I fell in love with her goddess jawline and ocean eyes as a teenager. Marie-Agnès Gillot stood out like a succulent amongst roses. A towering, muscular dark-angel, free of pretentious airs.
I had recently become obsessed with POB during my suburban high school years as a studio bunhead. Before that it was all about the rise of the Russians–praise Zakharova and Vishneva. Then the French came into my life like a spring breeze, as if I learned ballet history backwards starting (incorrectly) with Mr. B in America. Despite the library books that ignited my ballet research life, it was a 2003 PBS special called Degas and the Dance that I recored on VHS (and has since been lost to time) that was my first warning sign that my earliest research into ballet started in reverse.
Ironically, my intense and rightly timed teenage study into POB and its étoile–ranging from the late ’80s to early 2000s dancers–also coincided with the wide-release of Amélie (2001) aka the most beautiful and cherished gift from French cinema in the 21st century. Throw in my soul’s film Sofia Coppola’s pastel and postmodern Marie Antoinette in 2006, and it goes without saying that my junior and senior years in high school and the seasons after graduation were hit hard by Francophile vibes.
I collected fines at my library from overdue DVDs of Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty, Neumeier’s Sylvia, Giselle, and that glossy documentary Étoiles (2003)–which I finally gifted myself on my 21 birthday–containing the gateway drug to my love affair with French contemporary ballet, Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Songe de Médée.
Gillot wasn’t the exactly lead in those DVDs, but she commanded variations and soloist roles with a ravishing strength, as if she could jeté out of the screen leaving the others in her dust. I saw her grace the pages of Pointe and Dance mag every now and then too and was awestruck by her presence on the page and on screen.
Moving memories of her on YouTube are also burned into my mind, as I worshiped her lean and sinewy body in movement and dominating emotions in more contemporary works. Then came Bausch’s Orpheus und Eurydike (which I had to resort to torrenting while at TXST). Her performances in this piece are heartbreakingly tremendous and utter rapture. All attachments I have to Gillot are now filtered through beloved moments from my grainy Orpheus und Eurydike file.
Superficially, if I were French, I would want to look like Marie-Agnès Gillot. Ambiguously styled like Charlotte Gainsbourg. Stoic and deep-voiced like Marion Cotillard and Eva Green. Brash but coy like Julie Delpy and Anna Karina. Her work in fashion has always been inspiring to observe over the years, albeit also on the haute couture side of the spectrum…
She’s not just the face of Repetto Paris though–she’s an editorial muse in many mediums, never limiting herself to just the elegance of ballet and all the typical things that follow ballet. She’s not a part of the puffed-up, tutu and tiara club. Gillot is right up there with Guillem. Legends of ballet’s expansion and exploration at the turn of the digital century. Sans tutu and tiara.
Currently, her performances in works by Cunningham and especially McGregor’s Tree of Codes and Pite’s The Seasons’ Canon (below)have been some of the most ecstatic performances coming out of POB by their mature étoile–or so I’ve read. A handful of dancers from the previous regimes hold truths that can never be rewritten by the current/incoming generation of French-trained dancers rising up the ranks.
There’s a poise and magnetism from dancers like Gillot that has evolved into something different. As it should be with each generation, with different narratives to share. (If only POB could join everyone else in this decade with even more narratives on stage from across the whole of 21st century French culture…) Still, Gillot is the last wild tree in a forest that has become a public park, more of the same being pushed forwards to please aging patrons. Mon dieu…
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited for the new POB dancers, mainly because they will be the ones I see IRL if when/if I can finally get over to France and save up to buy one of their (insanely expensive) tickets… But there’s something to be missed when the last étoile of the decade I grew up worshiping solely from magazine pages and DVDs bows away from the ballet stage. Alas, like the lovely Wendy Whelan and so many others, Marie-Agnès Gillot is a dancer for life and shall continue to give herself to movement no matter what stage or choreographer.
Tonight I got to see her IRL, performing just feet away from me. It was a piece called Black Over Red (My Dialogue with Rothko) by French choreographer Carolyn Carlson, who’s headlining Dance Salad 2017. Hence, this is part 1 in a series of dance-related musing-reviews from this week (which also includes my first dance performance at the Rec Room Tuesday night).
And it was a stunning way to ring in the festival. Here’s the description:
The opening event of Dance Salad Festival 2017, this performance is the world premiere of a new version of legendary choreographer Carolyn Carlson’s solo, danced by Paris Opera Étoile Marie-Agnès Gillot. With live cello played by Jean-Paul Dessy, this spellbinding dance is an embrace of form, space, and color.
I can’t say that the blank white wall behind her–in a museum dedicated to mostly Rothko–was the smartest decision, but the live cellist was a remarkable addition for the space! Sadly, from my “non-reserved” seating, I could only see snippets of this piece through the pockets of the “special reserved” people even though it was free and first-come first-serve for those of us who arrived way earlier (*shade thrown at the “elite” crowd*)–but seeing Gillot’s expression that close was exact visual poetry, paired impeccably through Carlson’s choreographic reaction to Rothko.
In so many ways, Gillot twised her body, maneuvered the movements that mimic brush strokes, with such detail. Elegant still, and more poised and pure that the Lilac Fairy, she represented Carlson’s reworked solo with a mixture of dynamics to match Rothko’s turbulent world.
Above it all, though, I’m in awe that I got to see a dance legend, a heroine of my own, perform before my eyes in a creative and suspenseful work of performance art in my hometown. And I hope to remain this humbled by dancers of particular status once I move to NYC, watching the international dance community come together before my graduate eyes…
More to follow…