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Enjoying the Intellectual Approach

An interview with San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Muriel Maffre

by Mary Ellen Hunt

September, 2004-- San Francisco, CA

Whether bringing the grace of the Lilac Fairy to "The Sleeping Beauty" or the abstract power of Choleric to "The Four Temperaments," San Francisco Ballet's Muriel Maffre is every inch a ballerina.

It's an overused word, employed to describe everyone from six-year old girls in pink ruffled leotards to Anna Pavlova, but aficionados know that very few dancers are true ballerinas. You know when a ballerina steps onstage: your eye goes immediately to her and it stays there because you don't want to miss a move. And an hour or so of speaking with Maffre on a sunny afternoon in late August in between her rehearsals reveals how much of becoming a ballerina is not just body-work, but brain-work.

Maffre's schedule is just a little crazy that week. In the midst of preparing with the company for tours to Athens and London, she is entertaining her father who has come into town for a visit, and also doing a little real estate hunting – oh, and she and former SFB principal dancer Benjamin Pierce also have a week to choreograph Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

"We work in the studio for 3-4 hours, and go and go and go. Some parts are really great. The more complex stuff is really hard for me," she says, sinking into a chair with a cup of tea in her hand. "We are at the point now where we try to remember the choreography. Maybe we will reach the point where it will be just about practicing."

Maffre explains that the "Rite" is to be performed at the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival in Washington, to a four-hand piano score. She and Pierce are a little worried because it will be the musicians and just the two of them dancing, so the pressure is on. But though she laughs about the flurry of creative energy it's taking to get the piece done, there's not a hint of panic at wrestling with one of the dance world's most notoriously difficult scores. It will be done and everything will be fine. And indeed, their performance -- a multimedia effort – was warmly praised at the festival.

The unflappable Maffre was born in a small spa town called Enghien-les-Bains about 10 km north of Paris, but grew up in mainly in another town west of the city. Her mother, who studied dance also, took Muriel and her sister with her to ballet class in an old grammar school with a wood stove, and by the time she was four, Maffre was doing her first performances-- on the tennis courts. Eventually Maffre auditioned at the Paris Opera, and when she was accepted, she joined the other young "rats" creeping about the upper floors of the neo-Baroque Palais Garnier.

"Now the school has moved outside of Paris," she notes, "but when I was at the school, it was still in the old opera house. When we were back [during SFB's tour to Paris] I ventured where the school used to be and it feels like a ghost town, because they haven't redone it. Some dancers from the company are using the studios there for their own personal work, but it hasn't been remodeled."

Like many other former students of the school, Maffre has some difficult memories from her five years at the Paris Opera Ballet School, and although she is frank, she chooses her words carefully when asked if she enjoyed being there.

"It was very hard. I did not really fit in there," she says slowly, "because I was raised by my parents to be very independent-minded --to resist being shaped or fitting into a mold.

"After three years in the school I started growing fast," she remembers, "In one year I had reached my height and lost a lot of strength, and I couldn't keep up with the girls of my class. I remember, the conversation that my parents had with my teacher from Paris Opera who was trying to discourage me from dance. He said to my parents, 'Muriel is a beautiful plant, but she can't dance.' When you are 14 or 15, that's..." she pauses, searching for a word, "I don't know. It was pretty horrible."

Maffre was independent-minded enough that she didn't think of quitting. She says of the experience now, that the training was strong, if inflexible.

"You learn the discipline -- to train hard, at such an early age builds momentum and resistance. But it's harsh, it's harsh," she concedes. "Now, when I look back, I realize that because the selection is so strict, usually the kids that enter the Paris Opera are pretty much are of a certain body type, and so the training there is pretty generic. For me, the last two years that I was there, suddenly I was not generic. I think that I needed more things, I needed more time, I needed things explained to me a little differently."

"I knew that it was just a matter of figuring it out for myself. I felt the connection with dance," she continues matter-of-factly. "I left the school and went to the Conservatory for Advanced Study which is a national arts school in Paris, for music and drama and dance.

"I was there for two years and that was enough time for me to just figure it out and to build strength, to get used to my new body. I graduated from that school with a first prize and I went immediately to Hamburg Ballet -- they gave me an apprenticeship there."

As she entered the professional life, Maffre would meet the teachers who shaped her not just her technique, but also her thinking on how to dance. Teachers like Truman Finney, Alonzo King, Franchetti in Paris, all contributed a little something to her technique.

"With Truman it was technique, coordination, the strength of the standing leg. Franchetti, it was the turns, the coordination of the arms. Giselle Roberge it was the turn en dedans, the relationship between the shoulder and the hip. When Alonzo came in, he brought that holistic understanding. Opening doors in all directions, making sense of all. It was an incredible experience and it helped find maturity in my dancing."

After dancing with Hamburg, Maffre joined Ballet Monte-Carlo for a few years, but found herself wanting to grow artistically. A visit to Paris by the San Francisco Ballet offered her the opportunity to take class with the company and she soon found herself on a plane bound for California.

It was a new opportunity for Maffre and she knew she had to seize those kinds of chances when they presented themselves.

"I had learned through all those the years that when you are a ballerina or a dancer of 5' 10" the opportunities are not too much," she says wryly, "and you have to just learn to have a great appreciation for whatever opportunity there is and look for a place where you could fit.

It will come as no surprise to her fans that Maffre does meticulous research when she prepares for many of her roles, looking at images and reading literature extensively.

"I always like to come back to roles, and as I continue every year, I'm coming back more and more," she laughs, "And that has been really, really enjoyable actually. But I fall in love with everything I am given to dance. It's like being a scientist. I mean you are given material, and you are not really there to judge, you are there to discover and find."

For her performance as Medea in Yuri Possokhov's "Damned," she read the Euripides play, searching out details to incorporate into the choreography.

"It's a lot of fantasizing," she admits, "In play they talk about Medea's eyes burning like balls and I think, 'now where can I put that in?'

"Sometimes I wish I was not like that, I wish I could just let it happen, but I think with my personality, my dancing just evolved to be like that. I have a very introspective temperament, so it was all about intellect and thinking.And the fact that I had some challenges with my technique and my dancing -- because I was tall -- meant a lot of thinking went into it," she says, "later when I dealt with some metatarsal problems, with some foot problems, or when I was healing from injuries, I would approach choreography thinking, how can I do these without hurting my foot, and how can I solve things? Like with back problems, it's the same-- approaching it in a very intellectual way. My back is not as flexible, so how can I make it work? In the end, it becomes a habit to just think about everything, every step."

Preparation has been different for her various roles. Maffre notes that she was inspired by the film of Pavlova, to create her own interpretation of the "Dying Swan," which became a part of Alexei Ratmansky's "Carnival of the Animals." For George Balanchine's "Bugaku" she read Ruth Benedict's "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," an exhaustive 1944 account of Japanese culture, "to understand that male female relationship and the view of marriage and the view of sex in Japanese society."

"It's not necessary to dance 'Bugaku,'" she adds quickly, "but for me, it is. If I have material like that, then suddenly my imagination goes and I start to be able to create something. All the subtlety of demeanor in 'Bugaku,' you can relate it to a concept, things that are real, that are really happening in society. Little by little, you find the right tone, the right meaning.

"Something that I have realized more and more, is that you can think really hard about something," she continues, unfurling herself from a typically coiled dancer position in an office chair, "and you think that because you think about it, your body relates it. But, no. There's some things you can think about as hard as you can, but if it's not rendered mindfully, physically, it's not going to come across to people that are watching. So anything that you think -- like in Medea -- any idea, or any feeling or any emotion or something that crosses Medea's mind, has to be translated somehow physically, because otherwise you won't see it."

This attention to the way her performances read onstage is part of the key to Maffre's effectiveness. A few seasons ago, when SFB revived "The Sleeping Beauty," Maffre, as usual, danced the role of the Lilac Fairy, a part seemingly made for her. However, she also performed in the role of Carabosse, the evil fairy. Usually undertaken by one of the character dancers, it was a part which she played with relish.

"I thought I could explore so much," Maffre's expression changes and she begins moving her arms, creating hints of the character almost instantaneously, "with my hands -- my mouth is so big, and the eyes-- just the whole thing. It is a character part, so any choice she's going to make, or anything that goes on in her mind has to be translated in some way. So many things, like, you have the shoulders, everything happening around the stomach, and just the timing of the hands." Maffre wraps her arms akimbo to demonstrate, and does a slow, dangerous-looking drum of the fingers against her shoulders. Then suddenly, she becomes Muriel again.

"There's a part of me that has a tendency to go into extremes.," she laugh, "Personally I am very intense and I tend to go to extremes, and that was just a great outlet for me to let some of that out."

Other outlets for Maffre come outside of the ballet world. She loves theater and on the company's London tour, any free moments are likely to be filled with plays and museums. Her love of visual art led her to study art history while finishing her degree at the LEAP Program at St. Mary's College, from which she graduated last August.

In fact, when asked what she sees in her future, long-term, she replies, "Probably something that is related to the arts. For a long time I have the idea of a curator-ship, because I love visual arts in general, and drawing meaning from art and relating it to our culture. I will probably continue, just for other museum studies, or art history. But I don't really have plans to necessarily stay in the ballet or the dance world. I think for myself, my general well-being, I want to step out a little bit and do other things, probably more connected to the world. I don't know, we'll see what will come."

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin.

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