Entering by the back door of the Ópera Garnier of Paris, we wind our way around the interior of this magnificent building whose passages have faded with the years. In the cafeteria that serves the building's staff, we find simple wooden tables and chairs and reasonable prices: ostentatiousness is strictly for the theatre-goers.
The prima ballerina of the Paris Opera is late, but arrives looking sporty and neat, with her long blonde hair meticulously gathered in a pony-tail. Eleonora Abbagnato, 28, is one of ten foreigners in the 150-strong Paris Opera Ballet corp. How has an Italian… 'a Sicilian,' she interrupts… a Sicilian, then, made it this far?
It all began by chance in Palermo: when she was young, she was looked after by a neighbour, Marisa Benassai, who ran the local dance school. 'I began to dance by myself: while my father and brother spent all day watching the football, I was in a world of my own with my dance videos.' Unconventional childhood? 'I don’t regret at all not having played with dolls – I was doing what I wanted.' It was not long before young Eleonora was blossoming, winning competitions and passing auditions. Choreographer Roland Petit saw the potential in that determined little girl, to become an elite ballerina and, at the age of only fourteen, he took her to the Paris Opera.
The determination of the artist
'When I set myself a target, I achieve it…like love. When I want a man…wham! I go get him!' she exclaims, pouncing like a big cat. Such perseverance seems an essential aspect of succeeding in the world of dance, but has she compromised anything in her journey to get where she is? 'Family, for sure, but you have to make choices in life. We live inside the studio walls, dancing all day, shut off from the outside, the real world.' To relax, she cooks pasta for her Italian friends.
Impeccable French, softly spoken: we are not dealing with your average Sicilian, here. The last 14 years in Paris must surely have left their mark, frenchified her. 'That’s insulting,' she snaps. Numerous magazines and TV stations in her home country have turned her into a sort of Italian figurehead, and she has no problem with being labelled as 'made in Italy.'
Whenever she has a free weekend, Eleonora packs her bags and heads for home. She states that she finds it harder living away from home now than she did when she arrived. 'When I was little I only thought about one thing: putting on my shoes and dancing. I knew I was surrounded by the best and forgot about anything that wasn’t connected to this place. When you get older, you realise what you’re missing.'
What could a prima ballerina in the Paris Ballet possibly lack? 'Nothing, perhaps, except my home, and the sun, and the people, who are nicer.' So why didn’t she try for the Scala di Milano? She was there when she was ten years old and didn’t like it. 'I don’t think the structure works and there aren’t enough resources. They rehearse less and if I left Paris for Milan I know what I’d be losing out on: Paris has the best choreographers and the best facilities, and a big, faithful following that you don’t find elsewhere in Europe.'
Tickets for The Lady of the Camellias (La dama de las camelias), by North American choreographer John Neumeier, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, sold out weeks ago. Eleonora takes the role of the celebrated courtesan Marguerite Gautier in love with the respectable Armand Duval. Light, graceful, Eleonora moves from embrace to embrace, and all eyes are on her. Her technique is as perfect as her balance, as she executes near-impossible pirouettes. It is an astounding demonstration of talent, strength and expression. But the euphoria is short-lived, as Armand’s father forces Marguerite to keep away from his son to protect the family’s honour. Only after the early death of Marguerite does her lover discover her diary in which she reveals her true feelings towards him. As the curtain falls, so does a rain of applause.
A competitive business
'People look at you, want to know everything about you, and sometimes I just want to tell them to get lost. When you’re out there, there’s always someone trying to bring you down. It’s fun when you’re little, but now I’ve had enough of that.' Eleonora dated a fellow dancer from the ballet for six and a half years. 'There was mutual admiration and a kind of competitiveness just under the surface: if he got a part and I didn’t, there was an unhealthy rivalry. When it was over, I decided ‘never again with a dancer’. I can’t live with someone 24 hours a day. I don’t know how other people do it – it’s so sad!'
Eleonora has been fortunate to dance under the best contemporary choreographers: Pina Bausch, Jiri Kilian and her mentor Roland Petit. Amongst these, it’s the German inventor of the ‘Tanztheater’ (dance theatre) style, Pina Bausch, who stands out. Baush uses the background of the dancers, and develops a psychological aspect to the work. During a performance of the ballet The Rite of Spring, Eleonora says her mother couldn’t bear to watch the scenes of violence and had to leave the auditorium. Yet Eleonora has shown a preference for contemporary dance. 'The generation prior to mine danced the same thing from 16 until they were 30. I couldn’t go on doing Swan Lake all my life. What a bore!'
14 years non-stop
The ballerina asserts that although France is the country of protest par excellence the dancers, out of respect for the work, their art and their audience, have never gone on strike. Straightening her back, she declares, as a point of pride: 'I haven’t missed a rehearsal in 14 years of dance school.'
And the future? 'I’d like to make movies, have children and go to Italy more often.' And her advice to a young hopeful dancer? 'Don’t become a dancer!' So she does regret her choice? 'It’s great having a passion for something in life, but I think there are easier ones.' At which point she glances at her watch: 'I’ve got to go: my rehearsal begins in five minutes.'