As Hugo Marchand's book "Danser" (Editions Arthaud, Paris) was released in February 2021, we thought our English-speaking readers would like to discover the interview he gave us a few weeks after his accession to the status of Etoile (=Principal) of the Paris Opera Ballet (2017). This new translation allowed us to verify that what he had told us has lost none of its relevance.
He debuted as the Nutcracker Prince in late 2014, his talent was revealed in L'Histoire de Manon alongside Dorothée Gilbert in May 2015, he confirmed his outstanding stage charisma with La Bayadère in late 2015, then Romeo and Juliet in the spring of 2016 between two creations by Millepied and Forsythe. At the end of those dizzying two years, Hugo Marchand was named Danseur Étoile du Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris! A month later, he was to appear in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then in a gala performance performing Auber's Grand Pas classique and Le Corsaire, and then to rehearse Forsythe’s Herman Schmerman. He kindly agreed to have a chat around his life as a dancer but also as a full artist and citizen.
Hugo Marchand, you were appointed Etoile just three weeks ago, and your progress within the Company is often described as dazzling. You had 4 years of experience in the Paris Opera corps de ballet before being named First Soloist. How did you experience these years of evolution in this very standardised ensemble?
Getting into the Company was much of a joy, an intense emotion in my life, but I must admit that the first two years didn't go so well. The adaptation phase was not easy. First of all, learning to position myself towards others, learning the internal codes, building relationships with artists who have a higher position; then my integration within such a standardised group, with all the difficulties this entails, was nothing natural; from an artistic standpoint, my physique and size always raised issues until I became a soloist as I was considered too tall to take on such and such a role, too tall to dance with such and such ballerina, too tall to appear on the front line in ensembles, etc. In short, I didn't dance at all. My first production was Serge Lifar's Phèdre, in which I barely appeared (in the minor role of Minos): 45 minutes of make-up preparation each evening for literally 30 seconds of stage presence at the end of the ballet. In my second year, I made an unsignificant replacement in La Bayadère at the last performance... So to speak, I spent two years backstage. It was even difficult at first to feel that I was fully part of the corps de ballet, since I was either a substitute or an extra. It changed a bit at the 2013 Young Dancers' evening, in which Brigitte Lefèvre cast Juliette Hilaire and me in an excerpt from Wayne McGregor's Genus, a month after my promotion to Coryphée, and it was probably the first time I felt I was more than the hobbledehoy of the group. Not being in the classical physical norm, I couldn't express any kind of singularity in such a homogenous corps de ballet, and somehow I knew that either this invasive physique was a total handicap that would block my career, or I would have to become a soloist to dance. Then, of course, everything went very fast.
Who was your first partner in this quest of solo roles?
I had the opportunity to dance my first major role with Mélanie Hurel on the Bastille stage (editor's note: The Nutcracker, in December 2014), in very hectic preparation conditions. There is also Hannah O'Neill, who is a friend and with whom I have been dancing a lot in galas for a long time, but we have only danced on the Opera stage for the AROP prize (Jerome Robbins' Goldberg Variations) and once in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a ballet in which the partnership is almost non-existent and where there is very little physical contact. We are preparing Herman Schmerman by Forsythe, this will be our first real collaboration.
At the Paris Opera, there are no regular partners – even if there can be a relationship like the one between Germain and Léonore – but the ballerina I regard as my first partner is Dorothée Gilbert.
It is usually noticed that when you dance together with Mlle Gilbert, a particular energy emerges from the performance, as if you were born to dance with each other – the audience could feel it in L'Histoire de Manon, and it became obvious in La Bayadère or Romeo and Juliet. Do you feel it too? How do you explain it?
Yes, of course we can feel it, but I wouldn't know how to explain it! It's a form of internal communion, a mode of communication between us, a very special force. It all began with L'Histoire de Manon, which remains the greatest artistic experience in my life. I came out of it totally beside myself; it was such an emotional investment for two months, of research, reading, reflection, physical preparation, all that for a show, just one (editor's note: Dorothée Gilbert and Hugo Marchand, then Sujet in the Company, danced the last performance of the series, on May 20, 2015) – after Aurélie Dupont's official farewell performance. The pressure was crazy and Dorothée Gilbert accompanied me in all the preparation process. And it was the first time I managed to give the audience exactly what I thought I had to do, in total honesty, a terrifying (but exhilarating) “nakedness”; it was the first time I reached another mental universe, that I came out of myself; and at the end of the performance, it was the first time I told myself that I was an artist! This experience is very deeply rooted in us and created a very strong complicity between Dorothée and me. This common path also extends beyond the walls, as I take great pleasure in often dancing with her at gala events. She is very generous and shares a lot. It goes without saying that, as a young dancer, I am very lucky that she accepts to share all her experience with me, to give me her artistic and technical advice. I think that I bring her a bit of additional energy, freshness and renewal at this stage of her career, which is already very rich.
I'm also lucky to have been able to dance so far with many different dancers, each one of whom brought me something. Even if it has been a long time since we last shared the stage, there was something going on with Laura Hecquet, certainly in a more restrained way than with Dorothée. Léonore as well. Hannah, of course.
I think it is good, even necessary, to build long-lasting, even privileged relationships with dancers. Many people build careers on their own, but it seems to me that you don't make progress as quickly when on your own. First of all, there is a very technical dimension: being accompanied by a partner allows you to save a lot of time in the preparation of roles – you know your partner as a person, you know their body, you know their preferences in terms of manipulation. There is also obviously a psychological dimension: we know the other person's emotional reactions better and all this facilitates the quality and depth of interactions. And then, dance is something that must be shared, quite simply. To take some examples that I admire at the Paris Opera, look at Hilaire-Guillem or Legris-Loudières: of course each of the four of them existed as individual artists and didn't need the other to exist as artists, but I am convinced that having shared a long path together has turned their art into magic. So of course, I would love to dance one day on the red table of Béjart’s Boléro and feel the solitude of the trance in communion with the audience, but for me, what generates progress is sharing with a partner on stage and living a story with someone else.
And outside the Paris Opera?
I would have a hard time answering you! I'm very interested in what's being done elsewhere, in how other companies operate, but I personally know very few dancers from other companies. And I believe that the desire to build something on stage also comes from knowing the other, from admiring the other as a person and not necessarily from loving their dance. I don't manage to share an intense moment on stage with those I don't like.
Of course, there are ballerinas whose presence, charisma, artistic sense I admire immensely – for example Ulyana Lopatkina, Marianela Nunez, Sofiane Sylve and so many others. I don't know them yet, so how to imagine ourselves as partners? I don't know!
And in your construction as an artist, are you sensitive to the emulation with other dancers? We think in particular of your parallel career with Germain Louvet...
Ah, with Germain, it's amazing: we've known each other for 10 years now, he's my best friend. At the School, he was always first, I was second; for our promotion to Coryphée rank, I was first, he was second; for our promotion to Sujet rank, he was first, I was second. Then I was promoted first dancer, then him the following year. Then he was named Etoile and I was appointed just a few weeks later. Even in our wildest childhood dreams, we could never have imagined going so high, either separately or together. The professional competition between us has always been there of course, the success of one of us almost mechanically leading to a questioning process for the other. But I am very proud – and deeply moved – that our personal friendship has been genuinely preserved. And I believe that we pushed each other forward and even liberated each other when we realised that we are so different as artists that it is very difficult to compare us.
It amuses and flatters me a lot to read sometimes that we are compared to Laurent Hilaire and Manuel Legris, when you know the incredible careers they have achieved and the one-of-a-kind Etoiles they have been. But to be honest, I still don't fully realise what all this entails and the weight of the responsibility we bear. I was appointed not even a month ago, so I'll tell you that in a 5-year time! I hope we will succeed!
You were named Etoile in the role of James (La Sylphide by Pierre Lacotte) during the POB tour in Japan, where you replaced Mathieu Ganio, who got injured. La Sylphide was the variation you danced for your very first promotion competition, it was one of the variations you danced at the Varna International Prize, where you won the bronze medal, it was also the first ballet that Mathieu Ganio danced as an Etoile... The irony of life?
Yes, it's true, it's all the more fun because I wasn't supposed to be on the tour: I was cast as Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Premiere and screening in cinemas. Three weeks before the tour, Aurélie Dupont asked me whether I liked sushi and she offered me to replace Mathieu Ganio.
But during the first rehearsals, things were not so easy. First of all because I didn't immediately understand the subtlety of Pierre Lacotte's ballet and I found the role of James very bland, that of a naïve, sulky, impulsive character, deceiving his Effie. An Albrecht that was naive and far more unpleasant. I had to talk a lot with Pierre Lacotte, Clotilde Vayer and Gil Isoart to understand the character and let myself be seduced in order to build a credible interpretation on stage – besides, nothing was simple: rehearsing with 3 different coaches at the same time paid off in the end but also caused a little friction at the beginning, each one wanting to bring me a different vision... Throughout the preparation, Clotilde Vayer helped me to refine my understanding and was very supportive, and I am very happy to have been able to benefit from the precious and unique indications of Ghislaine Thesmar (editor's note: creator of the role of La Sylphide in Pierre Lacotte’s version).
Then because I hadn't danced a major role since Romeo in May 2016. So, even if it's a bit ridiculous when you're 23 years old and in great shape, you always wonder about your ability to perform this type of roles after such a long period.
In the end, and it wasn't easy, I really enjoyed dancing it. Debuting in a role, debuting in Japan, first time with Amandine Albisson?
I was also very touched by the welcoming atmosphere created by the Japanese audience: I feared a sort of disappointment since I was there "just" to replace Mathieu Ganio, who is a true rock star in Japan. It is certain that my nomination creates a strong bond between our Japanese friends and me. This audience is so respectful and warm! The contrast with part of the Parisian audience, who can to be so cold that they leave the hall as soon as the curtain is down, is astonishing!
And then, just back from Tokyo, everything gets quick: Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Balanchine! How do you work on Balanchine style when you are 1m92 tall?
I approach it with much less difficulty than what one might imagine. I already danced a lot of Balanchine last year, for example in Duo Concertant, a very lively ballet, a very beautiful experience. I am very tall but one of my qualities is that I dance fast. At the beginning of our work on Midsummer, the rehearsal director Sandra Jennings didn't want me because I was too tall and I was going to hurt myself. I had to fight to remain in the cast, I wanted to because it had been a long time since I had had a "substantial" role. During the first working sessions, I think she was convinced. But the tour in Japan interrupted my preparations for Oberon for a month. My first rehearsal on stage, dressed and in front of the company occurred during the very day after my return from Japan, and it was difficult: I had almost forgotten everything... It's not very pleasant to show yourself under such an unfavourable light when you've just been appointed as Etoile!
Since you were named a principal dancer, you have been devoting yourself to solo roles. How do you prepare your debuts?
I start with a rather in-depth documentation work: first of all, I find out about the essential readings in order to grasp the sources and have a global understanding of the context. Then, I listen a lot to the music in order to understand the musical lines to better shape my interpretation of the role. And then, at the beginning, I look at 5 or 6 different versions of the ballet in order to perceive its overall shape and to capture the different approaches; I don't come back to it afterwards, all the work then concentrates on the construction of my interpretation.
For La Bayadère, it is said that you prepared Solor in 5 days! Is it just an urban legend? It must be difficult to do all this preparatory work!
For Solor, I was only a substitute and it was not planned that I would be effectively cast. I had 5-6 work sessions just to learn the steps and get to know the choreography. And then one Friday evening I got a call to tell me that Mathias Heymann was injured and that I had to dance the following Thursday with Dorothée Gilbert. 5 days of violent and intense preparation later, I found myself doped up on adrenaline on the night of my debuts. The second show was hell for me: I had given everything I had for the first one, I couldn't recover physically and the fear of getting exhausted even made me miss things. I then had 3 shows with Laura Hecquet later in the series, which I was able to approach more serenely. For the first phase of preparation, I had watched Solor by Nicolas Le Riche and José Martinez, but it all happened so fast: I threw myself into the void rather than preparing!
You also have a clear appetite for creations. How does the preparation of these classical roles nourish your approach to contemporary dance - or vice versa, for that matter?
Classical technique undoubtedly gives me a certain confidence in my body, and therefore self-confidence when I perform in front of a choreographer I don't know.
I have had the chance to participate in creations at the Opera but I can't say that a choreographer created something for me with any degree of introspection. I have a fond and unforgettable memory of William Forsythe's creation, Blake Works I (in July 2016), for which I had to develop the ability to dance differently in order to be able to adapt to the Forsythe technique. It was a physical and artistic effort in a way, but it was not an emotional artistic quest as such. This changed when the ballet was programmed the following autumn: there I was able to appropriate the part I had created and I allowed myself to modulate things here and there by nourishing the choreography with my own feelings – always in connection with Forsythe and Lionel Delanoe. This work on a new and different version was very rich, and complementary to the work I was able to do on Benjamin Millepied's creations, where we exchanged a lot about musicality.
Now I am waiting, as I believe all dancers do, for a meeting with a choreographer who will lead me to work on my emotions. And then, perhaps it will change my current vision of classical roles.
When you received the 2015 AROP ((AROP is the support association for the Paris Opera)). Award, you made a speech as a citizen artist, claiming a broader role "in these troubled times". Could you tell us more about this?
At the Opera, we are lucky enough to work in such conditions of material comfort that we sometimes tend to forget that life is not only about Beauty. And for me, Art is not only there to "look pretty" and entertain. Given the violence of our environment, the artist has another role to play, a much more open one. This is something I think about a lot.
Of course, being an Étoile dancer means having responsibilities towards the Company, it means playing the role of ambassador for the Paris Opera and French culture beyond the circles of balletomanes, but I want to serve something other than dance as such. That my title of Étoile du Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris can contribute to this is clearly a goal for me. Whether it is to facilitate access to culture or education, to help other artists or to think more ambitious things?
Shining at the Paris Opera is very good. You must also have the ambition to shine in a circle more anchored in reality. A heavy responsibility. I don't yet know how to make it happen, but it's also one of the reasons why I'm very happy to be an Etoile: depending on the way you play with it, it provides a certain fame, a certain popularity, which can make it possible to move, modestly and at our level, a few lines.
Beyond dance, what nourishes you as a man?
I go to the Opera a lot and listen to a lot of music. I don't have that taste, which I would like to have, for reading. Recently, my circle of personal acquaintances has also expanded to include people from non-artistic backgrounds. It takes a lot of effort to open up – people who are not dancers don't necessarily understand all the constraints of our profession and our lives as artists – but it is absolutely vital, enriches me enormously and makes me happy.
You mention opera... and then, please let us know: do you like Wagner?
Wagner, I've tried to listen to his music... I've seen The Flying Dutchman, I've listened to the beginning of Tristan and The Walkyrie, but I don't think I'm a sufficiently ardent opera lover to fully appreciate Wagner. I saw the dress rehearsal of Lohengrin with Jonas Kaufmann, and I have to say I did enjoy it – but honestly, I went to Lohengrin to hear Jonas Kaufmann and not to see the work per se! I'm sure it will happen some day!
At the moment I'm more moved by Pretty Yende in Lucia, for example. And Ermonela Jaho's Traviata last season moved me to tears: I believe that this frail woman projecting a
Hugo Marchand can be found in Oberon on Youtube - Scherzo :
In addition, on February 3, 2021 was published :
With the collaboration of : Caroline de Bodinat
Arthaud editions, Paris
Hors collection - Récits et témoignages
Published on 03/02/2021
224 pages - 134 x 220 mm