Five months ago, the Frenchman Laurent Hilaire took over the direction of the Bavarian State Ballet to the surprise of many. Now he is starting his first full season - a season that was still almost entirely planned artistically by his predecessor Igor Zelensky.
Annette Baumann spoke with the new director at the start of the season: About his plans for Munich, his experiences with Rudolf Nureyev, and the beauty of danced calligraphy.
Annette Baumann (AB): Laurent Hilaire, you have just returned to your desk at the Staatsballett after a six-week summer break - after taking over as director of the company at short notice only in May. How does that feel for you?
Laurent Hilaire (LH): Wonderful and very right! I already feel at home in Munich, the city is very liveable and the theatre and the company here have quickly become a new home. We are full of drive and energy to start the new season!
AB: You are now starting a season that was almost entirely planned by your predecessor. How do you deal with that?
LH: It is certainly unusual as a new director not to be able to plan things myself straight away. But it gives me time to get to know the ensemble and the house and its structures better. And just because someone else did the programme doesn't mean it's bad. Ratmansky and Léon/Lightfoot are big names in the ballet world.
And I have already been able to make a first artistic decision. I have adapted the concept of the choreographers' evening Today is Tomorrow somewhat: From now on, this programme will be curated by a pre-selected artist-personality, who in turn will invite young dance-makers to create. It was important to me not simply to invite young choreographers, but to show how they react to already existing artistic positions and develop their own view of ballet from them. I also decided on a new name, the evening is now called "Spheres".
AB: You started your training at the École de l'Opéra de Paris when you were 11. How did you come to ballet? Do you come from a theatre family?
LH: No, not at all. Quite frankly, it was a coincidence. Actually I wanted to be a gymnast, I had done a lot of gymnastics as a child. But then my parents moved and there was no suitable sports club in the new town. Eventually I ended up at a ballet school. The teachers there saw that I had good abilities and sent me on to the École de l'Opera.
AB: Can you remember the first ballet performance you saw?
LH: When I saw the first ballet live, I was actually already on stage myself. I had started my training in September, and in January I was allowed to portray a small supporting role in Sleeping Beauty, in the third act.
I ran after the queen on stage as a page. I saw the prince in the pas de deux and the appearance of the blue bird and from that moment I knew what I wanted to be: Étoile.
Before that, I had actually never seen a ballet, neither on stage nor on television.
AB: You worked with Rudolf Nureyev and were also appointed Étoile by him. What are the most important things you learned from Nureyev?
LH: To work! That you always have to be there with more than 100 per cent. And that you can always do more than you think is possible - which doesn't mean that you stop listening to your body. You have to know your limits. But you have to work.
Nureyev always said he wanted to see the fire in our eyes. And that it's a privilege to be on stage; a privilege that comes with responsibility.
When you're Étoile, or soloist, it's about you, your performance, your presence. You are in the front of the limelight. But at the same time, you have to know that you are not alone on stage because everything is an interplay. So on the one hand you have to use your ego to represent something, but on the other hand you have to show humility - sounds paradoxical, but that's how it is (he laughs).
AB: You previously worked in Moscow at the Stanislavsky Theatre. Now you have landed in Munich at relatively short notice. What are the differences between Russia and Germany?
LH: Oh, basically not so many: The dancers go to training in the morning, then there are rehearsals, in the evening there are performances. The daily routine of a professional dancer is similar all over the world. There are differences more in the repertoire, in the orientation of a house. And perhaps in the working hours. In Russia, for example, there is a six-day week. But regardless of that: there is never enough time, no matter whether you work five or six days a week.
The structure of the Bavarian State Ballet is that of a company at a large opera house - similar to the Stanislavsky Theatre or even the Paris Opera Ballet. There is the ballet, the opera, a common orchestra, common workshops and so on, it is the same system. In this respect, there are not so many differences.
AB: In a past interview you said that the British are known for their incredible theatricality, the Russians for the beautiful ports de bras, the French for the fast footwork, the batteries. Even though Germany is a country without a significant ballet tradition, is there something you associate with ballet in Germany?
LH: I think in general, it's no longer just to do with a country and a tradition, but with a certain point in time and the people working in a certain place at that point in time. I just hope that I can serve this company with my energy and my passion, help the dancers to develop and share that with the audience.
AB: What can that be? And how exactly do you want to achieve that?
LH: It can't just be about movements, the movements have to transport something: convey something to the audience, show soul. Ballet is about being human, which is portrayed on stage in the various stories.
Dance movements are like writing: there is printed writing and written writing. You can read both, but handwriting is more beautiful.
Because it shows character, individuality. My goal as a coach is to convey exactly this to the dancers and to help them find the right calligraphy in the right role. That is what ultimately communicates itself to the audience and makes a dance performance special. It's about giving meaning to every movement. Whereby I emphasise that this is primarily the task of the ballet masters, they do a wonderful job. As director, I am responsible for many things. But I like to be in the studio at rehearsals and get involved whenever possible.
AB: You stand for a mix of classical and modern, you are open to both. What role do the classics still play today? For you personally, for the dancers, for the audience?
LH: It's true, I don't think classical and modern are mutually exclusive, on the contrary! We need both. There is a wonderfully varied classical repertoire in Munich with works by John Cranko, Patrice Bart, Peter Wright, John Neumeier, Christopher Wheeldon and many more. And we are a state theatre. We have a duty to look after the classics. We have to look after them, otherwise they could be in danger. It's about how we think, understand, treat, give life to this heritage today. If these classics are no longer alive, no longer trigger emotions, then the audience will change its mind. The audience needs to understand what is happening on stage, they need to feel that it is the dance that expresses the story. There are wonderful theatrical moments in ballet, take the argument between Gamzatti and Nikja in La Bayadère or the mad scene in Giselle. If ballet can make the audience share these emotions, it will survive.
I think the maximum concentration on technique nowadays is an aberration.
We have to work on the quality of interpretation. And then we must not forget new creations. They are just as important, after all, we live in the present.
AB: Many classics are currently under criticism for their outmoded portrayal of other cultures and minorities. The BSB is reviving La Bayadère in May 2023 in a choreography by Patrice Bart. What is your opinion of this?
LH: The Munich version of Bayadère in Patrice Bart's version is less critical. Blackfacing is no longer possible today, of course. We can't stereotype non-white characters. In Munich, the design is influenced by the aesthetics of the Japanese costume and set designer Tomio Mohri and is very respectful of the representation of cultures foreign to us. And we will also offer an appropriate supporting programme for the revival in May 2023. It is important to listen. But in the end: we can't do away with all these works now. They are part of our heritage, our ballet identity. It is hard to imagine removing them from the repertoire. And everyone should be allowed to decide for themselves whether they want to see this historically transmitted side of ballet.
Please complete the sentence: The most beautiful thing in life for me is ...
... to be able to pass on my experience and knowledge to the younger generation.