Monaco: Monte-Carlo Ballet's star dancer, Bernice Coppieters, talk to The Riviera Times
The age of Beauty
Sitting opposite Bernice Coppieters, you notice how she uses her whole body to express herself when she speaks. Her hands sweep from one side of the table to the other, she holds herself poker straight to demonstrate a posture, curls into herself to show exhaustion, employs her eyes to captivate you completely.
“As a dancer you are an interpreter,” she tells me, "you need to give your body like an object to a choreographer and say, 'Voilà, I am yours, do with me as you want.'"
A lightning bolt
For the last 20 years, the Belgian ballerina has given herself over to the Monte-Carlo Ballet's Director, Jean-Christophe Maillot, allowing him to "sculpt" her to suit his choreography. She says that the first time she danced with him it was un coup de foudre, “I can still remember the first audition I did for him, from the moment I started to dance his steps I was like, ‘yes, this is it, this is what my body wants to do.’” The feeling was obviously mutual because since then Maillot has created numerous leading roles for Coppieters in his ballets.
One of these roles, la Belle, will be taking centre stage at the Grimaldi Forum this Christmas and New Year. First premiered by Coppieters in 2001, the ballet of the same name remains one of the most popular works in the company's repertoire.
The leading lady says that over the years, she has changed her interpretation because, "it is necessary when we dance the same ballet for a long time that we evolve with it. Especially when we are playing a younger person, then it's important not to look like we are trying to still be young." Fortunately, Maillot's sleeping beauty is not a Walt Disney cartoon character but more closely resembles the original heroine, created by Charles Perrault in 1697. "Jean-Christophe's Belle is quite mature and the drama is more psychologically heavy, this helps me to not try to look like a young girl, which I am not, but rather do it as I am today."
A question of age
If I was worried that the subject of the ballerina's age would be a sensitive topic of conversation, she brings it up quickly herself and reassures me that it is not a problem, simply a reality. She makes it clear that she is not afraid to confront the fact that her career as a principle dancer is likely to end soon. "In ballet it is very scary to think of the moment when you are not going to be able to do it as well anymore. Now I am on the edge… It is a moment that we need to play carefully, not simply wanting, wanting, wanting more; I don't have that because I have had a beautiful career so I am satisfied and oblige myself not to be greedy or hold on."
Despite being used to being the star, she insists that she is happy these days to take a more supporting role. In the studio, for example, she is starting to teach for Maillot's ballet and when it comes to the stage she says: "Today, I would prefer to dance the role of Juliet's mother than Juliet. I am almost 40 and I have given most of my life to that ballet, I would hate to see myself being less and less good at it - that is much more painful than stopping completely." Alongside la Belle, Juliet is one of her signature roles and she reveals that, for a long time, it was her favourite "because in Jean-Christophe's version, Juliet is really a woman. As Malliot told me, ‘Romeo is in love but Juliet is love’. She is the strong one, the one with the power."
This is typical for the French choreographer's heroines and perhaps partly explains why Coppieters has been a favourite of his since his arrival in Monaco in 1991. Tall, broad shouldered and these days sporting a spiky blonde crop, the striking beauty is not what comes to mind when thinking of the cliché of the prima ballerina: petite, girlish and pirouetting in a pink tutu. "It's lucky for me that he didn't like tiny girls," she agrees, "or I wouldn't have had a chance."
At 39, her sculptured body still has the muscle definition of an Olympic sprinter; a heady mix of strength and gracefulness. However, she insists that dancing these days takes a toll on her physique. She credits the daily routine of rehearsals for keeping her in shape. She also has started to take measures to prepare and recover from big performances. These includes doing breathing and stretching exercises throughout the day ahead of a show and recovering by soaking for exactly 20-minutes in a bath then taking a cold shower. "This is already different from when I was young. Before I could jump out of bed, say 'yeah!' and go for it. Now the performance starts as soon as I wake up in the morning."
A beautiful challenge
She has a tough month ahead, as she considers La Belle to be one of her most challenging and exhausting roles. "We are wearing these see-through leotards so it feels quite naked and the body constantly has to look right. The positions are beautiful but it's very tiring and you have to really go over your own limits. Every time you dance, you never know how it's going to be. You think 'Am I going to make it?' and 'What state will I be in at the end?' When I first started dancing it I would always cry afterwards, because I was dying."
She references the French sprinter, Marie-José Pérec, who once told a journalist why she opened her mouth to the sky at the end of a race: "Before she reached the finish line, she felt really tired, it's a critical moment when you can give up and let everyone pass or you can hang on and win. At this point, she stopped breathing, because when the body doesn't have oxygen it thinks it will die and something amazing happens, an animal instinct comes out. This is a little bit how it is for me at the end of La Belle, when I have this final pas de deux and I have to smile and look happy and all I want to do is lie down on the floor. I love that moment, you don't want to do this last thing but you let your body take control, then when you finish it just relaxes, whoosh." She folds into herself and I understand exactly what she means.