The former étoile and current Director of Dance at the Paris Opera Ballet, Aurélie Dupont, reflects on her ongoing collaboration with Japanese choreographer Saburo Teshigawara. They will dance together with Teshigawara’s company KARAS in Sleeping Water at Lincoln Center Festival this summer.

Amanda MacBlane: When did you first work with Saburo and what were your initial impressions of him?

Aurélie Dupont: The first time I met Saburo was at the Opéra for another project—Darkness is Hiding Black Horses in 2013. I remember it very well. I was deeply impressed and surprised by Saburo’s kindness. He is an extremely gentle person who guides you exactly where he wants you to go in the choreography with plenty of kindness and faith.

AMB: Were there any particular challenges you faced when you started working with him?

AD: Yes, enormous ones! Saburo’s approach is different than anything I had done up until that point. He likes to develop parts of our body that we don’t use. That alone is difficult because we think that we already use everything, but he’s right. There are many little parts that we never use and he makes use of them all. He asks us to seek out and uncover new sensations. Saburo works a lot with improvisation and that can be scary for classical dancers as we rarely have the opportunity to improvise. Saburo leads you—always gently and confidently—into the improvisation. Often, he'll bring you to a state of exhaustion because here your mind loses control of your body and you have to just let go. What is amazing about Saburo is that he never looks at you with judgment. He is someone who is really open both intellectually and spiritually, so you never feel uneasy, even in a situation where that would be understandable.

AMB: That’s certainly the opposite of the preconceived notions many have of the ballet world...

AD: Exactly, and that’s what surprised me and why I accepted to do Sleeping Water. He really is someone you can trust. I know that it’s going to be difficult. I know there will be moments when I doubt myself. But I also know that, in the end, it’s going to work out. So there is a feeling of trust that is really special.

AMB: How has working with Saburo had an impact on the work you do elsewhere?

AD: All these little parts of the body that I discovered, these sensations, they are sensations you can’t forget once you notice them and I’ve definitely carried them into other works.

AMB: When you came to Sleeping Water, was it easier to find yourself in Saburo’s world?

AD: Yes, it was easier. It’s a little like speaking a foreign language. At the beginning, you have trouble remembering words and conjugations. But then, after working at it, you learn the language and it becomes fluid, natural. Working with Saburo—and this is the same with other choreographers—you learn a language. The body learns how another person moves. The more I work with Saburo, the more I understand his style, what he wants, and what he’s asking for.

AMB: How would it have been different for you to dance Sleeping Water if you'd been 22 years old?

AD: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I would have been comfortable with Saburo’s technique. When we age, we begin to accept everything. We accept our bodies. We accept the way that we are. We accept our hang-ups much better than when we are 22. When I met Saburo, I was not 22, and so I had fewer hang-ups; I had fewer limitations. But at 22 I had a lot of physical and psychological barriers. Working with Saburo at 22 likely would’ve been less enjoyable for me. As for Saburo, who still dances, he doesn't understand why we stop dancing at 42 at the Opéra. He says that this is the age when we begin to dance our best.

AMB: For the 2017–18 season, you have invited Saburo to create a new work for the Paris Opera Ballet. What does he have in mind?

AD: It will be set to a premiere by Esa-Pekka Salonen, so the musicality of the piece will certainly be very strong. But otherwise I don’t know what he has in mind. Saburo is someone who creates quickly, which is impressive. He often does the music, costumes, and design himself, so he is completely free, and that is something that defines him. So I don’t know yet what he is going to do, but he is going to work with a lot of young dancers, and that’s what I’m interested in as Director of Dance. I want the dancers in the company to have the opportunity to work with a choreographer who has a true language—a language that is deeply personal and that you can’t find elsewhere. That’s incredibly important to me.

AMB: For these young dancers, what qualities do you think will help them succeed in Saburo’s language?

AD: I don’t know if it requires any particular physical qualities, but it definitely requires an open mind. You need dancers who aren’t afraid because improvisation can be scary for dancers who aren’t accustomed to it. So they’ll need to be open minded and not be afraid to trust Saburo.

Amanda MacBlane is Senior Writer/Editor at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Interview translated from the French by Nicole Howell