• L'Opéra (Distributor (Photographer: Lara Gasparotto))Source: Distributor (Photographer: Lara Gasparotto)
The world of ballet is one of stunning beauty – but nothing that beautiful comes easily.
Anthony Morris

21 Oct 2021 - 11:06 AM  UPDATED 21 Oct 2021 - 11:06 AM

Ballet is a world where it takes a lot of work to make something seem effortless. To the outside world, Palais Garnier is home to France’s foremost opera and ballet company, a shining jewel of artistry featuring some of the best dancers and performers in the world. But as L’Opéra makes all too clear, behind all that glamour lies a whole lot of work – whether it’s honing your Arabesque or your networking skills.

Over its eight episodes, this French-language series explores what happens behind the curtain at one of the world’s top ballet companies. This isn’t a sanitised view of ballet, and the three characters we follow are far from the fairy tale cliché of a ballerina. In the first scene we see Zoé Monin (Ariane Labed) dancing in a club; the second is her taking pills and making out with a guy she met on the dance floor. Next thing we know it’s the afternoon, she’s waking up next to last night’s lover, and she’s definitely got somewhere else she needs to be.

When we see her rushing through the back corridors and studios of the Opéra de Paris to get changed, have her photo taken, and finally make it on stage as part of the parade that opens the season, it’s a mission statement for the series. We’re being taken behind the scenes – and if the queasy, hungover look on Zoé’s face is any guide, the polished perfection we see on the stage is going to be in short supply.

As the company’s principal dancer (she’s literally a Prima Ballerina) Zoé has it all. Fame, success, the admiration of her peers – the only thing she doesn’t have is time. At 35, her spot at the top can’t last forever, and a life full of partying hard, whirlwind romances, injuries and emotional turmoil has brought the end closer than she thought. She’s determined to hang onto the career she’s built for herself, but with the company that’s been her life looking to move on, she’s going to have to put in the work to restore her reputation. As an old teacher used to say, “A dancer who wakes up without pain is dead”.

Not helping her case is Sébastian (Raphaël Personnaz), the company’s new dance director who’s eager to cement the Opéra de Paris’ place at the summit of world ballet. Flamboyant and driven, he’s not afraid to bruise egos in pursuit of what he wants, even if his position isn’t as secure as he’d like (his boss wanted someone else for his job). He and Zoé might have been friends once, but when their first meeting has him suggesting it’s time for her to move on because she’s just not the dancer she once was, the stage is set for a serious struggle.

Caught in the middle is 19-year-old Flora Soumaré (Suzy Bemba), who already has an uphill struggle ahead of her as one of the few Black dancers in ballet. She’s the newcomer who’s our guide to the Opéra de Paris (the first time we see her she’s coming out of the subway and staring at the Palais Garnier), but her innocence when it comes to the ways of the company are going to put her at a disadvantage off stage, no matter how impressive she is as a dancer. Any illusions she has aren’t going to last long: having to get changed in a cleaning closet is the kind of thing that crushes them fast.

There’s an impressive level of realism running throughout this series, which wasn’t easy to make happen when you’re dealing with an organisation as complex as the Opéra de Paris. Some scenes were shot in and around the real Palais Garnier, but it’s a workplace that’s constantly operating, which meant that the bulk of the scenes had to be filmed elsewhere. It also meant that using real performers was out. The production had to basically create their own ballet company with actors who could dance to the required high standard – or dancers (who weren’t already working elsewhere) who were able to act. Even the version of Swan Lake seen in the series required them to hire a choreographer to create a new version.

L’Opéra might not strictly be a documentary, but a lot of the hustle and bustle seen in the background is real. It’s a series about a glamorous, magical world, and there are times when there’s plenty of Parisian luxury on show, but getting everything just right both on stage and off, during production and with the finished series? That takes a whole lot of work. 

L’Opéra season 1 is now streaming at SBS On Demand. Watch the trailer:

Watch episode 1:


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