Cloud & Victory brought San Francisco Ballet principal dancer and former Paris Opera Ballet soloist, Mathilde Froustey, to Singapore in April to teach a series of ballet masterclasses. During her time here, we sat down with her to have a dialogue about her perspectives on ballet, her career and the realities and responsibilities of being a professional ballet dancer.
C&V SESSIONS WITH MATHILDE FROUSTEY
How did you get your started in ballet?
My mother put me in ballet. At first I hated it. I was so bad in the class, and I would not pay attention to anything; never knowing the exercise. And my ballet teacher kicked me out of the class! I spent one hour alone in the dressing room and it was boring, and that was before we had cellphones – so I couldn’t use facebook! It was really boring.
When my mother came to pick me up, she was really upset that I got kicked out of the class. She told me, “I paid for the whole year, so don’t expect me to say ‘Oh it’s okay, you don’t have to go’.” And I thought ‘Really? I have to go for a whole year?’ This was only the first week. So she said yes, if you get kicked out again, you will not be able to get any dessert.
So the week after, I thought that I could maybe try to listen. Then I listened to the teacher and thought ‘Okay…’, and I listened to the music and thought ‘Oh, oh well it’s not pop music but that’s cool.’ And then I tried and thought ‘Oh, it’s not that difficult, I like it!’ Then the teacher said “Good!” ‘What, she said I was good?’. So I started paying attention a little bit more and I started to like it a little by little.
After that, it was really fast for me. I started ballet around 12 years old, which is kind of late in ballet to start. After I started to pay attention to my teacher, my teacher realised I was good, and I realised ‘Oh, I’m not too bad. Maybe… maybe I can dance!’
From there, I did one or two competitions in France and I won them. My teacher told me if I wanted, that could be my job! I thought dancing with music as my job was quite cool! But then I realised after that it was not that easy: ‘oh my God, what did I do!’
My passion for ballet did not spark the way it did for other dancers. Other dancers may tell you that they fell in love with ballet because they saw Swan Lake on TV, but if you asked me if I fell in love with ballet because of Swan Lake, I’ll tell you “ugh”. It was different for me.
Was it ever a conscious decision to become a professional dancer?
It kind of just happened. After I went to a professional ballet school, they told me to try Paris Opera Ballet School, but it was too far away from my friends and too cold. But my mother encouraged me to go. She sent some photos and got me a private audition, and I got in from there. That was how it happened. I didn’t have a thought when I was younger that I wanted to be a professional dancer.
When I came to Paris Opera Ballet, I found out that it was a really difficult school. That was when I asked myself if I wanted to be a professional dancer, and the answer was ‘Yes!’.
But at first I started out going with the flow, and because I was good and had the body type for ballet, so I just tried.
At POB, I was really really hard, and the teacher was really really mean, so I asked myself if I really wanted to do that, because if I didn’t want to, I could just take my bike and run out. If I wanted it, I would stay and work hard. And I wanted to stay.
Why did you want to stay and dance? Like you said, it is a difficult environment and it’s not enjoyable as a kid – it is so strict and stressful.
I think when you are very young, after you do your first show on stage, you feel like the stage is something magical.
Then it becomes like a drug. Although we are young and it is hard and very painful, and the teacher is going to be upset with me, and I will cry sometimes – but I want to go on stage. And if I have to go through all these things at rehearsals – crying, looking in the mirror and thinking about myself failing, or whatever – it is okay, because I am going to go on stage. That is really something: when we are very young, we have an addiction for the stage. That is why we walk this path.
Were your parents very supportive of your journey to become a professional dancer, because I’m sure they saw your struggles as well.
My parents had different attitudes. My mother was really supportive – she never pushed me. But she always told me that if I wanted to stop, it’s fine. You have an amazing job, but it was also a passion. She was always here to carry bags, pay for my private classes, to travel with me to Paris and help me when I got the company.
My father was more like, “She is a kid, she needs to play. Why does she do ballet, this is terrible!”
They were kind of different, but it was good for me also. Whenever I was with my father, it would remind me that I was also a kid and I need to play sometimes even if I thought, ‘I don’t need to play, I need to practice my ballet. I don’t have time to waste in the forest!’ But, it was good to be a little grounded and to stop thinking about my dance shoes.
What was the training and environment like at Paris Opera Ballet School? What was the environment like?
Paris Opera Ballet is a school where you do academic classes in the morning – Mathematics, Literature. In the afternoon, we have ballet. It is all in the same building. Also, there is a boarding school. So we sleep, go to school, go to ballet – all in the same building. It’s is kind of difficult – during the week we don’t go out. In between the bedrooms were the classrooms. The ballet school was a corridor. It was forbidden to open the windows. It was a little bit like a jail – a golden jail.
I remember my mother was always kind of sad whenever she dropped me on Sunday evening, and she would say “Okay then, I will see you next Saturday morning.’ And I wouldn’t go out until the weekend. It is like being in jail, in a way.
It was a great school, but really competitive because we had an exam every year that would determine if we get kicked out or move on to the next level or repeat the same level. It was really hard on kids. My generation’s director a very old-school teacher, and was really strict with us. It was this idea of: ‘to do ballet, you have to be strong’.
We all had to do a test, and only the strongest dancer – mentally – would get into the company. If you were too weak mentally, then they don’t want you in the school. So the teachers thought that if they were really mean, and if you could take it, then it is great. If you cannot take it, then you quit. And that was what happened. Half of my class every year would quit, because it was too hard.
I hated it. All the people left were myself and my friends who made it to the Paris Opera Ballet, and we are really very strong people. So I hate saying this, but there were some good points in it, although it was too much.
Yet, it is true: to be a dancer, you have to be really strong mentally because it is really hard. But that was the old way of doing it.
How did you build your mental resilience then? That is important, not just for school. It is really important as a dancer to have that sort of mental strength, to be able to go on stage and perform, to be able to just go into class everyday even if you don’t want to and rehearsals aren’t going well.
I think that is the teacher’s job, and that is what makes a great coach – to be able to help the kids to build this confidence and mental strength. It is hard because every student is different – some need to be pushed, and some need to be encouraged. It is really hard to deal with different people.
For me, I learnt it the hard way – “You are too fat.” “It is not good” “You don’t work hard enough, get out!”. It was really hard, and I’m not sure that is the best way. But I think a good teacher will help you build this confidence.
I think as a student, you should always talk to you teacher and say “I feel like I’m not improving, and I’m stressed. Can you help me?” and as a teacher, I would like if my students told me that in class. I would be really happy.
I think a teacher would love to help you and know best how to help you. That is really important, to talk to your teachers and be open. If you need help, please let your teachers know. Or else when you were injured and you are in pain, the teachers wouldn’t know anything. Your injuries will get worse, and you would have to stop dancing – which you don’t want. But if you tell your teachers that you are in pain or stressed, your teachers will be really happy to help you. This is something really important: to communicate with your teachers. I wish I knew that.
You mentioned about being called “fat”. That is a big pressure in the ballet world because so much emphasis on aesthetics, you and I know that there are dancers who still struggle with that. You can have a teacher or an artistic director tell you “Oh, you are too fat! You need to lose weight!” even though you are very slim.
For you, how do you deal with that? I’m sure you had to find your way through this as well.
It is a really hard thing, as a ballerina, you have to be thin but also have to jump high. You don’t want to be tired in rehearsal, you want to be able to do your solo repeatedly, so if you don’t eat enough, you will be tired – your muscles, they need food. So it is really hard and every dancer has a different way to deal with that. This is something that all dancers struggle with.
As a woman, you want a certain type of body to be beautiful and seductive. But as a dancer, you want another type of body – you want to stay slim, have no chest. But then your boyfriend comes and says, “I think you look nicer with more chest.” and you are like, “ugh”. It is really hard.
I love food so I want to eat. But the next day I’ll have to wear this white tutu on stage, and I know I’m not going to be happy. It is a bit of a taboo in ballet, and no one really talks about how difficult it is to deal with food, food disorders, prevention, and how to lose weight.
I don’t have a lot of advice on it. You have to find your way. But my only advice would be the same thing – ask for help. Don’t be ashamed to go to your ballet teacher and say “You asked me to lose weight, and I don’t know what to do. I feel lost with that. Do you maybe know a nutritionist or a doctor?” Ask a doctor, because they are there to help. You don’t have to worry about it. It is never a shame to ask for help. And again, I wish I knew that.
People some times talk about the fact that the ballet world is changing a bit now and there is more room for diversity of body types. But at the same time, there are still some companies that prefer certain kinds of bodies. For example, in Paris Opera Ballet the dancers are really very slim.
But just because you have a certain body type doesn’t mean that you are not talented and it doesn’t mean you can’t dance professionally – but you maybe you can’t dance in a certain company because they are looking for a kind of dancer which you may not be.
Yes, there are companies like Paris Opera Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, and even New York City Ballet – at New York City Ballet they like short dancers with more muscles. Paris Opera Ballet usually like dancers who are around my size and slim, while Mariinsky Ballet like dancers that are tall and slim. So yes, those companies want a certain body type. You usually have to have those ballet types for them.
But, also what I learnt from travelling and meeting other dancers is that for sure, there is an ideal body type. But there are so many dancers with different body types who do not meet that ideal and still became amazing dancers.
Monique Loudières, she was one of the most beautiful principal dancers in Paris Opera Ballet. She danced with all the stars in the world, she is the French favorite. She was short, had big muscles, short arms. I saw her when I first joined Paris Opera Ballet, about 16 years old, I saw her doing class and I thought “who is this girl?” but when I saw her move, I was stunned.
Yeah, there are body types. But more and more, I learnt that you can be an amazing dancer, because dancing is about movement, it is not fashion. We are not doing fashion, not posing, not looking pretty. You move. If you move well, your body will look amazing. Somebody with short legs, but moves like a cat will look great compared to somebody with long legs and skinny, but is falling everywhere and has no coordination. For me, I don’t care about this skinny girl. I just want that short-leg-and-short-arms girl who moves like a cat and jumps high, and loves dancing.
I wasn’t even sure about this when I joined Paris Opera Ballet and I thought you had to be slim and then I saw these dancers all over the world. Natalia Osipova, I know her really well, she is a good friend of mine. She does not have the perfect body. She has muscles, she does not have the best feet. But seriously, you’ve seen her videos, right? Who can say she is not one of the best dancers? She is one of the best dancers in the world. She has feet like that – but when she dances, she jumps so high you don’t even see her feet. She doesn’t touch the floor so you don’t have time to see her feet.
And I think that it also your job as a dancer – to compensate. Even Zakharova: do you know what is her problem? She is so flexible, it is hard for to do her pirouettes. So she works really hard on her pirouettes and she made it happen.
So as a student, that is your job – to compensate and make me forget about your shortcomings. Have some little tricks to cover up the little flaws. Look at the mirror, at yourself, and see what are some things you want to change about your body. Then adjust yourself to look better and find ways to present your body in a way that complements you. Just do it alone tonight for an hour, there will be a lot of things you can do – you will see.
As a young dancer, you want to impress a director at a competition or audition. But at the same time, dance cannot just be about tricks because tricks are empty on stage. How can young dancers find that balance between having good technique and having something that is a bit impressive technically, and also impressive artistically? How can it find it and develop it from there?
I think it is hard, yes. You have to work really hard on your technique everyday, there is no secret. You take classes everyday like you brush your teeth – it is the same.
But it is harder to work hard on your artistry. It is not as easy as working on your pirouettes. But for me, what works is to always work with joy – find the joy in it. Be really focused and really serious – you work to go on stage. You don’t just work to impress in the ballet studio. You work on the solo in the studio to do one more pirouette, because you will be on stage in front of the audience and that makes you happy. It is just a different way of thinking when you work. Keep this joy inside.
Like most dancers, you started in the corps. Most people who dance dream of becoming a principal dancer, but the reality is that only a handful of people can be principals; many professional dancers will be in the corps. It can be difficult to accept that when you’ve dreamt of dancing Swan Lake but at the same time, the corps is vital. It is the backbone of any ballet.
I used to dance principal roles overseas, and when I came back home to Paris Opera Ballet, I would be the last swan at the back behind the curtain, and you couldn’t see me. It was hard because when you do ballet, you want to do the solo and you don’t want to be in the back in the same position, feeling your blood stop flowing to your arms like you are paralysed.
But, I also learnt a lot. And I see dancers that did not have to go through the corps and got promoted really fast in the companies, and I feel like those dancers always miss something. Being in the corps is the place where you will learn a lot as a dancer, like humility. It brings a lot of frustration when you are the last swan in the corner when all you want to be is to be in the middle doing the solo, and that is the only thing you can think about during the show. My parents came to watch Swan Lake when I was in Paris Opera Ballet and they couldn’t even recognize me the whole show. There was no way they could have recognised me! I really wanted to be a dancer, but even my parents couldn’t recognize me on stage. I think that was good because all those years, you train yourself mentally to be strong. At the end of the day, when you get to do the solo, that is the best feeling. Last year when I did Swan Lake, it was really special. For 15 years I was the swan in the back, and now I was the swan in the middle.
I think when you join a ballet company, you have to get through the corps, and you are going to get through the corps. That is when it is hard, and you be filled with self-doubt. Getting out of the corps will be one of the best moments in your career. But even if staying in the corps is your career, it is fine too. It is beautiful. You can try to get invitations as a guest to perform, or if you have the chance to do some solos or little parts in a ballet, it will be amazing.
I think it is natural to get a little discouraged you are in the corps and see other dancers moving up. But if you are in the corps of a professional dance company, you are probably one of the top 5%, or even 1% of ballet dancers the world. That is something to keep into perspective. Even if you are in the corps, you are in an important part of the ballet, the foundation of the ballet that allows the principals to shine.
I know when I was in the corps of the Paris Opera Ballet, sometimes I would get discouraged too. But when I went back to my old ballet school, my teacher would still be so proud of me and that reminded me that I made it.
Also, I know both sides to being a principal dancer and being in the corps. So I know how important the corps is to the principal dancer. Without them, as the principal, I’m not doing Kitri. I remember when I was in the corps and being in certain shows of a ballet I was so bored, and I dreaded being one of the villagers in Don Q. I remember pushing myself every show, and telling myself “I need to be there for the principal, because if I’m not energetic, the principal would not be as good as she could be. That would make the show less good.”
Now that I am a principal dancer, I know. Once I was rehearsing Don Q. I was Kitri. It was late and everyone was tired. The corps was around me, but not in the right frame of mind. So I stopped the rehearsal told them “Listen guys, I know you are tired but I need you. If you are not with me, I cannot dance. So I would rather stop. But if you could just help me a little, not dancing but just acting and looking at me, that would be amazing.” I was scared they would take it badly, but they were really happy that I stopped the rehearsal and talked to them. It showed them that I thought and cared for them, and so they considered me. Without the corps, the principal can’t dance. There is no way.
On the flip side of that, being the principal dancer allows you to take up that leadership role and there is that pressure for you to be the face of the company as well.
Yeah, that is true. Because the corps works very hard, they only accept perfection from the principal dancer and nothing else. That is a little bit of pressure some times. But that is still great because you feel like the audience came to the ballet to see you.
For example, if I am in a good mood and I’m Kitri in Don Quixote, I set the mood for the whole evening. The corps would react to me, and vice versa. On the contrary, if I’m a little off and tired today, then the whole show is going to be really long. As the principal, it is like hosting a dinner. If you are in a good mood and welcome the people with open arms into the house, the whole dinner will be great.
When you left Paris Opera Ballet, it was a very high profile move. The last time a high profile dancer left Paris Opera Ballet, it was Sylvie Guillem. There must have been a lot of pressure.
When I left POB, it was like a scandal because no one ever leaves POB. People would tell me that I can’t do that, and that I was making a mistake. But I still did it.
People were really happy for me, I think. Because I spent 15 years in the corps, and I was in the Paris Opera system since I was 12. People knew who I was, and they knew that I was being treated unfairly. The people in Paris Opera Ballet were really happy for me, and they told me to be happy wherever I go. The audience also responded very warmly.
When I arrived in San Francisco Ballet, it was like I took a plane, landed, and I was a principal dancer. But I didn’t know how to speak English at all. I only spoke French. I had to learn a new language, and I had to learn how to be a principal. It was a little challenging. And because I came from POB, everyone had Sylvie Guillem in mind. They were expecting me to be slim with beautiful feet, and really flexible with very good technique – the POB image. But I arrived, and I was just me with 2 pirouettes.
I didn’t speak English, but I had to learn all their ballets in English. They would tell me to go the right, and I would always go to the left. They thought I was dumb. It would take me a whole day to learn a 5 minute solo because they gave me notes and corrections in English. And I could see in people’s eyes that they didn’t believe in me.
I think I was really courageous and I continued to work hard. I told myself that they would see for themselves – when I got on stage everything would get better. It did get better. I told myself that I would prove to them that I deserved to be here and it is going to take time. But I’ll be a good principal. I stuck myself to the barre and thought, “they are going to see when I start to speak English. One day, I will speak English!”
I think for us, we both share the same passion of empowering female and being strong, confident, independent females. I think it is very important, especially in today’s society. In the context of a ballet career, what advice could you give to young girls for building their self confidence not just as dancers, but also as women?
That’s a good question. I think that unfortunately, as a student, you don’t really think about it and just work very hard. One day you wake up, you are 30 years old in the company and you realize that you have always been told by men what you should look like on stage. It is hard to wake up at 30 years old and realize that you are in a company where men have controlled you all these while.
A good way to keep your own voice is to find yourself a team to support you – a good coach, 3 to 4 good friends, and a good medical team. They will form your little cocoon – stick with them. That is how you are going to keep your voice without compromising yourself. You will avoid corps politics, company politics. Just keep these people you can trust close to you.
It is hard being on stage where you are alone and it is scary. It is even harder if you have friends that aren’t dancers that want to go and party. But your close friends will understand that you have a show tomorrow and why you can’t go out for a party. They will respect that, and help you with it.
That is my way of keeping my own voice and my integrity. Find yourself a good coach, find yourself good friends, and find yourself a good doctor. Oh, and find yourself a good boyfriend, haha!
What was the environment like in San Francisco Ballet as compared to Paris Opera Ballet?
For Paris Opera Ballet, the only way to get in is through their school. So most of us have known each other since we were 8. From 8 years old to 42 years old, everyone would do everything together, so we are like a family. Just like how you would argue and hate your brothers at home, it was the same in POB. But eventually, we would all make peace and our relationships would get better.
In SFB, we are more like friends, because people come and go. Whether or not you trained at the San Francisco Ballet School, it doesn’t matter. Everyone comes from different countries, different training backgrounds, and we come together for work. We become friends because of our work.
The French and Americans have different working styles. In POB, if I was good at pirouettes but bad at jumps, I would only do the jumps and I would be cast in roles with a lot of jumps. They did that so that I can improve on my jumps. It is good, but it doesn’t make me very happy because it always feels like a lot of work. But at the end, I will improve my jumps. That is the French way to work. They analyse your weakness, and they make you improve on it for you to become a better dancer as a whole. In America, they look at what I am good at, pirouettes, and make me do roles with lots of pirouettes. That makes me even better at pirouettes, but a little bit weaker at others.
It is just a different way to see the work. That helped me because after 15 years in POB, I was very sad and doubted myself. When I came to SFB, they reaffirmed my strengths. It was very positive and they build on what you are already good at. I was told that I was hired to dance at SFB because the director liked my dancing. He told me not to change myself, but just to improve. That was the complete opposite of what I have been taught in POB, which was to keep changing myself.
Now, I mix both of these ideas and I firmly believe to work on the my art form and improve it, never be complacent.
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