The Battle of France: Ballerinas dancing the Paris streets in protest

On a day when the American political class and the bloviating masses step into the morass of Impeachment,  this slice of culture news from across the Atlantic gives us some perspective on the important things in life. There’s more to life than talk talk talk.

Wall Street Journal 12.18.2019

PARIS—President Emmanuel Macron wants to overhaul France’s pension system, and the country’s railway unions aren’t the only militant force standing in his way.

Ballerinas are marching in the vanguard. They usually perform at the country’s vaunted opera house, the Palais Garnier, but now they are hopping mad.

Photo above – Dancers backstage last year at the Palais Garnier. PHOTO: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

At issue is the delicate matter of when France’s finest male and female dancers should be allowed to hang up their ballet shoes and begin drawing a national pension. For centuries, the retirement age has stood at 42, but Mr. Macron’s government wants to stretch their limits by at least two more decades.

The Paris Opera Ballet, as the company is known, has put its foot down. Dancers have taken to the streets, marching with tutus over their trousers and handing out protest leaflets.

“There’s no way they can take this away from us,” Matthieu Botto, a 32-year-old who joined the company’s dance school at the age of 12, said of his approaching retirement. “We’ve earned it.”

Paris Ballet II  12.18.2019.jpg

The dancers are hitting high society—the bulk of the ticket holders—where it hurts. Joined by the Paris Opera’s musicians and singers, the dancers went on strike Dec. 5, forcing the Palais Garnier and Opéra Bastille, another landmark venue where the company performs, to shut down just as some of the season’s biggest productions were under way.

Gloria Browne-Marshall, a playwright and law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, traveled from New York to catch the last performance of “Lear” at the Palais Garnier on Saturday night. She bought a new dress and had a friend fly in from Ireland for the occasion, only to see the opera canceled hours before curtain time.

“I kept holding hope until the last minute,” she said. “I still can’t accept it. It’s too painful just to think about it.”

Dancers backstage last year at the Palais Garnier. PHOTO: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Dancers say the physical demands of their profession mean they must glide into their golden years earlier. They begin dancing as children with dreams of attaining the rank of étoile, the lauded soloists who command the spotlight. Many never attend high school, making it hard to find jobs once their dancing days are over. They are flames that burn brightly—and briefly.

The very notion of special treatment, however, is anathema to Mr. Macron’s agenda. The government wants to consolidate 42 different pension plans—each with varying retirement ages and benefits—into one universal system with a retirement age of 62. That would lump ballerinas in with office workers, train conductors and nurses.

“The system will be the same for all French people, with no exceptions,” Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said last week.

Ballet’s retirement benefits date to the 17th century under Louis XIV, the Sun King. The monarch earned that moniker after starring as Apollo, the sun god, in the “Ballet de la Nuit,” one of 70 roles he played before the royal court.

Louis XIV would go on to found the Royal Academy of Dance, the precursor to the Paris Opera Ballet, before retiring from ballet at the age of 32. He continued to reign as king for another 44 years.

The Palais Garnier was erected in the 19th century under Napoleon III. With gilded balconies and a 7-ton bronze and crystal chandelier, the theater gave Paris pride of place in the ballet world. Later, the ceiling was painted by Marc Chagall with scenes from ballets and operas.

“When I was a little girl, dancing at the Paris Opera was my dream,” said Marion Barbeau, a 28-year-old ballerina.

She left home at age 11 to enter the Paris Opera Ballet’s school, known for cutthroat competition and where trainees are known as “little opera rats.”

When the strike began, Ms. Barbeau was scheduled to perform as a soloist in “Raymonda,” French choreographer Marius Petipa’s depiction of the love story between a young countess and the knight Jean de Brienne.

“I’m very disappointed not to dance that ballet, but it felt necessary” Ms. Barbeau said, adding that she might leave the company if Mr. Macron’s changes go through.

A spokeswoman for the Paris Opera said they were waiting for proposals from the government.

If the government insists on making dancers perform beyond a youthful age, it won’t be pretty, said Alexandre Carniato, a dancer who has met with the government to press the company’s case.

“If they keep us until we’re 62, no one will want to come and see us dance,” he said.

Training and performing at that level takes a heavy toll on dancers’ bodies. Many suffer from arthritis, and some require hip replacements as young as 30.

A leaflet for a faux ballet passed out by protesting dancers. PHOTO: YANN CHAILLOUX

Ballet dancers have hit the streets in protest, passing out leaflets for a mock ballet. The faux piece, called “Seniors,” is scheduled for Garnier’s 2039-2040 season. It stars an elderly ballerina tiptoeing toward her partner, who is using a walker. Sponsors include makers of hearing aids and dentures.

At 41, Mr. Carniato said he can already hear Father Time knocking. He has danced since the age of 6, and his knees and ankles ache.

He had hoped to retire from the stage next year and begin teaching. Starting salaries for dance teachers, however, are just over the minimum wage and only about half of his €2,500 monthly salary, or close to $2,800, that he earns at the Paris Opera Ballet. He was counting on a pension of around €1,000 to make up the difference.

“I grit my teeth and keep going,” he said. “I need to keep smiling. When I’m on stage, the audience should not see that I’m in pain,” he said.