Patrick Dupond, French ballet virtuoso, dies at 61
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Patrick Dupond, French ballet virtuoso, dies at 61
French dancer Patrick Dupond performs the role of Drosselmeyer, dance teacher, on December 16, 1993, during the premiere of "The Nutcracker" (Casse-Noisette), Tchaikovsky's ballet, on the stage of the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Pierre Verdy / AFP.

by Roslyn Sulcas

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Patrick Dupond, a star dancer and former director of the Paris Opera Ballet who won worldwide renown in the 1980s and ’90s for his virtuosity, glittering technique and flamboyant personality, died March 5 in Soissons, France. He was 61.

His death — confirmed by his companion, Leila Da Rocha, who did not specify the cause — was major news in France, where Dupond was a household name, synonymous with dance for many.

A statement issued from the Élysée Palace said, “The president of the Republic and his wife hail a great star of the 20th century, who was able to conquer new audiences for dance and make his talent felt beyond our borders.”

Dupond shot into the limelight at 17, when he became the first French dancer to win the gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria. He was a low-ranking member of the Paris Opera corps de ballet at the time, but he left Varna as a star in the making.

Back home, he slowly began to acquire soloist roles. “I have three more years to go before reaching the rank of étoile,” he told an interviewer when he was 18, showing astonishing confidence about attaining that prestigious title (which is French for “star”) — the only one at the Paris Opera that is at the discretion of the management rather than won through competition. “I want to dance all the principal roles available — all the princes.”

His confidence wasn’t misplaced. In 1980, at 21, he was given the title of étoile. Along with dancing “all the princes” in the great 19th-century ballets — “Swan Lake,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Giselle” — he worked with a broad range of choreographers, including Alvin Ailey, Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Alwin Nikolais, Roland Petit and Twyla Tharp. He quickly became an international star, performing with American Ballet Theater and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and touring with his own group, known as Dupond and His Stars, which included Sylvie Guillem, Monique Loudières, Manuel Legris and Laurent Hilaire.

His stints abroad and with other companies were partly motivated by dissatisfaction at home; after Rudolf Nureyev became the director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983, Dupond found himself performing less frequently and looked for opportunities elsewhere. He scored a particular triumph with Maurice Béjart’s company in “Salomé” (1986), a solo in which he emerged in a voluminous dress as an androgynous, seductive presence.

“Béjart understood me completely, my ambivalence, my half-male, half-female selves,” Dupond recounted in a 2007 interview with Danser magazine.

Reviewing that solo in The New York Times in 1995, Anna Kisselgoff wrote: “There are dancers and there are dancers. And then there is Patrick Dupond. One of ballet’s few remaining superstars, he may break a few rules but he will always give a performance in the truest sense.”

Dupond remained a major presence at the Paris Opera. Despite rumors of an uncomfortable relationship with Nureyev, he created the role of Romeo, with Loudières as Juliet, in 1984 in the director’s own version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Although at the time Dupond spoke of a rift, he would later deny it. “There was no personal problem between us,” he wrote in the 1993 photo book “Patrick Dupond.” But in truth, Ariane Bavelier of Le Figaro wrote, “There wasn’t enough room for both,” even if Nureyev couldn’t entirely dispense with Dupond’s star power.

In 1988, Dupond became the artistic director of the Ballet Français de Nancy, showing his taste for contemporary ballet as he acquired works by George Balanchine, Jiri Kylian and Ulysses Dove. His two-year stint there was to be a training ground for the biggest job in French dance: In 1990, he was offered the directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet, replacing Nureyev. He was the youngest person ever to hold the position.

“I know everyone is going to say that’s a little quick,” Dupond told The Times in an interview. “But a lot of things have happened quickly since I was born 30 years ago.”

With the Paris Opera initially locked in a battle over the rights to Nureyev’s versions of the full-length classics — a significant part of the company’s repertoire — Dupond turned to other choreographers, staging Vladimir Bourmeister’s “Swan Lake,” Neuemeier’s “Nutcracker,” MacMillan’s “Manon” and Mats Ek’s contemporary version of “Giselle.”

Dupond continued to tour and to make guest appearances, as well as acting in two films, “Dancing Machine” (1990), with Alain Delon, and “Danse avec la Vie” (1995).

Patrick Dupond was born March 14, 1959, in Paris. His mother, Nicole Charles, was 18 when he was born, and she worked as a cloakroom attendant in a Parisian brasserie. She first raised Dupond alone and later with her companion. He didn’t meet his father until he was 30.

In an attempt to harness his wild energy, his mother signed him up for ballet classes. Seeing his potential, his ballet teacher introduced him to Max Bozzoni, a former Paris Opera principal, who took him on as a pupil.

Bozzoni, who would remain his teacher for life, shaped Dupond’s early dancing years and sent him to audition for the Paris Opera Ballet School at 10. His talent and charm made him a favorite of the school’s director, Claude Bessy, who championed him despite his often rebellious attitude and frequent misdemeanors.

“Patrick was what he was: wacky, telling lies, making up characters,” Bessy said in an interview with Le Figaro. “He was a spoilt child and an enfant terrible. Everyone adored him.”

At 16, Dupond was accepted into the Paris Opera Ballet, and Bozzoni suggested he enter the Varna competition. After winning the gold medal, he steadily ascended the Paris Opera ranks — although his virtuosic technique and crowd-pleasing style weren’t to everyone’s taste.

“Of course, you don’t want to extinguish the fire or facility or the enthusiasm,” Violette Verdy, then-director of the Paris Opera, said in an interview with The Times in 1977. “But you also have to knock him on the head and explain to him that what he sometimes does is in such poor taste that it belongs more to the Moulin Rouge than to the Paris Opera.”

“It’s because I like him so much,” Verdy added, “that I am especially hard on him.”

Dupond’s star quality and charisma kept him a favorite of audiences even after he left the Opera in 1997. In 2000, a serious car accident left him with 134 fractures, constant pain and an addiction to morphine that took him a year to overcome. But he returned to the studio, working with Bozzoni to regain his strength. Less than a year after the accident, he appeared onstage in the musical “Un Air de Paris.”

In 2004, he met Leila Da Rocha, a former professional basketball player who had retrained as a dancer and choreographer. Although Dupond had always been open about his homosexuality, notably in his 2000 autobiography, “Étoile,” he described their encounter as love at first sight.

Da Rocha encouraged him to appear on several reality television shows, including, most recently, as a jury member on the French edition of “Dancing With the Stars,” and together they taught and staged works at her dance school in Soissons.

In addition to Da Rocha, Dupond is survived by his mother.

In a 2000 interview with the newspaper Libération, Dupond set forth his credo as an artist: “To please, seduce, divert, enchant; I feel that I have only ever lived for this.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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