Dance in France: The Paris Opera Ballet School

Article excerpt

The Paris Opera Ballet School, the oldest dance school in the western world, was established in 1713 by the reigning King of France, Louis XIV. In his youth (and before he grew too fat!) Louis loved to dance and to stage elaborate ballets that included dance, mime, poetry, songs, and such special effects as fireworks. He was even railed "The Sun King" as a result of dancing the role of Apollo in a ballet. In order that trained dancers (rather than the courtiers) could take part in these performances, the ballet school was established, and today it still supplies dancers to the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the finest companies in the world.

The pupils of the Paris Opera Ballet School are sometimes called the petite rots ("little rats") of the Opera. Until 1987, the students took their dance classes at the Palais Gamier (the beautiful nineteenth-century opera house where the ballet company performs), but since that year they have been housed and taught in a specially built school just outside of Paris. There, the 120 pupils, ranging in age from 8 to 18 years, have every facility they could dream of: ten large, airy studios, a gymnasium, a theater, a library, a cafeteria, classrooms, and comfortable bedrooms. The students--who are divided into six divisions--have school lessons in the mornings, a break for lunch, and then their dance classes in the afternoons. There is ballet class every day, of course, but also folk dance, character dance, jazz and contemporary dance, pas de deux classes for the older students, mime, music appreciation, singing, anatomy, and dance history. And, during preparation for the annual demonstrations and performances, rehearsals provide extra animation to the comings and goings in the school.

Although the Paris Opera Ballet School is recognized worldwide for its superb teaching and the quality of the dancers that it produces it attracts relatively few foreign students. This is probably because pupils either need to speak French well or be young enough to learn the language right at the beginning of their formal education. Anna Dzioubenko, who is 11, came to the school from Kiev in Russia at age 9 and now speaks fluent French without a bare of accent. "It was very hard for me at first," she says. "I couldn't understand anything, and I was lonely without my parents. But I could follow the dance classes, and now I love being here." Hikaru Kobayashi, 18, also couldn't speak any French when she came to the school from Tokyo at 15, but she had completed her educational requirements at home. Now in the most advanced division, she, too, speaks fluently and praises the quality of the teaching and of student life at the school. "I would never have been able to get this kind of training in Japan, even though there are some good schools. Not only do we hove excellent teachers, our progress is closely followed, and they will work with us individually on problem areas."

No one follows the progress of students more closely than "Mademoiselle Bessy" as the students rail her. Head of the school since 1973, (Claude Bessy (a former etoile or "star" of the Paris Opera Ballet) is the person largely responsible for the school's present reputation for excellence. …