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Patrick Dupond: finding his way home in dance.

Early in Jean-Claude Gallotta's ninety-minute Variations d'Ulysse, commissioned for Paris Opera Ballet's 1995 fall season, Patrick Dupond bursts onto the stage like a wild thing just freed. He is dashing, spinning, soaring, then pacing the stage while panting. The essence of such graceful frenzy represents some quest. Each kinetic kick or thrust conveys in dance terms the complex nature of that ancient and yet ever-modern pilgrim, Ulysses (a perennial theme of this contemporary French choreographer).

For Gallotta, whose own company is based in the culturally advanced city of Grenoble in southeastern France, the myriad myths of Ulysses have served as an inspiration for the evolution of his creative style, beginning with the initial Ulysse in 1981. Then as now, Gallotta embraced both traditional and modern forms of movement. This melange of styles suits the eclectic, if fundamentally classical, training of the versatile Paris Opera dancers. Unlike the company's other ballets, however, Variations has entered the repertoire with a casting restriction: Gallotta has decreed that only Patrick Dupond will perform the role of Ulysses.

The thirty-seven-year-old Dupond ably fulfills the technical demands of this acrobatic part. Ironically, his unique background--an episodic career that has led him to foreign shores, wrestling with and weighing opportunity's temptations--made Dupond a natural for incarnating an inquisitive, restless, yet deeply sentimental soul [see Reviews, February, page 134].

"I reworked the choreography to suit the technique and personality of the dancers," noted Gallotta, "and I imagined a special drama--a love triangle--for Dupond and two female partners." Gallotta wanted his Variations to address universal aspects of his chosen theme. "Dupond could evoke the men both in Homer's epic poem and in James Joyce's novel: Ulysses (known as Odysseus to the Greeks), Bloom, Telemachus, Dedalus, Poldy, Henry Fleury, and sometimes Zeus or Poseidon--friends and enemies together in the same actor." The women, in this case the piquant Carole Arbo and appropriately ethereal Marie-Claude Pietragalla, could be Penelope, Athena, Circe, or Molly, the conciliatory muse to Joyce's humble hero, Leopold Bloom.

Few could do full justice to the charged blueprint for this Ulysses, but both Gallotta and the Opera Ballet's bureaucracy recognized that Dupond was the ideal choice for a character possessed of the need to act as well as move. "Dance is the art of remembering," says Dupond a few days into rehearsals of Variations. He was in the studios of the labyrinthine nineteenth-century Palais Garnier, the hallowed headquarters of the 324-year-old Opera National de Paris in the heart of the French capital; it's the one place he modestly calls home. "At the same time," he continues, "dance is a living art, which relates to the audience via emotion. The stronger the emotion revealed, the stronger the bond with the public."

Indeed, most big-league dancers draw their energy from the (preferably adulatory) public, but for the gregarious Dupond, whose urge to command a stage was ignited when Roland Petit granted him his first, three-minute solo in Nana two decades ago, such interaction is imperative. It is doubtless part of what has made him a veritable star, aided and abetted by a spectacular natural technique. When Dupond performs, both dancer and audience seem to share a reciprocal need for recognition.

Despite his sharp, classical features and mature physique honed by a lifetime of dance, Dupond nevertheless betrays--even in repose--the mischievous energy of youth. His curly hair, purposely grown out for Ulysses, springs out in unruly directions, intermittently commandeered by an automatic gesture into a ponytail, only to spring forth again, unhindered, upon release.

At the moment he has a cold, owing to the fall weather change, but other than some sniffles he insists he is en forme. (Perfectly bilingual, Dupond provides his own translation: "tip-top shape.") He thus talks uninterruptedly, smokes somewhat less, and sips espresso to lubricate his account of his decades in dance, as if it all had happened yesterday: "Interpreting emotions requires a degree of acting. That is where I see the challenge now, and the logical next step in my career may be movies." (Of several small screen parts to date, the down-and-out dancer in Gilles Behat's 1990 Dancing Machine most nurtured Dupond's acting potential.)

As for dance, Variations offered an ideal compromise, says the dancer: "It provided me with many different roles in one. It was a way of showing that my character is searching. Just as the women incarnate many `personages,' they are also Everywoman. I like this ballet very much: it is both old and new, but always true."

The same might be said of Dupond himself at this critical stage of his profession, where he has realized the fruits of his furious ascent, assumed several (albeit abortive) alternate careers, seen the world, sat for cover stories, and seems now to be casting about for a place to fit in. If ever there was a modern Ulysses, it is this exuberantly talented, terribly human dancer who looks eagerly to the next horizon, refusing the facile bitterness of looking back.

"It is thanks to dance," he says, with humility. "I did not grow up in an artistic milieu; my mother worked in a bank and my stepfather--I barely knew my real father--was in manufacturing," he says of his Paris youth, untroubled but for a surplus energy his mother was at pains to channel. "In the street I earned the nickname `Poulbot,' which means `little nothing,' essentially `troublemaker.' I had so much energy, I hardly slept!"

His mother signed him up for soccer at age seven. "I was bored. I tried judo. I fell asleep on the tatami," he recalls. "Then one Sunday, coming out of judo class, I heard the music of Chopin. There was always music in our house--everything from Edith Piaf, Mozart, Bach, to Mahler and Cab Calloway. I recognized Arthur Rubinstein's playing, from one of our records. When I opened the door to where the music was coming from I saw five, six young girls in a class. I just stood there, fascinated, by the music, the movement, the concentration of these pupils. My mother explained to me that it was dance class. I asked her if one could make one's living at it. She answered, `On one condition: if you are the best.' "

Far from being daunted by such words, the young Dupond finally felt challenged; he had found an outlet for his renegade energy, a way to excel without being truant, an art that connected him to the music that was, by now, in his blood. "If it's as difficult as all that," he recalls thinking, "I want to do it. My life changed overnight; I chose this profession out of passion. I knew at the age of eight it would be my life."

Dupond's progress in Sunday classes, where he was the only boy, afforded a sense of calm, along with a sense of purpose, for now he would fall asleep at night from relief or exhaustion--or both. At year's end, his teacher suggested he find someone to help him realize his true potential. Soon after, he met his lifelong friend and mentor, Max Bozzoni.

The French like to say that there is no such thing as chance. Dupond, whose superstition dictates that he carry personal good luck charms, puts it another way: "Everything has a reason." Both aphorisms apply to the spontaneous course of events, beginning with a conversation at the local dry cleaners that united him with Bozzoni. "Physically, I may not have been exactly made for dance," says Dupond, enumerating such basic attributes as turnout and suppleness that professionals eye in a young dancer. Bozzoni, however, saw the budding star. "While working [me] very hard, Max focused on my positive aspects, such as personality and energy ... He not only taught me how to dance; he taught me how to live."

Under Bozzoni's tutelage, Dupond duly impressed the judges at the 1976 competition in Varna, where he won the prestigious gold medal, as had such notable predecessors as Vladimir Vasiliev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. "I entered not knowing whether I would win. But I did not enter to lose," recalls Dupond, offering a glimpse of a philosophy honed at the event. (Back home, his triumph made the one o'clock news.) "I came to the conclusion then that if you want something badly enough, and work hard at it, there is a great chance you will obtain it. Somewhere I saw myself winning at Varna. Reality bore out my vision.

"For my mother," he adds in a voice soft with affection, "my victory was a certainty all along."

Dupond had by then been enrolled in the Paris Opera Ballet school for a year. The rigorous selection process for applicants to the school, an institution founded under French kings, is intensified with successive levels, and attrition is purposely high. Dupond mastered the requisite technique, but he initially lacked discipline; the Opera valued both. "I always wanted to show what I was capable of," he says, citing the entry exam, where he performed more pirouettes than necessary. When such bravura threatened his grades, however, he became a model student: "I immediately accepted the rules; I was not going to let them get in the way of my dancing." His nature tamed by nascent wisdom, Dupond met with no further obstacles to his course through the rigid hierarchy. His rewards were his nomination as first dancer after his 1979 performance in Bejart's Bolero, and finally etoile in 1980, on the occasion of Vaslav, choreographed for him in 1979 by John Neumeier.

A resume provided by the Opera press office describes Dupond at this period: "Rarely has a vocation been more imperious. He dances with instinct, seeming to invent everything on the spot. His astonishing feats seem to spring full blown. . . ." However innate, such talent invariably meant sacrifice. In talking, Dupond speaks lovingly, if brusquely, of the Opera house, as if it were some nettlesome friend. The place is within him. In French the expression is similarly intimate: ma maison ("my house"). "I was born," he often says blithely, "at the Opera."

Repertoire plums that have come his way include Romeo, Albrecht, the Prince in Cinderella, and, more recently, the hero of Nijinsky's 1916 Till Eulenspiegel, brilliantly reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer. He also became the chosen interpreter of major choreographers from Alvin Ailey and Twyla Tharp to such old faithfuls as Petit and Bejart, whose Salome has become a specialty.

Former teachers recall the aura of this prodigal son. "He was an exceptional talent of whom you could ask anything. He had show sense ... with all the ease and self-assurance of a pro at age nine," says Claude Bessy, director of the Opera school. "In class he never wanted to do exercises, but to go immediately onstage. He was a conqueror, never encountering a barrier he could not overcome," recalls Bozzoni. Dupond summarizes with ever-so-slightly-humble humor: "I was still the little boy who wanted to do too many pirouettes."

This quality may have riled Rudolf Nureyev, who served as the Opera's director of dance from 1983 to 1989. Characterized by some as a "brilliant despot," Nureyev reduced Dupond's annual appearances from seventy to seventeen. Finally, after he was assured of a modest twenty, Dupond took to the road to avoid clashing with a man he admired. (The only performance he was scheduled to make during the company's Lincoln Center appearance last month was in the June 24th Bayadere dedicated to Nureyev.) Invitations poured in from New York City, Chicago, Milan, London, and Tokyo (his popularity in Japan has been compared to a rock star's). "I saw the world," Dupond recalls. "I lived out of a suitcase, I did show after show. I felt wanted." Travel suited Dupond's desire to be free, to shed the strictures of the Opera amid the glitter of galas, and, naturally, to earn more money. But ultimately the solitude, the "lack of that balance essential to happiness," weighed on him.

Ever-vigilant Providence soon swept in with a rare opportunity: the artistic directorship of Ballet-Theatre Francais de Nancy. Upon accepting, Dupond unpacked his suitcase, embraced his surrogate home, and, in three years, turned around the company's provincial profile by, for one, recruiting young choreographers. After Nancy began posting unprecedented profits, the management of the Opera offered him Nureyev's position. Eager to return home, Dupond accepted in February 1990 the incalculable responsibility for what he calls "the best dance company in the world" while continuing to perform. Conflicting reports of Dupond's dual tenure converge at one point: he tried. New dances joined the repertoire, new etoiles were named, fulfilling the Opera Ballet's official mission: "creation, tradition, diffusion." After the French government annointed Dupond Commander of Arts and Letters, few could argue that his popularity was drawing a wider public to the Opera.

It did not come as a surprise, however, when it was announced that Dupond's administrative contract would not be renewed last February. Hugues Gall, the newly named director of the Opera, replaced the dancer with longtime associate Brigitte Lefevre. Apparently Dupond learned the news while on tour in Japan. His terse description of that time, the slight pinch of his mime-like expression, suggests that he felt jilted by "inelegant" treatment. But he remains, as ever, stoical: "I always see the cup only half full," he says, breaking into a grin, like a dog with its teeth around a fresh bone.

He maintains his base at his beloved Opera, where his status is now that of permanent guest artist, but he is free to pursue challenging opportunities elsewhere. Many are to be found close to home--in fact in the kitchen of his country house located near Mantes-la-Jolie, some hundred miles from Paris. It is here that Dupond indulges his other great passion: cooking.

Indeed Dupond's culinary memory is as sharp as that of his dance vocabulary. Remembering the taste of the salt in the breakfast butter at his grandmother's home in Brittany, he closes his eyes to savor the distant pleasure. Rarely do Dupond's fiery blue eyes light up as when he describes culinary delights--mushrooms harvested in the nearby woods, the first sip of a great wine, his famous homemade jams made with whatever fruit turns up in local orchards. With pride he discusses his best recipes, capon with two cabbages (red and green) and pot-au-feu ("the secret is to cook it a long, long time"). None of this would be as rewarding without company, he cautions, for in his home, as onstage, Dupond is happiest when sharing.

Still in his prime, he hopes to work with certain choreographers and remain in demand by others. For example, at the reopening of the renovated Palais Garnier in the Soiree Jerome Robbins, he danced The Four Seasons and A Suite of Dances (created for Baryshnikov). Last fall Bejart cast him opposite the ageless Maya Plisetskaya in the duet Kurozuka, premiered at a mini-Bejart festival in Paris at the Palais de Chaillot. Inspired by Japan's No theater, the poetic piece about a spider woman who ensnares a young voyager stirred a strange symbiosis between the two stars: Dupond, covered in stark makeup, seemed to age while Plisetskaya, lithe and radiant, looked girlish at her partner's side. "I am not a creator," admits Dupond, "but I understand very fast what a creator wants."

These days he thinks about the close of his career. "I have four magnificent years left," he told the major French daily, Le Figaro, last May. After that? "I have never made a career plan," says Dupond, a rare so-briety coming over him. He has thought of cooking professionally. He has signed up for a civilian space program, but has yet to be contacted. There is a vague project with Hollywood. His instincts have made him resourceful. "Whatever happens, I trust it to be right," he concludes, back in step with his current stage persona, another variation of the searching, but ever hopeful, Ulysses.
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Title Annotation:ballet dancer
Author:Danto, Ginger
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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