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PARIS – With one last look at the enchanting Chagall fresco, the teachers who watched her grow, the stage that saw her blossom, Eleonora Abbagnato bowed out. Never has a star ballerina’s farewell been so dramatic, as her grand outing has been postponed three cancellations due to a strike and then the pandemic.

“I am always positive, I think that fate does things well,” she confides in her dressing room a few days before her “farewell” on June 11. “I knew this evening would end up happening!” This artist, who wanted to model her last dance on The park by Angelin Preljocaj, ended up dazzling the crowd in a tribute to Roland Petit, which echoed his career nicely.

“He’s someone I knew when I was 10, so it was important for me to play a ballet by this choreographer. The last time I danced A young man it was for Nicolas Le Riche’s farewell, I was four months pregnant! It all started with Roland, and it all ends with him. final goodbye to the public and to the company.

“It is undoubtedly less painful than in other foreign companies, in particular Anglo-Saxon, where there is no age limit but you are summoned to tell you that you are no longer in the shape you were when you started out, ”says the former star. Agnes Letestu. But how will this special evening be remembered, as a rite of passage or the start of a new life? “The farewell is both an extraordinary moment of love with the hall, the orchestra pit, the backstage … and at the same time the turning of a page in the history of this institution. phoenix is ​​always reborn from its ashes with the appointment of a new star, ”explains Brigitte Lefèvre, dance director of the Paris Opera from 1995 to 2014.

No missteps when choosing the last dance

This uniquely talented artist deserves the same exceptional ceremony created for the departure of Elisabeth Platel in 1999 and Carole Arbo two years later, which was televised for the very first time. For these kinds of events, the star’s personal life comes into play: family members are present in the room, children occasionally enter the stage. A perfectly choreographed protocol follows, mixing various speeches with the arrival of the Minister of Culture; sometimes a special distinction from the Order of Arts and Letters is awarded. Moments of grace are dotted throughout the evening, such as the improvised dance between Aurélie Dupont – the dance director at the time – and outgoing star Marie-Agnès Gillot. The festivities continue into the night, loaded with excitement and emotion.

These farewells are scheduled two or three years in advance when the time comes for the dance director to prepare future programming. Aurélie Dupont, like Brigitte Lefèvre before her, likes to ask the star which ballet she prefers as a farewell show and which partners should accompany her.

These are intense moments that are sometimes experienced as mourning.

“There are dancers who don’t want to say goodbye because they don’t like it, because the program doesn’t suit them or because they don’t feel fit enough”, explains Agnès Letestu. “I wanted to leave the Paris Opera with The Lady of the Camellias. I had spoken to Brigitte Lefèvre about it. Except that my farewells were scheduled before the ballet was scheduled, so I had to find another one, but I didn’t agree. So I suggested that she come back and dance it a month after I left the company, which was quite unusual. “

Among the most requested works are the legendary ballets Giselle and Manon’s Story. “The stars like to start with love stories that end badly. Everyone wants a ballet with real drama, in two or three acts, rather than a little pas de deux”, explains Aurélie Dupont. Dupont’s first choice, The Lady of the Camellias, had already been scheduled two years earlier for Agnès Letestu’s farewell, so she turned to Manon. This meaningful work is Dupont’s comeback on stage after a serious knee injury in 1998, when she feared she would no longer be able to dance.

Eleonora Abbagnato in her last “farewell” to the Paris Opera

Like going to the guillotine

As for the brilliant Karl Paquette, it is with Cinderella – a ballet close to his heart – that he is retiring at the Opéra Bastille, Paris’ second opera house, while many dancers prefer the old charm of the most famous Palais Garnier. “The story is funny, the ballet very narrative – one of Nureyev’s greatest achievements. I loved the golden costume, the scenic effects, the finale of the grand pas de deux. The strongest moment was when I came on stage in Act II. to great applause, even as the musicians continued to play, ”he recalls.

These are intense moments sometimes experienced as mourning, like when Marie-Agnès Gillot cried a lot before her last step on stage. On this fateful day, Agnès Letestu says she felt a very special sensation, strengthening her senses, from her vision to her hearing. “Everything has been increased tenfold,” recounts Letestu who, a few months earlier, had the feeling of going to the guillotine. “I was very stressed four months before, I was afraid of hurting myself and not being able to dance, of not being up to it, of not taking advantage of every moment, of crying”, says Aurélie Dupont, whose the farewells were finally a moment of appeasement. . “I mostly remember the applause, people screaming, standing up, it lasted over 20 minutes. And this love is only for you.”

I could not let myself be overwhelmed by the emotion!

Nicolas Le Riche, now director of the Royal Ballet in Stockholm, evokes a “very strong sense of enterprise, of belonging to an institution that is being celebrated at the same time”. He was the only artist to say goodbye not to a ballet, but to a “special evening” of total freedom, mixing pieces like Afternoon for a faun by Nijinsky and Béjart The Bolero. On stage, tributes were paid in his honor by prestigious guests such as singer Matthieu Chedid and actor Guillaume Gallienne.

“I found this repertoire, which has spanned the ages, very moving. I received a wonderful note from Nijinsky’s daughter. It is an evening where everyone has the right to be moved and to experience these emotions, except the one who leaves. I couldn’t let myself be overcome with emotion, otherwise I would have stepped on stage and collapsed! “He recalls. How long did it take him to prepare for such a show?” I want to respond in the manner of Coco Chanel, who made her hat in two scissors. ‘But it only took you two minutes? “Said a disappointed customer.” No ma’am, it took me a lifetime, “she replies. I lived, ”says the dancer.

Paris Opera dancers perform in front of the Palais Garnier to protest against the French government’s plan to revise the retirement age – Image: Maxppp / Zuma

To each his swan song

While Laëtitia Pujol hesitated for a long time before saying her goodbyes, hoping to leave discreetly, others end with departures full of pomp, sometimes to their surprise. “It’s a moment that you think about all the time without really thinking about it. I certainly wasn’t looking forward to it and wanted something intimate. It was the opposite,” explains Karl Paquette. “The director of the Paris Opera at the time, Stéphane Lissner, wanted to leave on the symbolic day of December 31. “I was in a double hurry because the farewell was being shown in the cinema, and my every movement was immortalized. On the last day, you are in a special state of conditioning as you say goodbye to 25 years of career and almost 42 years of life. You have to protect yourself. “

When the farewell came, it was a relief.

Only Benjamin Pech lived his farewell, one evening in February 2016, as a release. And for good reason: “I had a hip injury in 2014. I was diagnosed with rapid degenerative arthritis. To remedy this, I needed a hip replacement. My farewells were scheduled for 2016, so I decided not to have the operation and to continue until then. For two years, I held on by practically dancing on one leg and had to turn to a repertoire that was no longer athletic but theatrical, with composition roles that opened up other perspectives. Isn’t a dancer first and foremost someone who has a profound impact on the spectator? When the farewell came, it was a relief, ”he says.

The star had chosen to dance alongside Sylviane, an 84-year-old spectator and one of her lifelong fans, who was present during rehearsals, but unfortunately fell ill on the day of the performance. Pech took time off from a program that included The park by Preljocaj, the very song that gave way to his injury: “I’ve come full circle.

Say goodbye to the word “farewell”

Shortly after his performance, the future retiree must give up his box to another star, a moment “both very sophisticated and archaic. There are the great speeches, which say that this house will always be yours, but in reality, it becomes otherwise “, specifies Brigitte Lefèvre.” You close the door, you leave and it is finished “, says Eleonora Abbagnato. But how do these artists project themselves into the future? “What is traumatic is that we have been heavily pierced since we entered dance school at 8 years old, with a professional plan where everything is already decided. . How can we exist professionally when we have aroused so much admiration, even fascination so far? At 42, most people are in the middle of their careers, ours is coming to an end, “explains Benjamin Pech. , who became ballet master at the Rome Opera, conducted by Eleonora Abbagnato.

It is not a closing door, but rather another opening door.

While many celebs start or run a business, many experience a deep period of confusion. “I was secretly hoping that someone would call me for a position, that I could be of help, but it didn’t happen like that,” explains Nicolas Le Riche. “I was already registered at Sciences Po for schooling [in management and leadership]. I had to create my own opportunities. “

To remedy this uncertainty, Aurélie Dupont now offers support to the members of the company, by offering them a skills assessment and training beyond dance. In the future, Nicolas Le Riche would like the word “farewell” to be replaced by the idea of ​​celebration. “It is not a closing door, but rather another opening door.” Because under the gold of the Palais Garnier, the stars are eternal.

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