A forthcoming segment on the Paris Opera Ballet brought to mind one of France’s most enduring traditions: the Opera Ballet Dance School, which has taught generations of dancers since its creation in 1713 by Louis XIV (who also founded the still-existing rep theater company Comédie-Française in 1680). The oldest such institution in the Western world, the school is defined as much by the dancers it’s groomed as by its rites and traditions. Of course this makes it endlessly fascinating, especially for those of us not versed in the arcane world of ballet—think of the school as Hogwarts, minus the flying brooms.For a long time, the dance school actually was in Paris’ neo-baroque Palais Garnier, a sweeping building which of course lent the proceedings an extra layer of drama. (Don’t forget this is where the Phantom of the Opera wreaks his havoc.)
The 1966 TV series L’Âge Heureux took place there, introducing the “petits rats,” as the students are called, to an audience wider than just bunheads. In the show, Delphine is an aspiring ballerina who, one night, ventures on the roof of the Palais Garnier—a highly forbidden endeavor—with classmates. One of them falls and breaks her leg, and all hell breaks loose. What’s fascinating is the show’s unveiling of the rivalries between the little girls (my kingdom for Coppelia!).
In 1987, the school relocated to the Parisian suburb of Nanterre, where the boys and girls live and study over the course of five or six years, spread over as six “divisions”; to help them, they have a “petite mère” or “petit père” (an older student or dancer) who acts as confident and helps them navigate the curriculum and whatever personal problems may arise. This excerpt from the documentary Les Tout Petits Rats de l’Opéra gives an idea of the daily life in Nanterre now. Some of the kids take to it right away, others have a more difficult time (poor teary Hippolyte: is he going to make it?); all of them work damn hard. The year-end show is a big deal for all, as you can see from this segment about the 2007 edition on the French news.
And consider that the younger children are eight and live in a boarding-school environment, away from their parents…nobody ever said it was easy to be a ballet dancer. The intensive training makes that of many athletes look almost benign—which of course is an irony not lost on dancers everywhere, who are well aware that their job/passion is often mocked by the general public when the feats of athleticism they so casually toss out should be admired by all.