A Ballet Renaissance in Bordeaux

Bordeaux ballet

A city famous for its wine, Bordeaux has long held the attention of the elite. Once among the most celebrated operatic cities in Europe, it has transformed itself into a cultural metropolis. Since appointing Charles Jude as Director in 1996, the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux has ushered in a new era of ballet and helped to shape the city’s now chic and sophisticated reputation within the Arts.

Reflecting on his move to Bordeaux, Jude says, “Dance was of prime importance.” Both designed by Victor Louis, the Grand Théâtre and the InterContinental Bordeaux were the twin pinnacles of luxury: “Like a reflection in a mirror,” comments Jude. “The relationship we have with the hotel comes from that beautiful era when all the style present in art was also present in the buildings.”

Today, dance requires more than beauty to endure. “Dance still has a long way to go to equal Opera and music,” admits Jude. “The audience is demanding.” It is this challenge that propels Jude forward.

Contemporary audiences are well-versed in the repertoires and predictability of the classics. Modern ballet and dance have undergone dramatic transformations in recent years, and with it, so has Jude’s choreography. “It’s really important to give the audience something new,” he explains. “It’s important that they keep dreaming when they attend the shows.”

Jude began his career at the Paris Opera, where he remained for 27 years before coming to Bordeaux. It was there that he met Rudolf Nureyev, his principal inspiration. “Nureyev personified the school life of a dancer,” says Jude. “The first skill I ask my dancers to have is technique. Then I want them to adapt this technique to their personality. Nureyev used to say: you need to feed the dancers.”

The dancer is both an athlete and a performer. To thrill the audience requires a balance between technique and artistry. “Ballet is a different kind of art, it’s physical—we work with our [bodies],” says Jude. “This art form is the most difficult one to focus on. For example, it can take years simply to make one movement correctly.”

There is something special and personal about dance because dancers must perform with their bodies. John Dryden called it “the poetry of the foot.” Audiences pay to witness the craft and perpetual sophistication of the dancer, and to satisfy the audience, the dancers must give themselves over entirely: body and soul.

In this regard, Nureyev epitomized dance. He defected from Russia in 1961 during a Kirov tour, making a “historic dash from [his] KGB bodyguards into the arms of French police.” What followed was an international scandal.

From his muscular appearance and fearless physicality to his unorthodox style and personality, he was something most had never seen. The New York Times labeled him “The Brando of Ballet,” and without dispute, his influence runs to the core of dance. Through Nureyev, the sophistication of stage ballet and its echelon within the Arts was forever transformed.

The evolution of ballet was both through and because of Nureyev.

Nureyev’s complicated life has been well documented, as several biographies and documentaries will attest. His offstage offenses were numerous—he was once sued 2500 Francs for cracking a teacher’s jaw—but onstage he was magnetic. Despite his personal flaws, Nureyev held senior positions at almost every major company including the Royal Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the American Ballet Theater.

He was the most famous dancer of his day and continues to be one of the most inspirational in history. As well as mounting his own productions, he choreographed many reinterpretations, including Swan Lake, Don Quixote and The Nutcracker. He added aggressive allegros from the Russian school and transformed ballet on the European stage. He was a titan and a rebel, a breathless force of muscular dominance who transformed modern dance. “He came onto the stage as if into an arena,” his friend Violette Verdy recalled.

It is these lessons that have brought Jude to the forefront of 21st-century choreography. Through implementing the Nureyev attitude and philosophy in Bordeaux, Jude has been able to challenge his dancers in both the box office-friendly classics and new, energizing works. “I’m able to pass on everything I know about dance to others today because I was fortunate enough to learn from the greatest dancer of the century,” says Jude. “Rudolf is there in my mind. I can still hear his voice, his wheeze, every time I correct a dancer.”

The cogent bond between Nureyev and Jude was a connection that went beyond teacher-pupil. Jude was the protégé, the younger dancer, a friend, and a companion. He was the shadow on the stage, a scholar tiptoeing behind the glossary of Nureyev’s lauded performances. Today, it is Jude and his troupe who are receiving global applause.

Through the Grand Théâtre, Jude pays homage to the legacy of Nureyev. This dedication has paid offBordeaux’s ballet is one of the most admired in the world.

The rapturous reception Jude’s company receives after each performance from a typically sedate, provincial audience suggests that ballet might be close to transcendence. Jude has brought classical ballet to life, and expanding the canon with a 21st-century attack on choreography.

Now, the audience will only continue to demand more: a challenge he accepts and one Nureyev would surely have welcomed.