Brigitte Lefèvre, disciplined ballet rebel, steps up a gear

CANNES, France – The Carolyn Carlson Company had just wrapped up the final performance of the two-week Cannes Dance Festival on December...


CANNES, France – The Carolyn Carlson Company had just wrapped up the final performance of the two-week Cannes Dance Festival on December 11, and festival director Brigitte Lefèvre took the stage to strike up a conversation after the show. But Carlson is not very talkative. Instead of discussing her play, she started a little mime routine, to which Lefèvre responded with comedic Chaplinesque timing, mimicking the shy reluctance and deference to Carlson as the audience howled their approval.

It was a fitting conclusion to Lefèvre’s final round as director of the Cannes film festival, a low-key but vibrant biennial that offers both familiar and experimental work. She assumed the role in 2015, shortly after retiring as director of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Lefèvre, 77, looks pretty much what she was in 1992, when she arrived at the Opera: a redhead with a childish cut and unpretentious style. (I was there too, working in an attic as an editorial assistant.) In 1994, she replaced Patrick Dupond, probably France’s most famous dance personality, as director of the company, a position she held for 19 years. An appointment that meets with mixed echo, even if Lefèvre attended the Paris Opera Ballet School and danced with the company for 11 years.

“I don’t think it was because I was a woman,” she said in an interview at lunch on the last day of the festival. “I was 50 years old, I was not famous and I had left the world of ballet for a while. But I didn’t think I had to justify myself on this matter.

Lefèvre, with her close friend Jacques Garnier, had left the Opera in 1972 to form Le Théâtre du Silence, which, unconventionally at the time, programmed works of contemporary dance by Merce Cunningham and David Gordon. alongside ballet choreographers like Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart.

“There was a kind of war between classical dance and contemporary dance at that time,” said Didier Deschamps, the former director of the Théâtre national de danse de Chaillot in Paris, who will succeed Lefèvre as director of the Cannes film festival. “They showed very concretely that we could have common ground.

It is exactly this idea that Lefèvre transmitted to the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, inviting more than 40 choreographers, both classical and contemporary, to create or stage works during his tenure: Jerome Bel, Trisha Brown, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe and Angelin Préljocaj, to name a few. Many were well known to him for his years at the head of the first Delegation of Dance of France, a group appointed by the Ministry of Culture to improve the conditions of dance; by creating choreographic centers, with resident companies all over the country, he changed the dance landscape.

“Brigitte had political instincts and an organizational capacity, but it was her knowledge of the dance world that was most important and gave her such authority,” Deschamps said. “And she always knew how to be heard.”

It hasn’t changed. During a long conversation, full of humorous parentheses, occasional glimpses (“In life and art one must be rebellious and also disciplined – in any order”), and the diplomatic sense for discretion, Lefèvre spoke, in French, of his early years, his time at the Paris Opera Ballet and his reflections on trends in the world of dance. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Why did you decide to withdraw from the Cannes Film Festival?

During the confinement I spent a lot of time in Brittany, and I learned something unexpected; that being in nature really did satisfy something in my mind. Also, I felt that maybe I was continuing rather than innovating in Cannes. It was time.

You have always been interested in innovation and change. How did you integrate into the Opera with its strict promotion system?

Of course, I wanted to progress, to get better roles, to be better paid. But I wouldn’t say I was desperate about it. I was very individual in my tastes, partly because my mother, who was a pianist, first introduced me to rhythmic dance, which was a bit Isadora Duncan, later to flamenco, and I still have had an appetite for dancing outside of ballet. I also knew that I didn’t have a high school education, so I read a lot of literature and philosophy.

I loved being on stage, being backstage, the stage machinery, watching the great dancers. I discovered Martha Graham and other contemporary choreographers and started taking outdoor classes in other techniques. The Opera was not all my world.

Norbert Schmucki, who danced with you at the time, said he thought there was a time when you needed to step out of company boundaries.

Jacques Garnier and I shared a spirit of eclecticism; we wanted to be open to the world and create dance there, not just at the Paris Opera. We laughed so much imagining “The Theater of Silence”. A friend said, “With a name like that, I know I’m going to be bored all night long!”

Jacques and I both choreographed for the troupe. I always felt that I didn’t dare enough, I didn’t have enough confidence in myself as a creator. But we also invited David Gordon, Robert Kovich, Lar Lubovitch and Merce Cunningham, who directed “Summerspace” and “Changing Steps” for us, and who really changed my life artistically. People don’t talk about the Theater of Silence anymore, but I think we’ve shown a lot of things that people have never been exposed to before.

You worked at the Ministry of Culture after the closure of the Théâtre du Silence in 1985, then at the Opera as general administrator in 1992. What was it like to be back?

It was all a bit difficult. It was the beginning of having both the Palais Garnier and the Opéra Bastille, and there was a complicated hierarchy. Patrick Dupond, whom I knew well and whom I admired, was a great artist, but that doesn’t mean he was good at running a business. When Hugues Gall arrived as general manager in 1995, he asked me to take over the ballet company. I didn’t want a conflict with Patrick, but I was interested, I felt ready and I felt the situation couldn’t go on like this.

It was not a very happy time for me. I felt I was seen as the bad guy.

During your tenure at the Opera, you were criticized for having commissioned so many contemporary dancers. What was your vision for the corporate repertoire?

I didn’t really have a vision. I wanted the dancers to have great experiences. I didn’t think of classical or modern quotas, just what would be interesting to dance. I also wanted the audience to learn dance through the programs. If you put Trisha Brown, William Forsythe and Balanchine together on a mixed bill, there are resonances and connections.

We did a lot of classical dance, a lot of Jérôme Robbins and Balanchine, whom I had met when he was directing “The four temperaments” at the Opera in the 1960s. I was completely in love with him, and I was not the only one! I also saw that Rudolf Nureyev, a fiery personality and so much criticized when he ran the company, was becoming a myth. After his death, I thought we should keep his works. I’m a little sentimental about this.

I have asked many company dancers to create ballets; also Benjamin Millepied and Alexei Ratmansky. I loved having live choreographers in the house.

It’s no secret that when you left the Opera, you wanted the former star Laurent Hilaire to succeed you rather than Benjamin Millepied, who was followed by Aurélie Dupont in 2016. What do you think now?

It’s very difficult to take over from someone who has been there for over 20 years and under whom, if I may say so, things have gone relatively well. I think Stéphane Lissner [then the director of the Paris Opera] wanted change and new energy, but ultimately it was hard for Benjamin. I admire his choreography and I think he could be a good, if not a great director. If that’s what he wants; it is a job to which you must be totally dedicated.

I think a lot has changed and the stakes are different. I am still in solidarity with the Opera, the dancers, the directors, especially after this terrible period.

What do you think of the new emphasis in the ballet world on female choreographers as well as the need for more racial diversity and sensitivity?

Marie-Agnès Gillot was the only opera woman I asked to do a work, and perhaps I should have encouraged others. I think women are often self-critical, we doubt ourselves; I certainly did. If I was running a business now, I would pay more attention to the matter. I think that the activism I had around contemporary dance would be expressed in this area today.

As for #MeToo or diversity, how can you be against that? It is always important to take into account and be attentive to the suffering of the people. But we must be wary of a proselytizing position which can be counterproductive.

What have you brought from the Paris Opera Ballet to the programming of your festival?

My choreographic knowledge, and the idea, to which I have always held, of showing the diversity of dance. I wanted to bring people together rather than being conceptual. I think that a lot of French regional ballet companies are really opening up the repertoire, and alongside there are young choreographers who come out of choreographic centers. I like the idea of ​​people experimenting with different artists, different aesthetics, creating their own story with dance.

what do you want to do next?

I want to dance and vibrate as an artist! I await offers. Everyone laughs when I say that. It is a bit boring.

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