Pierre-François Vilanoba in Balanchine's Apollo
© Erik Tomasson
Born in Lille Nord, France, Pierre-François Vilanoba trained at the Lille Conservatory and Paris Opéra Ballet School. After dancing with Paris Opéra Ballet, he joined San Francisco Ballet as a soloist in 1998 and was promoted to principal dancer in 1999. His classical roles include Albrecht in Giselle, Romeo in Romeo & Juliet, von Rothbart in Swan Lake, and the title role in Othello. His broad repertory includes works by George Balanchine, David Bintley, William Forsythe, Roland Petit, Jerome Robbins, and Christopher Wheeldon, among others. In the following interview, Vilanoba talks about his training at the prestigious Paris Opéra Ballet School, his challenging new role as an academic student, and the works he’s most looking forward to in the upcoming 75th Anniversary Season.
Listen to a podcast of this interview
Backstage: How did you get your start in dance?
I started dancing because I saw on TV [Rudolf] Nureyev dance when I was a kid, about seven years old. My father asked me what I wanted to do as far as a physical education, and I told him that I wanted to do ballet. This is how I started dancing. I didn’t know anything, just knew that when I saw it on TV I liked it and I was attracted to it.
The Paris Opéra Ballet School is one of the most highly regarded training institutions in the world. What was it like training there?
At the time it didn’t seem like it was anything special; now with the years it looks like a big deal. At the time I started dancing I was in Northern France and my teacher thought that I had some potential and told my father to send me to Paris to see. So I went and I got in. It’s interesting because I’m going to school right now and I’m researching a little bit what the psychological impact is of being trained at this kind of institution, and I’m discovering quite a bit. This is what they call a “total institution,” which means that you sleep, live for the whole week. You don’t go outside, and you have no exposure to the outside world. So it makes it very different than for regular kids, especially with regard to society and what is going on in the world, and your focus, and all of that. Not knowing that I was going through all that, I didn’t have such a bad time over there. Just the beginning, the first few months, was tough. I mean, I was 11 years old, without my parents for each week, you know, and that was a challenge. But once you overcome that, you get into a routine and just do it.
You mentioned that you’re studying in school right now. Tell me a little more about what you’re doing.
It is the LEAP [Liberal Education for Arts Professionals] program that was created quite a while ago, and I started this summer thinking that retirement is coming and I should prepare for it, you know. It has been great. I started with the math class because I thought it would be easiest for me, especially with the language barrier and everything, just to ease me back into it and everything after 17 years. It was a challenge that I wasn’t really ready to take, but here I am. I’m really, really happy. I didn’t think that it would be so good to go back to school. Not only in terms of self-evolution, but also with my colleagues that I work with every day and outside dancers (not from San Francisco Ballet, you know). It’s been a great discovery and I’m really, really happy not only for, as I said, my evolution as a student, but also as a person. I think this is the best evolution; what we learn most, actually, from going to this school is more about yourself, than about writing or doing math or anything else. And consequently, you learn about the people you work with and you have a different rapport, and you get closer and your world opens quite a bit. On top of that, you have dancers from outside of San Francisco Ballet; that opens another world. It’s a great discovery, and you see the world as it’s going to be later on a little more.
You have had a number of new works created on you in your career. What is that process like for you as a dancer?
Having a work created on you is always nice because it is always for you, so it’s your movement, your soul, everything you are. Some choreographers, of course, have already an idea in mind, but most choreographers have an idea in mind thinking of a dancer. So even if it’s been created before, in some ways it has been created for the dancer that you are. You identify with the work a lot more and obviously the working relationship with the choreographer is very interesting; it’s more intimate. How to explain the feeling of it? It’s a very intimate collaboration. You’ve got to understand what your choreographer wants and he has to understand what you can offer also. So it’s also a discovery of personality. The more you work with a choreographer the better you know each other and the easier and nicer it is.
What have been some of your favorite roles that you've done here at San Francisco Ballet?
In regards to the great classical ballets, I’ve loved doing Giselle and Romeo & Juliet. These have been roles that I’ve always wanted to be dancing, and I’ve done them and I love them. I identify very much with it because of the depth of character, the feelings and emotions. I think I am a dancer that is most likely to act more in depth than technical, you know, so I relate very much to these kinds of roles. There was also L’Arlésienne by Roland Petit that I really enjoyed because that was another part of the personality. There are quite a bit of roles that I’ve really liked dancing. What I like is to be able to explore a new part of my mind and my life and who I am, you know? It’s like you allow yourself to be crazy in some ways, you know; we all need to be crazy at times. And of course there are roles that don’t necessarily have a story or character behind it, but are great to dance just because of the movement. If I had a list I could point out quite a bit. Othello was also a great, great moment for me, especially when we did it in Paris.
Who inspires you as a dancer?
You know, it’s funny because when I was reading this question I was like “huh…” It’s a question, if you would have asked me five years ago I would have said, “Oh yeah, this guy, and this guy, and this guy.” I think now with a little more maturity, I realize that when you are a younger dancer you just identify that you have an idol in some ways, you know, and you want to be that kind of dancer. As you mature as a dancer, you become who you are and you’re not a copycat of someone else. I am inspired by a lot of people. I mean, I look in the classroom in the morning, you know, and I look at all the corps, the soloists, and the principals and I can find in anyone something that inspires me. It can be just an energy, a move; it can be anything. It’s a state of mind in some ways, and I think everyone has got something to offer and I think you have to look around and pick from everybody and get inspired.
Who are some of your favorite choreographers you’ve worked with?
I had the experience when I was in Paris to work with Mats Ek, and that was an amazing discovery for me. He was already very known and everyone was very excited to do his work. I got picked to be part of it. It wasn’t like I had a big role or anything, but I was just part of it and was excited. It’s a different vocabulary, and we were trained without him to understand how to do it, and he arrived and within 10 minutes it was like, “Bang!” we understood. I think it’s one of the talents that a great choreographer has is to be able to communicate their language. Same thing with William Forsythe when we saw him in New York. Working with him is mind-opening and inspirational on a very intellectual level, and this is what I appreciate with choreographers. I worked also with John Neumeier when I was in Paris; he created Sylvia and he picked me, not as first cast, but I was one of the cast of Aminta, and it was my first big thing in Paris. Having a work created, not completely on me, but being a part of the process was a memory I will never forget. I would say those three events in my life were really special.
Are there any choreographers that you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to?
Yes, clearly there is! The one I have always wanted to work with and never did is Jiri Kylián, because when I was still in Europe he was so influential and so known. He used to come to Paris with his company as a guest company and perform, and I was always amazed with the movement and the ideas he was bringing. I never got a chance, but who knows, maybe someday. Otherwise, I’m sure there are plenty of choreographers I don’t know that I’d love to work with. Every time Helgi brings a new choreographer, like Jorma [Elo], I’m like, “Oh my god! That’s amazing!” I mean, I would love to do it. Sometimes, obviously, I ‘m not able to because it’s not me. But discovering new people and working with them is always very interesting and exciting, and I’m sure there are plenty around!
What ballets or programs are you most looking forward to in the upcoming 75th Anniversary Season?
I’m going to be quite busy this year. I am always happy to dance again Giselle, because as I mentioned earlier it is one of my very favorite roles. In the Night, I love doing In the Night, although without Muriel it is going to be a little different. It’s going to be nice anyway, but it was very particular with Muriel [Maffre]. What else? West Side Story [Suite] is going to be fun. It’s not like it’s going to be a huge challenge, but it’s something new for me. The new works, obviously, like with James [Kudelka] and Jorma [Elo]. That’s going to be intense, I think; pretty intense physically, as well as spiritually.
Tell me a little bit about the process of West Side Story [Suite]. What role do you play and what was that rehearsal process like?
I’ll be dancing Bernardo. Thankfully for me, because of my talent as a singer, I don’t have to sing. You know it’s the story of Romeo and Juliet, and I like to do the bad guy, so Bernardo is really Tybalt. There’s this whole rumble scene that I really enjoy. And working with Rory [Hohenstein] was great. We have a good relationship; we feed each other with the acting. Otherwise the process, as far as learning it, was pretty intense because I’m not a mambo dancer and it goes very, very fast. So I had to work very hard, and I was at home going, “Okay, my hip it goes there,” but it came. Also, seeing those dancers that can sing so well, I mean, it was impressive. For me the one that stands out is Shannon [Roberts], and each time I hear her sing, I’m like, “Oh my god!” I can’t believe it, she gives me goosebumps. For me it was humbling in some ways just to look at others that don’t necessarily have a chance that often, and here they are the stars. That was really nice, and you discover them in a new light. This is what I remember from West Side Story [Suite].
Tell me about who you are outside of San Francisco Ballet. What do you like to do with your free time when you’re not rehearsing or performing?
Well, as I mentioned, I’m going to school, so that takes a lot of my time. I’m enjoying it very much, and I’m doing my homework a little too much. Other than that I really enjoy meeting with my friends–I mean close friends, not just my relationship–to have a nice evening at home or outside, good conversation. This is pretty much what I do outside right now besides my homework. It’s a transition for me in my life these few years, and so I’m still discovering what I really like, what is really meaningful.