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San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Muriel Maffre

A First Among Equals

by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

March 11, 2006 -- San Francisco

We caught up with the elegant Muriel Maffre backstage at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, following an evening performance by the San Francisco Ballet of their All-Robbins Program 4. Here is a summary of our conversation about her career in ballet.

Please tell us about your beginnings in ballet. How old were you and where did you take your first classes?

I’m from a small village west of Paris. My mother was an amateur dancer and she would take both my sister and me to her ballet classes. They were held in an old school, which was turned into a makeshift ballet studio. I was four years old at the time. There was no theatre in the village and our recitals were held in an outdoor tennis court! [Laughs.] I entered the Paris Opera Ballet School when I was nine.

Claude Bessy was still the director then?

Yes. She was a very authoritative presence in the school, which she turned into a famous institution.

Tell us what it was like to be at POB?

I attended the school when it was still at the Opéra Garnier. All classes were held in the ballet studios on the sixth floor just under the roofs. The place was very soulful and my time in the school was an incredible, although difficult, experience. Unlike now, when all students are boarders, I was able to commute from home. Discipline was very strict, as were the teachers. I studied there with Claire Motte – who had a strong personality and a ballerina aura -- Jacqueline Moreau, and Christiane Vaussard. I grew suddenly at age 14, lost a lot of strength, and was tossed from POB School at 16. It was a difficult moment for me. I went to Conservatoire National de Paris to pursue my studies, and I graduated two years later with a First Prize with honors. I concurrently auditioned for John Neumeier who offered me to join his company as an apprentice in Hamburg. I was fortunate to have the great teacher, Truman Finney as one of my mentors there. I stayed in Hamburg for one year and, following a year of freelancing, I went to Monte Carlo as a soloist in 1985.  During that year lapse, in between, I entered the Paris International Ballet Competition, where I won the Gold Medal, and also the Moscow Competition,where I was the only woman finalist.

Pierre Lacotte is famous for his reconstructions of historic and famous ballets. What was it like to work with him at Monte Carlo Ballet?

Lacotte has an incredible knowledge of ballet, particularly the Romantic Era. He also likes contemporary work, and commissioned young choreographers to create works for the company. It was a very exciting and nourishing time for me. Lacotte pushed me and quickly promoted me through the ranks.

What’s the story of your joining San Francisco Ballet?

In 1989, San Francisco Ballet was on tour to Paris. I knew Jean-Charles Gil, who was dancing in the company at the time. The idea of joining the company was very attractive because it was offering me many things I did not have at MCB, including a large Opera House to perform in. It was also a new outlook, a new environment for me to be challenged and grow. I flew from Monte Carlo to Paris to take class with the company and meet with Helgi. I was very impressed by his whole demeanor. He had plans to come to Monte Carlo a few days later. I invited him to attend our performances. Unfortunately, for some reason, MCB cancelled the performances. I was very disappointed, of course, because that was Helgi's chance to see me perform. Also, I had no way of contacting him in Monte Carlo. In the end, one morning, I saw Helgi and Marlene in the street from the bus I was riding to class. I jumped off the bus and ran after them. We ended up that evening in my living room watching archive videos of some of my performances.

How would you describe yourself as an artist? And do you have a preference for the types of ballets for which you are cast? Classics, contemporary...

I felt passionate about ballet from an early age, and even though I had to leave POB School, I persisted and knew that I’d be able to find my path somehow, somewhere.

As a young dancer, I had a sense of artistry that was very instinctive. Later it developed to be a work of reason, of intellect and wisdom, although, I do still rely on instinct. I have a very private relationship to dance, and choreography. It is a very personal story about coming of age, maturing, accepting and letting go. I have been blessed by the diversity of roles I have been given over the years. I had made that contract with myself early on that, because of my height and morphology and the limitation that would put on my repertory, I would embrace all roles, primary or secondary, with the same level of interest and eagerness.

Who are some of the memorable choreographers you’ve gotten to work with at SFB and do you have a story or two you could share with us? For example, what’s the creative process like when you work with Mr. Tomasson or someone like Mark Morris?

Each choreographer brings their distinct personality and method of work in the rehearsal room. It is always a challenging process, a work of patience during which the dancer has to melt into a new form. Working with Mark Morris had a strong influence on me as far as discovering an approach to dance that is not just emotional or egotistical. A way of dancing that was about human beings moving in space with breath, intelligence, nuances etc. Mark has a very eccentric public persona and a unique sense of humor. He is fast and unforgiving. He often uses images to explain what he sees, what he wants or does not want. Those are often incredibly funny, and always superlatively imaginative. He is a very keen and articulate teacher, and a very inspired and inspiring creator.

You did a project on an island in Washington State last summer, as a part of the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival. Do you have an interest in creating dances or teaching or coaching?

My life partner Benjamin Pierce and I staged a multi-media version of the reduction for one piano and four hands of Stravinsky’s “The Rite Of Spring.” It was a very unusual and rewarding project, which involved choreography, stage direction, recorded and live feed video. I enjoyed creating in that manner because of the complexity of the format. It was very architectural. The production was received very favorably, and we were invited back this summer to create a production of Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale.”

Most of our readers are dance people and fans, and I know the women would like to know what kind of pointe shoes you wear.

I wear Freed, 2.5 insole, deep vamp, V-cut and my maker is “Q.”

Tell us about the Ballet Mori project with San Francisco Ballet?

Last year, I met Ken Goldberg, a professor in electrical engineering at UC Berkeley and artist, at a dinner. Our conversation centered around Land Art, and soon concentrated on Ken’s latest work, an internet based land art called MORI, which is an installation that aimed at creating from seismic data the sound of the earth when it moves. It was not long until Ken asked me if I would consider dancing to this soundscape. I was very intrigued and certainly up to experiment with the idea. Later, we approached Helgi Tomasson with the thought of producing a solo to the earth soundscape created from live seismic data that would be performed in the Opera House in conjunction with the Centennial Commemoration of the Great Earhtquake. It was certainly a leap of faith for Helgi, but he completely supported our project, and agreed to present Ballet Mori as part of SFB season.

What advice might you have for young, aspiring dancers?

Never be ashamed of working too hard. Be patient. Be patient and diligent. Dance with breadth. Abandon yourself in your movement. Find the motivation behind each step. More than anything else, a ballet dancer is an artisan. Find the humility, beauty and reward that is in it.

What are your interests or hobbies outside of ballet?

I am very interested in Arts and curatorial practice. I love cooking, gardening, reading and researching projects, writing, watching independent cinema, attending plays, hiking, being with friends.

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