this question, I am so bad at the contest… The girls who passed, they are my friends and they deserved it. Two years ago, I gave it a thought. We were all warming-up and I looked at the girls around me: Laura, Alice, Charline, Héloïse, Amandine, Aurélia, Kora… I thought: “Why do we have to fight each others?” We were all good. If there were more posts, many others would deserve to be première danseuse as well, it is very tough for us soloists.
Do you think the whole idea of a contest is wrong?
For the dancers in the corps, it is the only moment in the year when they can be seen, some of them are staying in the wings all the season. But for soloists it is different, everybody knows their worth. We shouldn’t have to be subjected to this system when one year there is a post and one another there is not. Some generations were sacrificed because of that. Before mine, there was Miteki Kudo’s generation as well. Last year, Héloïse danced Nikiya like a star; she should have been promoted Première danseuse right after the show.
Do the dancers think collectively about those issues?
Many of us are questioning the contest, above all amongst soloists. Honestly, the dancers are not really satisfied by this system… but I doubt very much that someone will be brave enough to rebuild this system. The contest is a delicate matter; it is an institution.
Is it hard to leave the Opera?
It is very hard. Lately, during a show, I watched all those dancers around me and I thought they are all tremendous. It is a beautiful company, we all have qualities and defaults but they are all great people.
What is your best memory on stage with this company?
The Four Little Swans in the Lake that I danced with Dorothée Gilbert, Myriam Ould-Braham and Fanny Fiat. There was a perfect harmony and we were all friends. It was a very long series; we were dancing every night and sometimes twice a day. We were exhausted. But there was an amazing solidarity between us four. By the end, we knew how everyone of us was breathing and moving. We hold our hands so tight to dance; we were so close. It is such a strong memory. Everyone was telling us that we were fantastic; the audience at Bastille used to yell “Bravo” when we had just finished.
My best memory is this one because of the harmony there was between us four. I didn’t dance this piece a lot after that and I must confess that I am happy because until now I have never seen a better cast than this one.
And as a principal?
Kitri of course, it really was a dream for me… I was supposed to dance it twice but, after the first night, my partner, Pierre-Arthur Raveau, got injured. I remember this Friday night when I learnt it, I was so devastated not to dance it again. Dancing those roles, it is a whole preparation. I was ready for dancing on the next day; my pointe shoes were ready as well. My family had bought 60 seats in the theatre; they had booked the train tickets, the hotel rooms. They only come to see me dance once a year but they had to cancel everything.
My father was the only one to come. On Saturday night we went to the restaurant, we ate a lot, drank a lot and we went to bed at 3 o’clock… When Brigitte called me the next morning at 9.30am I thought it was my bell ringing. I looked at my mobile and saw it was her calling me. She asked me if I was ok to dance Kitri with François Alu in the afternoon. I said yes, I would have said yes to anything to be allowed to dance it once again. Sometimes you don’t realize how lucky you are; but this time, I did realize, I was so miserable the day before.
What happened during this morning before the show?
François Alu had never rehearsed it on stage; he hadn’t even danced the whole ballet. Vincent Chaillet was watching from the wings and I asked him to stay because I didn’t even know whether François could end the ballet or not. I am not sure he was even realizing what was ahead of him: this ballet is like a wall, you have to practice again and again to be able to dance the whole thing and I wasn’t sure he could do it. But he has such strength inside of him! And a lot of this young people’s fearlessness too! He is even crazier than I am! Pierre-Arthur is different: he is strong and calm. We are two opposite characters but we actually bring different things to each other’s and this is why we love to dance together. Within a few years, those two men are going to be very important!
You related those twists on the social networks, without hiding your feelings. Some people thought you were trying to get the audience sympathy by whining and complaining…
Honestly, I don’t care. As a soloist, principal roles remain unusual. I had orked on this role for two months. They gave me two shows and, as I told you, it was my dream to dance it… and then, I am told I am not going to dance it again. At that time, it was my last opportunity to dance this role and they took it away from me. I didn’t know if I was to dance it ever again and I just said I was sad. You can’t blame an artist who is sad because she has stopped from accomplishing his art. This is why I wake up every morning; I dedicated my life to this, I give it all.
Which ballet are you going to miss the most?
The Nureev’s ballets, I love to dance them. It wasn’t true at the beginning of my career but then I was distributed on Nutcracker’s lead. I needed to find a reason to love them because I have to be happy when I dance. I read Ariane Dolfus’ biography of Nureev. I know it by heart now and I used to offer it a lot! I started loving Nureev when I began understanding his personality. I perfectly understand this exigency he had and I am very proud that I was given the opportunity to dance those ballets; all of them have such a powerful backstory! Their mise en scène is clear, precise; I like it very much. For instance, I have difficulties to watch other versions of Nutcracker than Nureev’s one. It is a masterpiece. Also, when I was younger, I used to dance within Manuel Legris’ group, which has been a very important experience for me. Manuel still has tears in his eyes whenever he speaks about Nureev. All the dancers from this generation, they admired him so much…
And, apart from that, what are you going to miss during this year in the U.S.?
My morning croissants!! (laughs). This place! (the interview took place at the Palais Garnier). It is a place that sometimes I loved, sometimes I hated. It is a strange house; you can’t really understand unless you belong to it. It is a crazy world (smiles). I am going to miss it and everybody inside of it, I am going to miss my dressing room, I am going to miss its smell, and the cafeteria mice as well… I am going to miss the whole Opera.
I have lived so many powerful moments here, either good or bad. On a contest day, I could be seated right here crying all my tears out, thinking that I wasn’t good, that I wouldn’t ever be promoted. But on the next morning, you go back to work and actually things are not so different than if you had been promoted the day before. You go back to class, you work on your body and you just carry on. It is very powerful what you live here. It will probably be different when I am in San Francisco but I am sure I will live many other powerful moments and, whatever, there will be the same exact passion for dance.
Mathilde Froustey is leaving for San Francisco on July the 30th. She will soon have a new website where there will be a blog part dedicated to her new life at the San Francisco Ballet.