Nicolas Le Riche: Apropos of Roland Petit & Le Jeune Homme

English National Ballet's Ecstasy & Death at the London Coliseum - London

Paris Opera Ballet étoile Nicolas Le Riche is currently in London for guest performances with ENB in Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort opposite Tamara Rojo (they appear tonight and tomorrow matinee). We could not pass up the opportunity to chat to Nicolas about the much-missed Petit, with whom he worked closely on many occasions. Translated from our conversation in French, here are some insights on how he works in the studio to flesh out all the complexities of Le Jeune Homme:

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Photo: © David Jenson

On guesting with English National Ballet

It’s the first time I guest with ENB. I am very happy. It’s a real encounter, although there are dancers I already knew from here and there. It has to be said that my direct experience with the company will be limited however, due to the intimate nature of Le Jeune Homme et La Mort. But that gives me the opportunity to get to know Tamara better. We have known each other for about 15 years and yet, we never had the opportunity to dance together until now.

On Le Jeune Homme

Le Jeune Homme et la Mort is a piece that I am very familiar with, having danced it many times before. But it’s very enriching to be paired up with someone like Tamara, who’s discovering it for the first time and who is in search of her character, exploring it, because that has an impact on what I do, this piece is pure dialogue.

On Roland Petit’s style and influences

Le Jeune Homme is in the territory of realism with a dash of cubism, given that Roland was heavily influenced by Picasso, they moved in the same circles and worked together – for instance, it was Picasso who created the front cloth for Petit’s Le Rendez-vous. 

Petit was also inspired by Cocteau, of course. Consider what Cocteau wrote for the scenario of Le Jeune Homme:

‘In a studio a young man awaits. Enter a young girl, agent of his distress. He throws himself at her, she rejects him, he pleads with her, she insults him, ridicules him and leaves. He hangs himself and the room vanishes, only the rope remains. Through the roof death arrives in a ballgown. Death removes her mask and we see the young girl. She places the mask on her victim’s face and together they flee towards the rooftop.’

As you can see, it’s short, concise and very powerful, a bit spooky too and it leaves a lot for audiences to interpret. This is what I have always liked about Petit’s works: they are powerful pieces on the themes of life, death, love, despair and they deeply affect their interpreters. At the end you feel like you have completed a journey. It is what I love about his work.

On working with Tamara Rojo

It makes me think of – if you excuse the analogy – a boxing match. First we circle each other, looking, discovering and then we engage, trying to understand how the other person works. What is so wonderful about the medium of dance is that one needs very few words: everything happens during rehearsal. I dedicate myself fully to this process, to understanding my partner and I have the impression that so does Tamara. To understand not only my partner’s approach to the character, but also the physical expression: how she moves, how fast, how her feet touch the ground. I am very attentive to all these sensations, these details, because it’s a very delicate process. It’s also very human: two people trying to connect through their differences, not trying to change the other, but trying to anticipate the other’s actions and learn how to respond. Here I often think of Fred Astaire, the way he connected with his partners was magical.

On character building & sources of inspiration

I have many sources of inspiration, many images that come to me. In this ballet for instance, I take care not to walk ‘too grounded’, not to let my heels touch the ground, fleet like a feline in movement. I think of myriad references and to show you how broad they can be: there’s a moment where the young girl moves towards the table to light a cigarette, she uses it as a tool to manipulate the young man, who moves around entranced, as if in a daze. This part of the ballet always makes me think of the camerawork of Gus Van Sant, particularly in Last Days, the glide of his steadicam while Michael Pitt’s character Blake walks, his back towards us. There are actually several parallels that can be drawn between Le Jeune Homme and Last Days. Another is the long shot when Blake curls into a ball in pain before falling to the ground. So my references are quite diverse, at times naturalistic or cinematographic.

I also look to literature and paintings to make artistic connections. I have always been interested in artists who are struck by something and I find that it is very important to take that approach, to have that depth of feeling in ballets like Jeune Homme. Petit himself used to say that choreography needs to be constantly reinvented. Of course the steps do not change, but he always hoped that individual interpretations would convince audiences that a work had been newly minted.

On retiring from Paris Opera Ballet next year

I don’t have any specific plans. I feel very free at the moment. It’s a great sensation during the good days, a bit daunting on the bad days! Up to now I have been supported by a structure that has given me security, yet it’s a system that I have had to report to. So once I leave, I expect to feel very free and open. And in that spirit, I am prepared to consider all the different possibilities that come my way.

Further reading: From Darkness to Light, our article for English National Ballet’s website (to open, click on link & then on menu item on the left)

Le Jeune Homme et La Mort is part of English National Ballet’s Ecstasy and Death programme, currently on at the Coliseum until 21 April 2013.  Nicolas Le Riche dances with Tamara Rojo tonight and tomorrow (matinee).

For tickets and further information, visit ENO’s website, follow English National Ballet on Twitter @ENBallet or like the company on Facebook.

We started The Ballet Bag in April 2009 with the mission to prove that ballet is not stuffy, old fashioned and inaccessible; that it is quite the opposite: relevant, fresh and topical. With the aim to Give Ballet a New Spin we try to show it under a different light. When writing our capsule biographies, ballet fact cards, review roundups and commentary on social media, we cross it over with other art forms and cultural references (pop culture, cinema, rock music – ie. other things we love!).

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