We Are Here to Dance and to Keep Life Going

We Are Here to Dance and to Keep Life Going

Interview with Ludmila Pagliero

by Tatiana Senkevitch (Paris, France)

LUDMILA Pagliero, étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, is a dancer of elegant, singing lines and impeccable technique across a diverse repertoire. Rigorously trained at the Ballet School of the Teatro Colón in her hometown of Buenos Aires, Ludmila started her dancing career at the age of sixteen with the National Ballet of Chile. Within a few years, she had successfully auditioned for the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the most venerable temples of dance tradition in Europe. Dancing in Paris since 2003, Ludmila attained the Paris Opera Ballet’s highest rank of étoile in 2012, after her performance as Gamzatti in the Nureyev version of La Bayadére. Along with the recently nominated Sae Eun Park, a Korean-born dancer, Ludmila brings a global geography to the cohort of étoiles at the Paris Opera Ballet, a company that deeply cherishes its own centuries-long tradition while also opening up into a more diverse future. Her first name, Ludmila (literally, dear to the people), reveals her Czech roots on her mother’s side, and attests, if only in part, to her gentleness and accessibility offstage.

My conversation with Ludmila took place in April 2021, when the two stages of the Paris Opera were still dark due to the pandemic. The dancers, however, were already rehearsing the program Hommage à Roland Petit, presented to live audiences in June, and a new ballet, Le rouge et le noir by Pierre Lacotte, for the 2021-22 season. The moment was particular: there was light at the end of the tunnel but restrictions on public performance remained in place. We spoke in the magnificent corridor along the east side of the Palais Garnier leading to the Paris Opera Library; the rows of folios in ancient cases and the portraits of dance and opera stars on the walls sustained the solemn silence around us. Our conversation touched on the expressive potential of the “old” art of ballet and particularly on the process of creating a character on stage. Eagerly awaiting her take on the rebellious and reckless Carmen in Roland Petit’s ballet, I asked Ludmila about her outstanding interpretation of the title role in Giselle, which she danced at the Garnier with Mathias Heymann on the eve of the pandemic in February 2020.

Ludmila Pagliero and Mathieu Ganio in “Vivaldi Pas de Deux.” Choreography by Gil Isoart, photo by Francette Levieux for Les Beautés de la Danse.

Tatiana Senkevitch: Giselle is a true shrine of dance history as it has stayed in the repertoire of dance companies for almost two hundred years since its creation in 1841. It is also a precious repository of artistic excellence in interpretation, linked to many venerable ballerinas and dancers past and present. How did you approach this role in the spring of 2020, being partnered with Mathias Heymann?

Ludmila Pagliero: Before March 2020, Mathias and I had already performed our respective roles in Giselle many times, but had never danced this ballet together. We decided to discuss in advance, before rehearsing, to determine if we had the same ideas about constructing our roles. At the same time, we felt strongly that our joint version of this ballet should have a certain instantaneity. The first rehearsal of an encounter scene between Giselle and Albrecht from the first act moved fluidly, without any interruption. We followed each other instinctively and were surprised at how much our intentions matched. Starting from that moment, we felt in accord as to how we would like to construct our Giselle. Later, in the process of work, we changed or adjusted certain moments. At the same time, we wanted to preserve the first instinctive reaction to keep a little amazement for each other and to sustain immediacy in our respective characters. I think that revealing all the nuances in acting makes Giselle one of the most beautiful old ballets. Its power rests on the intensity of the dialogues, the subtlety of the exchanges of gazes, and on its choreography that engages the depths of emotions. This ballet is an inexhaustible joy for dancers to interpret.

TS: Did you work on the acting components of the choreography with Mathias in the studio alone, or did you show your ballet masters the preliminary stages as well? In other words, how did you judge that you were on the right path?

LP: Mathias and I discussed the place of each of us in the general layout of scenes together. We tried to settle between us some big questions such as whether Albrecht, who tries to deceive Giselle about his aristocratic origins, wants to seduce the naïve rural girl or whether he is genuinely attracted to her and cannot reconcile this emerging love with his social status; whether his heart feels the depth of remorse and whether there is a real struggle inside of him. We wanted to feel we were both creating the same story, and we agreed on it.

TS: In other words, you believe that the plot of Giselle, a ballet from the Romantic period, is still not completely obsolete today, and that the success of this ballet rests not only on its mesmerizing choreography, particularly in the second act. 

LP: The plot of Giselle works well for viewers today if dancers in the leading roles infuse their characters with truthful emotions and if their respective approaches correspond. I’ve danced this ballet many times and never felt that I acted the same way twice. There is no one established way of dancing it as it calls for matching one’s artistry to the ballet’s technical challenges. Many different interpretations of Giselle can be valuable, but one must search for them. The next time I dance this ballet with someone else, my Giselle will be different again.

TS: What did Mathias Heymann bring to your interpretation of Giselle?

LP: He brought his rich artistic vision to it. We had three performances with Mathias in the early spring of 2020. With him, I came to live my Giselle more profoundly than ever before. Our last performance came out particularly moving; our coaches noticed that. I remember how tears streamed down my cheeks when I, as Giselle, stepped into the trap to descend into “my grave.” Our last exchange of gazes with Mathias’ Albrecht had an intensity that I’d never lived on stage before. I was overwhelmed and I broke into tears. 

TS: Witnessing this performance was overwhelming, cathartic in a way, for me as well. Mathias embraced your disappearing shadow with such love and remorse that many among the public that night could not restrain their tears either.

LP: I learned the role of Giselle in accordance with the tradition of the Paris Opera. There, Giselle undergoes a transformation from a young woman in love in the first act to a supernatural creature, a Willi, in the second act. The first act tells the story of Giselle’s love, and we name this act “Giselle.” The second act gives center stage to Albrecht, who suffers the loss of his beloved. Giving equal attention to both characters is crucial to the dramaturgy of the ballet. In the second act, Giselle stands slightly behind Albrecht, even as she guides him through his mourning. She gives him a pardon and a chance to live. If the public sympathizes with Albrecht and forgives him, it is exactly what Giselle does in our version. Her forgiveness is a dramatic pinnacle of the story.

TS: Both you and Matthias put your dancing technique fully in the service of expressing the innermost feelings of the characters, and it made the story so keenly present and actual for the public.

LP: Recently, I had a conversation with Ghislaine Thesmar, our great French dancer and coach. She had heard the comments that I gave a younger dancer while analyzing certain movements. I spoke from my experience of working with Pierre (Lacotte) and Ghislaine on La Sylphide and Paquita. Ghislaine approved of my suggestions; then she added one phrase that stays with me, namely that every single step should have meaning. This is so true for me. By taking the time to create a role, we change the way we approach every step, every technical passage, and reach deeper into the feelings it expresses. Dance becomes a dramatic action, a real theatre.

TS: Giselle and La Sylphide, the masterpieces of the Romantic period in which you shine, represent only a part of your repertoire. You’ve performed many other classical and neoclassical ballets, demonstrating the versatile side of your artistic personality. Seeing you in Hans van Manen’s choreography, for example, I was deeply touched by your musicality, your capacity to sing the music through your body so naturally. What is the role of music in your life on stage and beyond?

LP: Music is essential to my dancing. I think about the pulsation of dance through the pulsation of music. I abandon myself to the music. The choreography of Les Trois Gnossiennes with the music by Eric Satie gives a rare chance to perform with a pianist on stage. I danced this piece with Hugo Marchand and the pianist Elena Bonnay at the Paris Opera. It never turns repetitive or predictable as it is truly a pas de trois for two dancers and a pianist. We make it together—the dancers and the pianist. I had a similar experience when dancing Jerome Robbins’ choreography. He devised every step as generated by the music. George Balanchine’s choreography was conceived the same way.

Some contemporary choreographers start creating without music at times. I ask myself how it is possible, but then I see how the steps become integral to the music later. In these cases, contemporary choreographers put physical pulsation before the music. Interpreting different choreographies, I’ve experienced various ways of engaging my body with the music, but it is the music that gives me the tonality, the rhythm, the respiration, and, ultimately, the inspiration. The best moments in my dance come when I feel that the music and I constitute a whole.

TS: So, is music your starting point in communicating with the public?

LP: I think that dance is a work of the body that generates invisible energy making forms in space. This energy is a link, an invisible axis that comes from the orchestra pit to us dancers on stage and connects us with the public. I am fortunate to have a good ear naturally, though I do not play any musical instrument. In my offstage life, however, I appreciate silence.  Maybe this is because I focus on music so much in my work. So when I am at home, I prefer not to have any TV, any music, or any other sonic background. The moments of silence are important for me.

Ludmila Pagliero and Mathieu Ganio in “Vivaldi Pas de Deux.” Choreography by Gil Isoart, photo by Francette Levieux for Les Beautés de la Danse.

TS: Your natural sensitivity to music resonates in your remarkably subtle dancing on pointes. You cry, whisper, argue, joke, and convey many other emotions through your movements on pointes, an essential element of classical and neoclassical ballets. What style in ballet, in your opinion, suits you best?

LP: I have a curious mind, so I like a little bit of everything. My curiosity directs me from a comfortable spot to the discovery of something new. I like to challenge myself beyond the already established. I cannot hang on to one single style, be it classical or neoclassical or contemporary. I feel at my best in the ballets of Jerome Robbins as they give me self-awareness on stage. Robbins’ ballets are a construction of dance in relation to the music with no apparent narrative context or any references contained in the décor and costumes. It is like being “as you are” on stage. I have Dances at a Gathering, In the Night, and Other Dances in my repertoire. I also like some contemporary choreography because I adore deconstructing established patterns and moving differently. Choosing one single style is not comfortable for my mind or esprit.

TS: You embarked on a professional path in dance very early. At sixteen, you left your family and even your country to dance in the National Ballet of Chile. You and dance have made an unquestionable alliance for life. Have you, however, ever dreamed or imagined yourself in any other profession?

LP: Other things, beyond dance, that engage me include recreating a story of one’s life—but this is what I do on stage anyways. So maybe acting could be my other path. I enjoy searching for a character in dance. Theatre—not television or cinema—has attracted me since I was little. I also enjoy traveling in my imagination. I can be interested in studying societies and cultures of the past to understand other ways of living, other beliefs across the world. These are the things that engage me, but I cannot name any precise profession that could have been mine besides dance. 

TS: Your passion for theatre comes across strongly in your dancing. It seems that you like reaching out to your public and sharing energies with a live audience.

LP: Indeed, the exchange of energies with the audience is what makes live theatre for me. I keep strong memories of the performance that the actor John Malkovich gave at the Paris Opera in 2010. He was alone on stage for one-and-a-half hours. Acting in a live performance entails enormous work, as it requires full concentration and abandonment. Everything should be given in one shot. I appreciate recording and streaming, but they never create the same ambience as a live performance.

TS: Let’s return to the idea of traveling in the imagination. The image of a wandering spirit fits you quite well because in your professional life, you have also crossed borders of different dance traditions. You were trained in Argentina but became an étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet, a company with a steady and distinct tradition of its own. You are often asked in interviews about your experience with the Opéra de Paris. For me, it would be interesting to learn about your experience of dancing at home in Argentina, and about your performances with the Mariinsky Theatre, and in Russia in general.

LP: I have the most pleasant memories of dancing with the Mariinsky Ballet. It is inspiring to find yourself in the company of such a long history. It is like entering the Palais Garnier, where the air is filled with history. The Russian dance public is very knowledgeable, which corresponds to the country’s grand dance heritage. One feels much love on the part of the public there. Every time I’ve entered the Mariinsky Theatre to rehearse or to perform, I’ve encountered people at the entrance. These were local balletomanes who wanted to talk to me about dance. The first second of my appearance on stage there, I was greeted by applause. It was like a welcoming gesture: we are glad that you are dancing for us. It warmed my heart so much. I felt that going to the theatre is a festive ritual there.

TS: How about your own country, Argentina? 

LP: The public in Latin America is very warm and sincere; it expresses itself so openly. People can go euphoric if they like the performance. I haven’t danced much in Argentina, sadly. After finishing school at the Teatro Colón, I danced in the National Ballet of Chile for three years, and after that I worked mostly in France. I began building up my relationship with the Argentinian public later in my career, so I am hyper-stressed and anguished whether they are going to like me or not every time I dance there. 

TS: The eighteen months of the pandemic that closed theatres almost everywhere in the world turned dancers more towards new visual media. The art of ballet had to step out from its traditional setting in permanent theatres and create differently, with more affordable means. What is the future of classical ballet, in your opinion, in the globalized and technologically savvier world? 

LP: Classical dance is an art that communicates in a language with a special code. The old ballets often have exotic settings, but their stories are based on a dramatic love or social conflict that anyone can relate to. If we dancers highlight the feelings and ideas that drive our characters, the language of classical dance will touch the hearts of viewers today. If we remain locked in limited, formal confines, traditional classical ballet risks appearing outdated to the public. 

Even the most improbable stories have an emotional appeal or reference to our real lives. Take La Belle au bois dormant, for example. Behind the façade of an old fairy tale, there is the story of a young girl who was raised in a crystal bowl with no awareness of the world. At times, we meet characters like Princess Aurora in our lives as well. It is our mission as artists to make the transmission of classical dance happen and open it for the future.

I also believe that attracting young choreographers to work with the traditional codes of classical dance can help. It is a challenge to create a ballet referencing today’s world but still using the traditional codes. Also, many classical ballets never age. I think, for example, about Onegin, created by John Cranko almost sixty years ago. It is a traditional narrative ballet based on the classic Russian novel and performed in historical costumes. Yet Cranko’s choreography resonates with the public so strongly. Wherever in the world we dance Onegin, the public is moved by it, because its story and choreography convey the feelings that exist in all of us. A true work of art crosses time.

TS: Do you think that creating ballets for children and thus raising a future generation of viewers can help as well?  

LP: Dancing for children is very important. The performances for younger viewers that we have at the Paris Opera also break the codes. This is the audience that reacts immediately, at times too actively, but children are always so engaged and so trusting of the action on stage. They do not need to “know” the codes, they are open to everything.

Ludmila Pagliero and Mathieu Ganio in “Vivaldi Pas de Deux.” Choreography by Gil Isoart, photo by Francette Levieux for Les Beautés de la Danse.

TS: What are your current projects with the Paris Opera?

LP: I dance the titular role in Roland Petit’s Carmen, in the triple bill Homage à Roland Petit that is on stage now. My new big role is that of Madame de Rênal in the Pierre Lacotte ballet Le Rouge et le noir, based on Stendhal’s novel, that will premiere at the Opera Garnier in October 2021. It is exciting to participate in a new creation and work directly with Pierre Lacotte, an outstanding French choreographer. Here is my lucky chance to create a brand-new character—a loving and passionate character—on stage.

TS: The difficulties of the last season, marked by the pandemic, put an emotional and physical strain on dancers throughout the world. Where did you find the motivation and energy to get through this period?

LP: Like everywhere in the world, we at the Paris Opera did not know how long the situation would last and what the outcome would be. Dancers need to work daily to maintain their bodies, so it was already a relief to be able to return to the theatre studio in the fall of 2020 instead of training in our kitchens or hallways. But still, we were missing the public. If you are not making your art for the public, what is it for? It was hard to give oneself a reason. The understanding, however, of saving lives and protecting those who are close to you also became a stronger part of one’s life. We all missed theatres, musical concerts, museums. At the same time, when human lives are in danger, one questions more deeply if art is essential for human life or just an entertainment. I believe that dance is essential for the human spirit, therefore we are here to dance and to keep life going.

PICT would like to thank Gil Isoart, Katya Anapolskaya, Francette Levieux, and the staff of the Bibliothèque-Musée de l’Opéra National de Paris for their assistance in preparing this interview.