Odette Joyeux must not be a very famous name for you.
In France, she hasn’t been known for a long time either.
But I have kept her in a corner of my heart – and every time I am sad, she comes back to me.
This, after all, only concerns me – and it only matters because Odette Joyeux was one of those who saved me. I don’t know her – I’ve never met her.
But I read her autobiography, when I was a little girl from Algeria, who had never set foot in a theatre, who didn’t even know what a theatre was.
She told me about the Opéra Garnier.
She told me how a little girl from France, as thin as a cricket, all alone and all cold, could one day push the entrance of the artists of the Garnier Opera and start taking dance classes.
She told me what the life of a “petit rat de l’Opéra” was like – how she worked, how she cried, how she was in pain – how she admired “les grandes”.
She told me about the dancers’ slippers and the strange pink Repetto slippers. I wondered what half pointe shoes could be, and then the pointe shoes, which you could only get to when you were a really great dancer, able to turn on a pointe shoe, smiling and dancing.
She told how she dreamed of the great role of Odette-Odile – and it was thanks to her that I wanted to see Swan Lake one day. She recounted her amazement at seeing the “Grandes” so excited, so stressed, the day when Madame would choose which ones would have the honor of performing: the dance of the little swans.
She told of the dark corridors of the Opera Garnier. She was talking about the famous ghost of the Opera, who lived under the 4th “below”, so far down in the heart of Paris that no one dared to venture there.
She explained to me why they were called “the little rats”, the youngest of the dancers, who spent their time sneaking into the skirts of the older ones.
She was talking about Paris – a Paris full of rain, of buses that were close to children, of people full of umbrellas, of coffee waiters, of scarves tied around their necks, a Paris full of “grand ladies” who came, made up, perfect, sublime, in the evening, to admire “les étoiles”.
I can’t use your English word star for dancers. It’s such a beautiful sound “danseuse étoile” – étoile : our word is full of femininity, fragility, suppleness – yours is so masculine. your stars are powerful, ours are fragile – like the young dancers at the Opera.
Why am I telling you this?
Because I am not a great lady. I’m not very well brought up. I would never have been able to go, without help, to push the door of a theatre to admire the prima ballerinas.
I am, like many people, so far away from such delicate worlds.
And now that I put it in my stubbornly ugly head that I wanted to see a theatre that would explode with its joy of living, its applause for artists, its joy of creating, of sharing, I have to remember the best ways to get people to enter a theatre.
& the best way is that of Odette Joyeux: it was an encounter between a badly brought up girl and a great dancer, a great actress, a great artist. It was her words that made me want to see, me too, a “fouetté”. Her words that sometimes bring me to Paris in front of a Repetto store.
It has become part of my work: organizing meetings between great artists and bad kids. And it works every time. The kids are seduced, touched and enchanted. They are proud too, for once, someone great comes to talk to them – to them?
All this because the words of these artists, the immense and the less immense, they give humanity to their arts. It looks so easy when you look at them. It seems so obvious that they are there. And when they speak, it’s not so easy anymore, and even less obvious. It becomes human and endearing.
And later, they come back.
Featured Image : Odette Joyeux