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Becoming an Étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet: The Institutional Origins of Personal Charisma

Joël Laillier
Traduction de Delaina Haslam
Cet article est une traduction de :
Devenir étoile du Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris [fr]


Le destin de danseur ou danseuse étoile se présente toujours sur le registre du « talent » ou du « don », comme pour rendre raison de ce qui, justement, échappe à la raison. Au lieu de substituer à cette croyance une explication causale, l’article, qui se centre sur le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, la prend comme objet pour révéler les ressorts de ce qui s’apparente véritablement à une forme de reconnaissance charismatique, dans laquelle l’institution joue un rôle fondamental. En partant de la théorie du charisme élaborée par Max Weber, l’article montre ainsi que la fabrique institutionnelle du charisme ne se limite pas au charisme de fonction mais concerne également la forme la moins institutionnalisée de charisme en apparence : le charisme personnel. L’institution agit autant sur les représentations des un·es et des autres que sur les futur·es élu·es, en rendant légitime leurs aspirations et en les autorisant à habiter un rôle d’étoile. Elle assure à la fois la production d’une performance scénique différentielle et sa réception comme le résultat d’un charisme personnel.

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“Miss Fanny Essler is at the peak of her talent today; she can but vary her perfection and not go beyond. […] The new Sylphide was vigorously applauded; she brought infinite finesse, grace, and lightness to her interpretation; she appeared and vanished like an impalpable vision, you thought she was here, she was there; […] nothing more perfect nor more graceful could ever be seen.” (Théophile Gautier, “Opéra: Reprise de la Sylphide,” La Presse, 24 September 1838. In Écrits sur la danse. Arles, Actes Sud, 1995: 78-79.)

“No one can resist Hugo Marchand. The boy has extraordinary charisma. On stage, we see only him. There is his size, but not only this: there is a raging fire in his movements. Add to this the beauty of the devil, and his very sure and perfectly musical line. You must have detected it. He can only be twenty-three years old, and we have been waiting for his nomination for three years.” (Ariane Bavelier, “Hugo Marchand, nouvelle étoile en orbite,” Le Figaro, 10 March 2017.)

  • 1 This article has benefited from comments and criticism from many people. I would like to thank the (...)
  • 2 The étoiles are not charismatic leaders, thus they are different from the figure for whom the noti (...)

1The figure of the étoile appears to be established on account of her or his charisma1. Two centuries apart, critics note the “talent,” “grace,” and “charisma” that reflect their admiration and explain the superiority of these rare chosen few. Their “brilliance” appears to be established as being evident to those who witness it. We are dealing here with a form of superiority, or domination, insofar as we can understand the term as an ability to impose oneself, without necessarily implying a charismatic power relationship as described by Max Weber2. The charismatic persona was recognised as such on account of personal qualities, as Weber wrote, “specific gifts of body and mind thought to be supernatural (in the sense of not being accessible to everyone)” (Weber 2013 [1904-1905]: 270). The étoile is first and foremost perceived as an exceptional being, who is more capable than other dancers of transcending bodily limits and giving performances that are extraordinary and continually validated on stage. In this sense, consecration of the étoile is received as charismatic consecration which is due only to the extraordinary personal characteristics of the bearer of these supposed “gifts.”

2How is this self-evident superiority constructed? To answer this question, I wish to contribute to a sociology of charisma. Rather than seeking to explain the genesis of these extraordinary characteristics, the notion of charisma opens up a sociology of belief. As Weber himself pointed out, it is about understanding how personal characteristics or qualities are “thought” to be supernatural. It is in any case such a use of the notion that I will defend in this article. This approach is therefore different from a sociology of “talent” (Menger 2009) in that the object of the investigation is not the qualities of individuals, but the belief in those qualities. Furthermore, “talent” is not a sociological concept but an indigenous notion with limited scope for explanation; “talent” is a supposed characteristic of individuals that explains their position or achievements without us knowing where it comes from—even Pierre-Michel Menger postulates that people are gifted with differing initial proportions of talent (Menger 2009; Schotté 2013). It should also be noted that in the arts, and in the performing arts in particular, perceptions cannot be objectivized as happens in sport: there is no chronometer, for example, that recognizes performance as happens for athletes (Pégourdie 2015). What leads some to possess superior qualities is therefore much more qualitative and above all subjective, leaving the question of the construction of the belief in these qualities wide open, and yet equally the production of a collective consensus.

3This article aims to set the concept of charisma to work in an empirical field: that of the top dancers of one of the largest dance companies in the world, the Paris Ballet Opera. However, applying the concept to dancers marks a departure from its classical uses. The concept of charisma is usually used to analyse situations which, following on from Weber’s work, tend to be found in religious movements (Dericquebourg 2007; Ouedrago 1993)—in particular in Pentecostalism (Coulmont 2013; Fer 2005)—political figures (Collovald 1999; Gaïti 2008), or national “heroes” (Berenson 2010). This is explained by Weber’s definition of it as a type of domination, a way of ensuring authority and power over individuals. This is not exactly what we find in the case of étoiles. They do not manage the company, for example, nor do they wield authority over the audience. But their position is just as much a matter of charismatic legitimacy. It is precisely this question of the legitimacy of position, less than that of power, that the article is devoted to. While I do not take up Manuel Schotté’s proposal to substitute the notion of “greatness” for that of “charisma,” I subscribe to the same approach in as far as he proposes: “Rather than seeing success as the product of only intrinsic qualities [of a given individual], it is important to look at the different ways in which people are credited with a differential value” [emphasis added] (Schotté 2016: 29). We must inquire then as to how the charismatic belief in the position of the étoile dancer is established, and reveal the undercurrents of the belief in the natural possession of “gift” or “talent” that underpins and legitimises their position.

  • 3 Jean Philippe Heurtin shows in a very enlightening way what Weber’s approach owes to his reading o (...)

4Applying the notion of charisma to the case of the étoiles of the Paris Opera reveals a paradox. Recognition of the étoile is far from the model of revelation to followers as in Weber’s “pure” type of charisma. On the contrary, it is the institution—in this case the Paris Opera—that produces the étoiles’ superiority and passes it off as charismatic, even though it falls within the power of the institution. Presenting an institutional position bestowed on certain dancers (a dancer is named étoile by the director of the Opera) as the result of personal charisma is rather paradoxical. The institution is at the root of the belief, and is a way of masking the arbitrary nature of the institution’s judgements and the social mechanisms at work behind these trajectories. Weber clearly perceived this paradoxical tension between charisma and institution through the notion of “charisma of office” or “charisma of function” (Heurtin 2014). Office charisma refers to the situation of Catholic priests whereby “the belief in the legitimacy of charisma therefore no longer relates to the person, but to acquired qualities and the effectiveness of hierurgical acts” (Weber 1978, cited by Kalinowski 2016: 20). Charisma attributed to priests depends on ordination, irrespective of personal qualities. But for Weber, office charisma results from personal charisma becoming routinized (because it is no longer attached to the person but to the function and delivered by an institutional authority), when the problem of the transference of authority arises, and hence constitutes a degenerate form of charisma. He opposes office charisma to personal charisma. However, Weber does not seem to have understood what belief in personal charisma owes to powerful institutions able to act on representations and recognition of charisma3. On the basis of a current and empirically founded case, I will therefore investigate this distinction, as well as this tension specific to charismatic belief. It is a question both of showing what the notion of charisma brings to sociological analysis of artistic consecration, and of enriching the theory of charisma by questioning the institutional production of a personal charisma.

5To understand how this type of consecration works, I propose to focus on the role played by the Paris Opera in forming the belief in the étoiles’ superiority. To do so, we will start at the end, so to speak; that is to say with the act of institution that irreparably changes the dancer by nomination as étoile. We will then go back to the start to understand how the belief in the superiority of certain dancers is constructed, and in particular how the Opera ensures regular confirmation of charisma so that a nomination always appears as a sanction of the natural order. However, these systems of confirmation hide what is playing out in the background, which involves a game of reputation, and technical training distributed only to certain dancers, helping étoile candidates to inhabit the role before they are even nominated. This then reveals how charismatic belief is socially produced. The institution ensures both the production of a differential stage performance and its reception as the result of personal charisma.

Box 1. Investigation and Material

The data presented are based on long-term research conducted between 2005 and 2010 at the Paris Opera Ballet in order to understand the professional socialization of dancers from an early age and throughout their careers. Part of the research focused on socialization at the dance school of the Paris Opera, where the future dancers of the company enter from the age of eight (through observations in 2009-2010 and interviews with students and teachers), as well as on its link to family socialization, studied using an interview survey with parents of dance school students (n=28). A second part (on which this article is based) focuses on the work of dancers using participant observation in the Opera as an usher for two seasons, from 2003 to 2005. This allowed me to study the relationships between professional groups within the theatre and behaviours of the audience, then to make numerous observations (during rehearsals, shows, competitions and outside of work moments) as well as carry out interviews with dancers (n=18). The body of interviews aimed to give a range of points of view to reflect different stages of career path, different ages, and different hierarchical positions (from eleven female dancers and seven male dancers, three of whom were less than 25 years old, six between 25 and 35 and nine over 35 years old). Analysis of several internal documents, and a quantitative study of the trajectories of all dancers from 1981 to 2010 (n=395), complete these data.

1. The Attribution of Charisma by the Institution

6Far from the idea whereby the charisma of the étoiles is perceived almost in a context of social ethereality, in the strict confrontation between the audience and the dancers’ stage performance (which is nevertheless a product of charisma), the Opera constantly shapes representations on each side, thus distributing recognition of charisma. But it is first through the act of nominating étoiles that the institution brings about charisma, radically changing dancers into étoiles.

1. 1. The Making of étoiles as an Act of Institution

  • 4 Having observed several nominations in the auditorium as usher, I present here how events recur, a (...)
  • 5 In recent years, the position of director of dance has much more often been held by a woman than b (...)

7A dancer formally becomes an étoile by nomination. Nominations are always made in the same way4. At the end of a show, when the curtain goes down one last time and the lights come on in the auditorium, the audience thinks the performance is over, the applause dies down, people start to get up and leave the room, and then the curtain rises again. On stage, all dancers remain as they were for the curtain call (soloists at the front of the stage, corps de ballet behind) and the director of the Opera appears holding a microphone. This situation first generates a state of surprise: the audience does not understand what is happening; although many are standing, they stop and turn back towards the stage, as though transfixed. Indeed, a nomination is never announced in advance, neither publicly nor internally at the Opera. Just like the audience, the dancers do not know that one of them will be nominated. They have been asked, a few hours before the performance, to kindly remain in place after the last curtain call. Not even the future étoile is warned. The director then makes the announcement that he or she, acting on the proposal of the director of dance, nominates a dancer who has just danced one of the soloist roles of the evening, as an étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet (the ritual phrase echoes the text of the collective agreement). Applause breaks out from the audience who feels privileged to witness the birth of an étoile. "Bravos" burst forth in the auditorium while shouts and clapping explode. On stage, the new étoile does not hide their emotion, kissing his or her ballet partner, an étoile dancer, as well as the director of the Opera and the director of the company5, before bowing to the audience. Only the étoiles on stage (sometimes also in the wings) come to embrace the new étoile, as though to signify entry into the family of the “chosen”—the passage out of the shadows and into the light. Since the applause does not stop, the new étoile repeatedly bows, turns back to their companions, and bows again to the audience until they leave the room, which can take some time.

  • 6 Television news on the “France 2” channel, April 19 2007.

8This staging is designed to provoke a strong emotional reaction. The ritual is very solemn, the emotion of the dancer is not feigned, and the audience feels connected to the dancers on stage and to the newly elected étoile. We are dealing with a specific act, of remarkable symbolic effectiveness, which is fundamentally a rite of institution (Bourdieu 1982), operating primarily on the performative power of the nomination. As a personified form of the institution, the director of the Opera irreparably changes the dancer into an étoile. It is an act of “social magic” (Lahire 2015) that produces this change by gaining public acknowledgement in the eyes of all: both the audience in the auditorium and the dancers of the company (like the audience, the other dancers on stage simply applaud while holding their pose; they are in a certain way in the same position as witnesses). All are called, through the power of the effectiveness of symbols, to see the nominee as an étoile, and no longer a simple dancer. The day after his nomination, Jérémie Bélingard explained on the news: “And then, putting on the étoile costume will change everything, of course,” testifying quite rightly to the force of imposition of the title. “In truth, it won’t change anything because my work remains the same, but the mindset is completely different. I’ve always loved dancing, I’ve always loved working, trying to fine-tune to dance as well as possible. And look! What changes, when you’re an étoile dancer, is that you’re invited to be on television. And in fact it’s the perspective of others that changes everything.6

  • 7 The nominee sometimes doubts that the nomination will come at the end of the performance, a situat (...)
  • 8 Audience discussions after a performance without a nomination never take such a turn, especially w (...)

9Observations also show the speed with which the ritual ensures conversion of the audience. In the theatre, the audience is delighted that they have witnessed such a scene, and on leaving, discussions between people are sparked on the quality of the performance of the new étoile and the merits of the nomination, even if observation has not identified the dancer’s performance as being particularly brilliant that evening7. In fact, it could be said that the dancer did not become an étoile because she (or he) danced well, but that she danced well because she became an étoile8. Everything happens as if, for the audience, the nomination of étoile represents recognition of exceptional qualities that they have witnessed during the show, whereas it is the act of nomination of étoile which marks the performance out as exceptional ex post.

  • 9 Weber never uses the term “emotional community;” this term is an invention by the first French tra (...)

10If consecration here derives from the authority of the institution, should we conclude that what we are dealing with is more relevant to what Max Weber calls office charisma? To a certain extent, it shares many properties with the latter: it is the force of imposition by the institution that enables distribution of this “character indelebilis” (Weber 2013 [1904-1905]: 313-315) which radically changes the nominee, making her or him into an étoile. In other words, the rite of institution is a rite of reification of charisma that allows it to be transferred from the institution to the individual, as in the coronation of kings or the ordination of priests. And the ritual’s entire aim is to ensure the social magic of this transfer. Nevertheless, the ritual cannot be separated here from what has taken place just before it: a solo performance on stage. The very art of the étoile nomination is in the way it plays on this temporality, so that the act of nomination is perceived and experienced as the reward for the evening’s stage performance. In a way, the audience plays the role here of an “emotional community9” allowing the act of institution to be passed off as recognition of personal charisma. However, as consecration by the institution is also always suspect, the newly nominated étoile’s subsequent performances must confirm their title to be legitimate. The company management is therefore systematically careful to put a newly nominated étoile in roles in which she has every chance of excelling, and to provide preparation and rehearsal conditions which give the best chance of producing a performance that matches the recently acquired title. However, Opera-goers are a favourable audience, all the more likely to adhere to the consecration by the institution because it recognizes its value.

  • 10 In recent years, one nomination that nevertheless met with some criticism within the company was t (...)

11However, we should not overinterpret the effectiveness of the ritual’s symbols. This alone would not be enough to establish the étoiles’ charisma, even given the prestige of the Opera, if they were not reinforced by elements which appear to be objective, “cum fundamento in re” (Bourdieu 1982: 59). Otherwise nominations would likely be considered arbitrary and would spark controversy. However, this is very rarely the case, both publicly and within the company10. The stage performance preceding the nomination clearly fulfils this role. But behind the moment of rupture of the nomination lies a much longer endeavour to ensure recognition of the charisma of certain figures by the audience, but also and especially within the Opera in the eyes of the other dancers in the company as well as those who receive the sacrament. In other words, for the magic of the nomination to operate, a considerable effort must take place upstream to inculcate the belief in charismatic superiority.

1. 2. The Internal Promotional Competition and the Fiction of the Hierarchy of Charisma

12Like all classical ballet companies, the Opera Ballet is a highly hierarchical organization with a strict division of labour that corresponds to the position of roles on stage. At the bottom, dancers within the corps de ballet dance in a context of impersonality in which each individual forms one and the same body with the group (the strength of the corps de ballet is in its homogeneity, prohibiting any individual distinction); at the top, the dancers are alone on stage. The higher a dancer climbs the on ladder, the further she or he escapes the collective and gains recognition of personal qualities in the eyes of all. The hierarchy of ranks is thereby also a hierarchy of charisma. The belief in charisma is already embedded to a certain extent in the hierarchical structure of the institution. The company comprises three categories of corps de ballet: ‘quadrilles’ (who are the understudies); “coryphées” (who perform corps de ballet roles); and “sujets,” who also dance in small ensembles and can substitute the semi-soloist roles. Above these are the premiers danseurs/premières danseuses (semi-soloists and soloist understudies) and finally the étoiles. A dancer can only join the Opera as a quadrille. The Opera Ballet is a closed labour market, so to speak (Paradeise 1984), in which to move from one category to another, a dancer must pass the internal promotion competition allowing her to compete for the nearest category above, except when it comes to becoming an étoile.

  • 11 It has been moved a little earlier in more recent years.
  • 12 This description results from observing several competitions over several years from 2004 to 2011. (...)

13The competition takes place every year, on stage at the Palais Garnier opera house before an audience of guests, shortly before Christmas at the time of this study11. One day is dedicated to male dancers, and another to female dancers. Each begins with the quadrilles grade and ends with that of sujets. For each grade, the competition includes two tests: one set soloist variation, danced in similar conditions for all (without costume or scenery and with the same accompanying pianist); and a free variation chosen from the company repertoire, this time in costume, with recorded music and possibly including some scenery accessories. Each day begins with the entrance of the director of the Opera, followed by the jury of ten members, half composed of management representatives, and half of representatives chosen from among the dancers12. Once the jury is in place, the director of the Opera, alone in the middle of the floor, rings a bell. The room goes dark, the curtain rises, then someone appears on the edge of the stage and announces the opening of the competition for the first grade, giving the name of the set variation and of the first candidate. When the announcer leaves, the pianist begins to play, and the candidate appears. When their variation is over, the dancer greets the jury with reverence and leaves the stage. The director then rings the bell again to call the next candidate. During the tests, members of the public (situated at a distance in the tiers) are not permitted to applaud or express themselves in any way. At the end of the day, after several hours of deliberation, the results are publicly displayed in the courtyard of the theatre staff exit. For each category, they show a ranking of the first six. Promotions are distributed among them according to the number of positions available.

  • 13 Only between one and five positions are open per year in each corps de ballet category. However, t (...)

14This system gives the promotional competition the appearance of an objective selection13 of individual performances witnessed by all. All candidates in each grade take the same test, under the same conditions, at the same time. The composition of the jury, with parity between members of management and dancers of the company, gives the judgement the strength of a legitimate peer-controlled evaluation. Finally, by taking place in public rather than behind closed doors, it is subject to monitoring by spectators and thus appears protected from flagrant injustice. Spectators often get involved ranking dancers according to their performance and then comparing their results with those of the jury, in short, noting their hierarchy of charisma. It is not uncommon, for example, to see spectators with a little notebook, jotting down their impressions, and then discussing between themselves when the tests have finished, exchanging their point of view and their personal ranking. This type of behaviour gives the competition a rather surprising racetrack atmosphere and with it an aspect of violence.

15This system of the promotional competition has a symbolic effectiveness that is confirmed by interviews with the dancers. Moreover, it is rare for a promotion to be called into question, or a lack of promotion even if it was expected. Above all, in the eyes of the dancers, the annual repetition of the competition is what truly ensures legitimate distribution of each according to her or his "talent." Grégoire, a 28-year-old sujet dancer, says:

It can also be unfair because you may not perform well in a competition. Okay, but you’ll have another go next year. There’s a side that’s very … I don’t know. I feel selection is made naturally. When you have people who are competent, they are competent, if they have talent, they have talent.

16In other words, even though a dancer may fail in a competition, the annual repetition offers the guarantee of recognition of the charisma she or he possesses, or on the contrary confirmation of its absence. This type of representation is very common within the company. For some, the competition produces a “natural selection;” for others it ensures the “order of things” (Laillier 2011). It is because differential properties are considered to be not the result of training, but rather the mark of personal charisma that some see such astonishing naturalism. The competition works in both directions: success represents the recognition of a dancer’s charisma and potential and an opening of possibilities, but accumulating failures is also seen as proof that a dancer has reached their rightful position given their “talent.” Grégoire has failed the competition for several years when he explains, however, that he sees it as a fair mechanism for the distribution of each person’s place. The dancers are thus very attached to the promotional competition, seeing it as a mechanism which guards against excessively arbitrary judgements. Under the recent directorship of Benjamin Millepied, who wanted to abolish the competition, the dancers of the corps de ballet were asked whether or not they would like to keep it; they unanimously voted in favour of its retention.

  • 14 I base this on 16 trajectories of premiers danseurs and premières danseuses who held this position (...)

17As if to confirm their charisma ahead of a nomination, étoiles experience successive and early successes in this internal competition. Of the last thirty étoiles (who held the title between 2008 and 2018), the vast majority (27/30) reached the position of sujet in five years at the most, that is to say at less than 22 years of age on average. And the majority were premiers danseurs or premières danseuses before they were 25: in less than seven years for 19/30, or less than eight years for 23/30. Premiers danseurs and premières danseuses who have not become étoiles have not had such a fast trajectory14. Only one in two becomes a premier danseur or première danseuse in less than eight years (8/16) and almost all reach this position in more than seven years (14/16), so after the age of 25. Age is also a fundamental criterion in the judgement categories; it is key information in the evaluation grid available to each member of the jury. These early pointers thus nourish reputations of being “étoilable”: the precocity of trajectories makes success pass for the sanction of natural personal qualities rather than as the result of acquired knowledge.

Figure 1. Evaluation grid used for the internal promotion competition between 2005 and 2010 (anonymised version)

Figure 1. Evaluation grid used for the internal promotion competition between 2005 and 2010 (anonymised version)

Source: Paris Opera Ballet internal document.

18In summary, the promotional competition provides the institution with the second official face (along with the nomination) of the charismatic recognition attributed to certain dancers. It classifies dancers every year according to their skills as soloists and nourishes the reputations of “étoilable” dancers by attributing their skills to personal “gifts.” In this way, the nomination is always recognized as being in the order of things (only premiers danseurs and premières danseuses are nominated to be étoiles, with very rare exceptions). Nevertheless, we are not dealing this time with a simple act of nomination but with a very sophisticated evaluation framework that is more reminiscent of auditions in theatre schools (Thibault 2016). Although a systematic investigation of the judgement categories is not possible here, we can say that they are largely shaped by the institution in which the members of the jury have been most often since childhood (they are all dancers, or former dancers, of the company, who joined the Opera dance school at around 8 or 9 years old, with the exception of the overall director of the Paris Opera who presides over the competition and who is always from the lyric side, and an external member who is invited by the Ballet management). Thus, the reputation enjoyed by certain dancers makes explicit reference, for example, to former étoiles of the company. For example, one will be seen as a “real Cyril Atannasoff,” another as a “Patrick Dupond,” another is the “image of Monique Loudières.” It is in reference to the institution that we seek those which will be recognized as bearers of charisma. Roles and physiques also identify what is perceived as a distinctive superior quality. Male dancers, for example, depending on their physique, will be identified as danseurs nobles (with a slender physique, long muscles, and thin legs), who are cast as princes, which are considered the more charismatic roles at the Paris Opera; or they will be identified as demi-caractère dancers (often with a more compact physique and whose muscle structure is more apparent), who dance roles which are technically virtuoso but more often secondary in ballets. The latter, despite their technical virtuosity, are less likely to become étoiles. In romantic ballets, they always have secondary roles. Similarly, for female dancers, it is above all their propensity to dance roles of the classical repertoire (and therefore have the physique to match) and to be compared to illustrious dancers of the company, which results in the attribution of qualities that are recognized as charismatic.

19While the Opera is at the heart of the imposition of the belief in charisma, it is not only by acting on the reception of soloist skills and performances that the institution sanctions competitions and nominations. For charisma to work, it must also act on the production of the performance. It is necessary both for certain dancers to develop soloist skills, which the work of the corps de ballet does not allow, and that they manifest dispositions to behave like étoiles. Becoming charismatic thus requires work on oneself. However, the institution makes invisible this learning which is based on (more or less arbitrary) pointers organized by certain influential dancers, and on support networks, to borrow an expression used by Izabela Wagner regarding the making of virtuoso violinists (Wagner 2004), and on dancers’ ability to use these networks. However, the performance’s reception as a personal charisma depends on this invisibility.

2. The Hidden Face of Charismatic Recognition

  • 15 These two trajectories have already been partially presented in another publication, but the analy (...)

20Behind the scenes of the rites of institution, it is through social interactions and support networks, as well as their concrete effects in terms of learning and reputation, that a dancer’s destiny as étoile gradually emerges and that their charisma is established. I will expose these mechanisms by following two individual trajectories: that of Catherine, who was nominated as an étoile in the 1980s; and that, twenty years later, of Alexandra, who would not finally become an étoile15. The singularity of the cases allows us to enter into the social logics of these trajectories, remaining as close as possible to the way in which they are constructed, while revealing structuring mechanisms that we find beyond, despite the temporal gap between them. Both cases also allow us to grasp the instability of charismatic recognition, revealing the arbitrariness of the judgements made.

2. 1. “Learning” Charisma

21Showing that producing a charismatic performance can be learned is probably the most direct way of confronting the belief on which it is based. Yet this is what Catherine reveals when she tells the story of her trajectory. Like all young recruits, her career began with disenchantment over the impersonality of the corps de ballet—the need to get noticed and the hope of being promoted through the competition. But, as she herself explains:

Every time I was at a competition, I was finished. There was nothing left. I was not myself. Because I was overwhelmed with fear. Because when you hear: “Mademoiselle Laroche, ding ding”—just that, I arrived and I couldn’t dance any more. But, honestly, I learned … Since I didn’t know how to take the exam, I picked myself up. I didn’t fall, but I didn’t dance great. And just like a show gave me a boost, taking an exam knocked me down. I didn’t know how to take an exam.

22It was an internationally renowned étoile dancer of the company, Roberto, whom she calls “my master,” who taught her to do the competition. He became interested in her after she was spotted by Vassili, a dancer and choreographer who was very influential in the company in the 20th century, during a show he had come to put on and in which he had decided to cast her when she was only a coryphée and understudy. It was therefore identification by the latter that aroused Roberto’s interest and gave him the idea to teach her not only to take the exam (which she failed just after, as she had every year, although Roberto was on the jury), but also, above all, to dance as a soloist. She accompanied the étoile at his galas abroad, where she was his partner in the main title roles of the repertoire. And from that moment, her career took off.

When I met my master at 20 years old … Um, he made me completely change my way of doing things. I mean everything. I started everything from scratch, from the first dégagé to … everything. I was 20, but I already had 10 years of dancing behind me, I was a coryphée. And that was hard. I was stagnating in the coryphée grade. And when I met my master, in six months’ time, I went up to sujet, one year later première danseuse, and two years later étoile.

23She experienced such an ascent above all because she acquired technical knowledge. She completely reformed her dance technique, developed stage experience as a soloist, learnt the repertoire of major roles, but also learned how to prepare for the competition. Each grade gives collective preparation for the set variation, led by a teacher from the company. But as far as the goal is to stand out, success depends, in reality, on a dancer’s capacity to elicit the help of solo dancers who know the variations because they have danced them, and who can teach what is not learned in group lessons. For example, Catherine explains how she trained for the competition to become première danseuse:

We had Paquita for the set variation, and Roberto made me work on it in a very specific way. At one point there is a relevé-arabesque-plongé. Well, I raised my legs more than average, and he made me work on this arabesque so that my leg was further than at a right angle for the plongé. It’s hard to balance. We worked a lot on that. And then a way of doing things that was my own, but a little bit Russian, too. Moreover the Opera teacher who was teaching the sujet grade would say: “Catherine, not like that!” And then three days before the exam he’d say: “Everyone do it like Catherine.” But what he didn’t know was that for a month, I’d been working in a certain way. And I remember, I almost fell because when I did my arabesque, everyone in the room went: “Ohhhh” [as though holding their breath]. But that said, I prepared myself like a gladiator. On top of that I’d prepared Paquita, and Bhakti by Maurice Béjart. Bhakti, which is a variation of three minutes and Paquita, which is also almost three minutes.

24Producing a distinctive stage performance in the competition requires, as Catherine shows, individual preparation. But this distinction must remain within an aesthetic framework that will be received positively. This is the real issue behind the work on the arabesque of which she speaks, which the Opera teacher took time to recognize as having every chance of being appreciated according to the aesthetic criteria of the institution (because it corresponds more to a “Russian” aesthetic than a “French” one, as represented by the Opera). However, these strategies are not limited to technical learning. They are also found in the choice of free variation. Above all, young competitors must learn not to choose the variation that they would like to dance, but the one that will produce a contrast with the set variation, which will allow them to highlight their personal qualities (vis-a-vis the others), and which is likely to surprise the jury (within a routine where members have seen the same set variation danced ten or twenty times in succession and often also the same free variations). Choosing to dance Maurice Béjart’s Bhakti variation in parallel with Paquita’s was an effective strategy of distinctive self-promotion.

25This ability to attract investment from the most experienced dancers is therefore always vital. Thirty years later, another young coryphée, Salomé, whom I met just after she passed the competition, explains how she was able to benefit from the advice of a première danseuse, Stéphanie, and the ballet master and former étoile Nicolas:

I worked with Stéphanie, who is a première danseuse, and Nicolas, and they really helped me to have confidence in myself, to build morale, so as not to lose your grip if something happens. And mentally, he ... I was very firm in my mind. It’s hard to achieve this quality. He has a sound state of mind like that, he knows where he wants to go, he gives himself the means to get there. He gave me a bit of that. He prepared me mentally for it. He knows what competitions are like, he’s been through them, he knows what can trip you up. ... And then they helped me a lot in choosing the free variations. At first I thought I wanted to surprise them with a variation with a lot of character. And they said to me: “Listen, since you have qualities, you have a sort of nobility or class.” I was technically able, so they told me: “Do a variation that shows off your qualities instead.”

26Not all dancers manage to gain such an investment from soloists with the company, and even less from the ballet master. This young coryphée, whose mother is an artist herself and father a senior manager, is from a wealthy background and took advantage of her application to the most prestigious international competition of classical dance, which she prepared for on top of her work the previous year, to ask Nicolas to help her. She has openly demonstrated a strategy to get herself noticed by the ballet master, and arouse his interest and support. The situation is more astonishing for Catherine who, coming from the lower middle class (her mother is a seamstress and her father is in the military), did not have the same dispositions. In her case, it was being spotted by Vassili that was crucial.

27But this learning is not limited to preparation for the competition. What some learn by accumulating stage experience and working in depth with soloists (without holding such a position), is a set of knowledge and skills that can only be acquired through experience and from people who know the roles and the different ways of interpreting them. Catherine recounts how she first worked on the role of Giselle, explicitly noting how she learned to dance like an étoile before she got the title:

When I danced my first Giselle, I was not an étoile at the time, Roberto prepared me. And when I was a bit further on in my work, he brought Vassili to work on it with me. I’ve got a video of that. He didn’t work on everything I did with Roberto—on technique and so on. I didn’t care about that anyway—technically I was doing everything. What Vassili told me were visual aspects. For example, when Giselle is like this [she shows me], he would say to me: “Not like that, like that, put your neck forward. Because otherwise you don’t see up there.” When you do a movement, all the little things that add to it and that make Giselle… I couldn’t imagine the work there was to do in all that. Because technically, there’s not much to Giselle. He taught me how to do it, what will make an étoile. That’s what Vassili taught me.

28A completely different social reality emerges here that is far from the façade presented by the institution both through the promotional competition and through the nomination. While formally, becoming an étoile requires success in the competition and the showcasing of soloist skills on stage, in reality it involves an investment in the dancer by soloists or former soloists, or even great maîtres like Vassili, in Catherine’s case, who are able to transmit the skills both to succeed in the competition and to dance like an étoile. This is a learning process that requires recourse to a support network and is not accessible to all. But it is precisely because the institution makes this process invisible that the performance is received as the product of personal charisma. Everything is done so that the performance is seen as the sudden or gradual activation of a latent charismatic gift (which suggests a hierarchy of charisma via a hierarchy of positions) rather than of a specific learning process. However, we might consider, as Pierre-Michel Menger does, that informal talent-spotting relies on an equally objective assessment of the “talents” of young candidates, and that the most experienced dancers are best placed to see this charismatic potential which they give themselves the mission of awakening (Menger 1989). This is in any case how their action is perceived. However, holding such a position hides the arbitrariness of judgements which other trajectories reveal.

2. 2. The “Failed” Nomination and the Instability of Charisma

29Successful trajectories like Catherine’s obscure other social mechanisms that contribute to the construction of charisma. For this reason, we will turn our attention to those who do not succeed, or those whose path is less clear. Twenty years later, the case of Alexandra, who remained a première danseuse, highlights the formative commonalities of soloist trajectories—although those who make up the company have completely changed—and the obstacles to consecration. It is these obstacles that are most often made invisible by successful trajectories like Catherine’s.

  • 16 A solo career is never built alone: in the great ballets of classical dance, the success of the so (...)

30Alexandra’s trajectory begins in a very similar way. When she was 22, the ballet master gave her a title role, although she was only a coryphée in the company and therefore should not, in principle, have been able to play it. Such an exceptional role fuels the idea that, among the dancers of her generation, she is one of the future soloists, one of the “étoilables.” Following these performances, noticed by the étoile dancer Pascal with whom she danced, she was invited to accompany him on tour abroad in the summer, dancing at galas with other great étoiles, confirming her reputation as a potential soloist and continuing to accumulate stage experience. Pascal established himself in the company, moreover, as an identifier of future soloists, building a small group of young dancers around him whom he regularly took to perform abroad. From 1997 to 2007, of the nine corps de ballet dancers who accompanied him to galas, all became étoiles (or principals in another company) except two who remained premier danseur or première danseuse. In other words, being part of this circle is at this point a clear sign of confirmation of a dancer’s destiny as étoile. During those years, Pascal played a central role for young dancers of the company, reproducing what Rudolf Nureyev had done a few years earlier when he was director of the company and assembled around him a small group of young dancers whom he took with him to galas. However, it is not only men who play this role. This type of identification and nurturing is often carried out by female étoile dancers for young male dancers and by étoile male dancers for young female dancers. It is indeed necessary for étoiles to have partners with whom to dance16, and partners who match them, especially in terms of size. This leads tall female étoiles, for example, to seek potential partners in the company who are taller than them; conversely, smaller male étoiles dancers will turn to young female dancers smaller than themselves.

31Alexandra was then in a situation quite similar to Catherine’s, with the company management and the influential étoiles investing in her hopes of becoming a soloist, thus changing the way she was seen, and nourishing the charisma assigned to her. And like for Catherine, the promotional competition that followed did not validate the legitimate expectations this situation might raise. Unlike the latter, she would gradually find herself excluded from this support group and experience a questioning of the belief in her charismatic qualities, as much by others as by herself.

I didn’t enter the next competition and then it took me five years to get out of the coryphée grade. Whereas with this beginning, you could have foreseen me going up to sujet fairly quickly. But that didn’t happen. But to a certain extent, for people like Pascal, it was the logical next step. That it didn’t happen … So, I felt like I had failed. I questioned my dance. I didn’t have much confidence in myself already. And I think I tore myself apart a little. The more I tore myself apart, the higher I set the bar to please them. It was a vicious circle.

32Five years later, Alexandra was promoted to sujet. But this promotion required her to establish a second support network, the first group now refusing to accompany her when preparing for the competition. This second group—on the periphery of the company this time and not including étoiles—allowed her to rebuild her confidence, reform her technique, and hope to see another promotion.

So there it was. I was able to get back on track, find a way out of this mechanism. I started to be able to do technical things that I couldn’t do before. All of a sudden, it reopened my hope of succeeding. Working like that allowed me to go further than I could before. I saw an opening for progression. I started doing things I’d never been able to do before. So I threw myself into it. I regained a bit of confidence too. I could see that I was able to do things I couldn’t do before. I said to myself: I can progress so I’ll be able to go further. So I threw myself into it. And I got results.

33Logically, one might think that Alexandra would have regained charismatic recognition and that the rest of her career could unfold like Catherine’s. However, the director of the company would no longer consider her as a potential soloist, as if she had indeed not lived up to the hopes that had been laid on her—a sign that she did not have the charismatic properties to become a soloist. The company management refused to nominate her as première danseuse after the competition the following year by withdrawing the position when she qualified to obtain it, thus opposing the judgement of the jury. Such a situation shatters the façade of the competition, which aims to give the appearance of unanimity in evaluating charisma, by crudely revealing the arbitrary nature of judgements. It also questions, in Alexandra’s case, the recognition of her qualities as a soloist as a distinctive superiority that she would demonstrate on stage. The management could not go against the whole jury too openly: she was still named première danseuse in the next competition. However, she did not become an étoile, the nomination being the sole responsibility of the director of the Paris Opera.

34This uncertainty about the recognition of her charismatic qualities has a tangible impact on Alexandra, not only on how she is perceived, but also on how she perceives herself and her ability to inhabit the role of étoile. She is therefore in a different situation from Catherine. Excluded from the most influential networks, not having not followed a trajectory which led to becoming a soloist via the most obvious route, she does not manage to feel completely legitimate to inhabit the role of étoile.

After what happened with The Nutcracker, I always had the feeling, from then on, like there had been some failure behind it. I spent my time proving to them that … To recover that thing. Again, I had to prove to them that no, they might not have been wrong [by giving me this role]. I think that this Nutcracker and the fall behind it, it always put me back into something where I always had to prove myself again. But starting from further on. And that’s something you find everywhere. Even once I got up to première danseuse, I still worked on this thing. I still did performances where I had to show everyone that yes, I did deserve that place.

35This is undoubtedly a fundamental element in the construction of charismatic belief: the need for the charismatic individual to be convinced that they are the bearer of extraordinary qualities, and the role of the institution in the construction. Elective mechanisms such as competitions indeed produce a confirmation for those elected, in their own eyes as well as in those of others, of the legitimacy of their aspirations to occupy the highest positions and to act accordingly. Étoiles often already behave like étoiles before their nomination, which helps to make the choice an obvious one. The effect of selections and elections on the individuals themselves is often overlooked. However, those who have not satisfied the “royal road” will be all the more likely to constantly seek to regain a legitimacy that they feel they have lost, leading to a quasi-self-exclusion, or at least a form of self-limitation. This is why it is so difficult for Alexandra to behave like an étoile, unlike for Catherine. Remaining obliged to prove her position is legitimate, she cannot inhabit it with the “naturalness” that makes the skills learned pass for charisma and confirms for all the “obviousness” of the future nomination. A second side of the construction of charisma appears here: not only does the institution produce charismatic recognition, but it also produces dispositions in certain dancers to produce solo performances and behave in a way that can be recognized as the mark of a personal charisma.

  • 17 While this is an extreme example, the arrival of a new director is accompanied, most often, by new (...)
  • 18 The management has never withdrawn the title of étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet from a dancer exc (...)

36Alexandra’s trajectory also reveals the very unstable character of charismatic recognition. Here we find one of the central elements of Weber’s theory of charisma. For belief in the charisma to continue, it must be constantly confirmed, making it a particularly precarious form of authority. This tendency is also true for Catherine. A new director of the company, who arrived two years after her nomination, refused to cast her in the company’s performances for the six years of his tenure, even going so far as to ask for her dismissal17. The charismatic recognition that made her position as étoile legitimate was no longer valid within the company (even if she could dance as a soloist outside). In this case, even if the title could not be withdrawn18, it did not guarantee charismatic recognition. Not only do these two trajectories reveal the instability of the belief, but also, to an even greater extent, the arbitrariness of judgements and targeted investment, as well as the contingency of this type of spotting and selection. If Catherine had not been spotted at the back of the studio by Vassili during rehearsals, everything suggests that she would not have been taken in hand by Roberto. Similarly, if the ballet master of the time had not envisaged Alexandra as a potential soloist and given her the chance to dance the title role of a great ballet when she was only a coryphée, she probably would not have been accepted into Pascal’s group or accumulated solo stage experience with him. Yet being spotted in this way is the necessary condition to learn to dance as a soloist, to learn to succeed in the competition, and to be perceived as bearer of the specific charisma that is emblematic of future étoiles.

37The Opera produces the charisma of the étoiles then in various ways. It obscures the learning that allows some to produce distinctive performances; it imposes the reception of these performances as the result of personal charisma, which it showcases via the nominations and the competition; but it also leads dancers to perceive themselves as bearers of charisma to varying degrees. The imposition of the belief thus has as great a bearing on the audience as on the étoile or the future étoile. Those selected perceive themselves and are perceived within the company and by the Opera audience as superior beings endowed with extraordinary personal qualities. And it is because they are convinced of their own superiority that they can inhabit the role of étoile with the “naturalness” and “obviousness” that makes the acquired skills pass for charisma. There is a performative property, so to speak, of the charismatic belief that the Opera ensures.

38Let us return, at the end of this exploration, to what the notion of charisma reveals for the sociological explanation of an artistic elite, and to what this singular case brings to the theory of charisma. In the logic of an approach in terms of “talent” or “genius,” sociological theories of artistic success have studied to a great extent the way certain individuals develop extraordinary and distinctive singular qualities. Norbert Elias’s Mozart (Elias 1991) portrays the strength of a specific socialization; and Tia DeNora’s Beethoven (DeNora 1998 [1995]) shows the decisive influence of the social configuration in which the composer was caught and the resources it offered him, especially within Viennese high society; Pierre-Michel Menger’s theory seeks to show mechanisms for amplifying qualities via cumulative forms of consecration (Menger 2009). In any case, sociological analysis aims to explain the possession of distinctive qualities. However, Manuel Schotté noted how “work relating to the formation of ‘genius’ always comes up against the impossibility even of discerning real differences in terms of ‘talent’” (Schotté 2012: 12). The notion of charisma makes it possible to avoid the pitfall of presenting, a priori, the possession of extraordinary individual qualities whose origin must be sought; instead, it shifts the issue, taking as object not the construction of “talent” or “genius,” but the imposition of the belief in these exceptional properties. However, this is not a shift from the issue of production to that of reception. The case of étoile dancers shows that the notion of charisma provides an analytical link between the social conditions of the production of a performance and its reception as charismatic.

  • 19 Everything in the bureaucratic organization of the Paris Opera seems to depart from the pure type (...)

39Nevertheless, in this case, mobilizing the notion leads to a reworking of the theory of charisma proposed by Max Weber. Since here, as we have seen, it is the institution which provides formal acquisition of the charismatic qualification through nomination. From this point of view, the Paris Opera étoiles fall within a strictly institutional form of charisma19, which Max Weber calls charisma of office, which is for him is characterized by the Catholic Church. But for Weber, this institutional fabrication produces a degenerate form of charisma that is not attached to the qualities of the people who bear it, but to the value of the institution that distributes it. In short, office charisma is diametrically opposed to personal charisma. However, as the case of Paris Opera Ballet étoiles shows, it is not because we are dealing with an institutional construction of charisma that we are faced with a charisma of office. The charisma of the étoiles is perceived as resulting from extraordinary personal qualities (and which are distinctive from those of other dancers) which are displayed on stage. And what this case shows is that such profound action on representations and beliefs requires the strength of an institution. In this case, we owe the institution the recognition of a personal charisma. The Paris Opera produces staging and rites of institution which ensure charismatic recognition of the étoiles, and hides learning in order for acquired knowledge to pass for “personal gifts.” However, it also feeds the representations and self-images of future nominees in anticipation of the charismatic recognition sanctioned by the nomination being perceived as the legitimate expression of personal charisma that is already there. In other words, this case invites us to escape the opposition between office charisma and personal charisma in order to better understand what personal charisma owes to powerful social structures capable of shaping perceptions and beliefs.

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1 This article has benefited from comments and criticism from many people. I would like to thank the following for their valuable contributions to revising the text: Marie Buscatto, Manuel Schotté, Charles Suaud, Pierre-Emmanuel Sorignet, Adrien Thibault, and Christian Topalov, as well as the two reviewers for the journal. The article originated from a presentation made in Lausanne, at the invitation of Marc Perrenoud and Olivier Moeschler, where I also benefited from the comments of Laurent Fleury and Gérard Mauger, to whom I am equally grateful.

2 The étoiles are not charismatic leaders, thus they are different from the figure for whom the notion is most often used: political and religious leaders, for example, who derive the power they have over their followers from their charismatic authority.

3 Jean Philippe Heurtin shows in a very enlightening way what Weber’s approach owes to his reading of Rudolph Sohm and to the Lutheran theory of charisma which he develops (Heurtin 2014).

4 Having observed several nominations in the auditorium as usher, I present here how events recur, although of course slight variations may vary proceedings.

5 In recent years, the position of director of dance has much more often been held by a woman than by a man (unlike that of overall director of the Paris Opera, which has never been held by a woman since its creation in 1669).

6 Television news on the “France 2” channel, April 19 2007.

7 The nominee sometimes doubts that the nomination will come at the end of the performance, a situation that can create stress and result in greater tension in her or his dancing.

8 Audience discussions after a performance without a nomination never take such a turn, especially when the soloists of the evening are not étoiles.

9 Weber never uses the term “emotional community;” this term is an invention by the first French translators of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society) to translate the term Gemeinde in the case of groups formed around a prophet (Favret Saada 1994).

10 In recent years, one nomination that nevertheless met with some criticism within the company was that of Wilfried Romoli, named étoile in 2005 at the age of 42, the retirement age. Presented as “the crowning of a career” (see Rosita Boisseau, “Wilfried Romoli, Étoile At Last,” Le Monde, 27 July 2005) and not of “talent,” it presented an infringement of the logic of the title and a sacrilege for certain that moment since the title was not supposed to be given as a reward.

11 It has been moved a little earlier in more recent years.

12 This description results from observing several competitions over several years from 2004 to 2011. The ritual remained identical during the various observations.

13 Only between one and five positions are open per year in each corps de ballet category. However, there are regularly no positions open in the competition for premiers danseurs and premières danseuses. Overall, the number of positions available in the competition allows mobility of less than one dancer in ten on average annually.

14 I base this on 16 trajectories of premiers danseurs and premières danseuses who held this position between 2001 and 2010 and did not become étoiles thereafter before retiring. I determined this period to be sure of having complete trajectories, which resulted in a lower final number.

15 These two trajectories have already been partially presented in another publication, but the analysis was not carried out within the framework of a theory of charisma (Laillier 2017: 202-209). I was previously interested in the question of vocation without looking at the logics of success. I therefore propose here a rereading of this empirical material.

16 A solo career is never built alone: in the great ballets of classical dance, the success of the solo performance also depends on the soloist’s partner. For example, Rudolf Nureyev’s international success was largely due to the mythical couple he formed on stage with Margot Fonteyn.

17 While this is an extreme example, the arrival of a new director is accompanied, most often, by new étoile nominations that correspond to the choices of the new director and owe their position to him or her.

18 The management has never withdrawn the title of étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet from a dancer except when a dancer leaves the company.

19 Everything in the bureaucratic organization of the Paris Opera seems to depart from the pure type of personal charismatic recognition: “As opposed to any form of bureaucratic administrative organization, the charismatic structure ignores regulated modes or procedures of hiring and dismissal, ‘career structures’ or ‘career development’ structures, ‘salary,’ and any regulation of the professional training of the bearer of charisma” (Weber 2013 [1904-1905]: 271).

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Titre Figure 1. Evaluation grid used for the internal promotion competition between 2005 and 2010 (anonymised version)
Légende Source: Paris Opera Ballet internal document.
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Joël Laillier, « Becoming an Étoile of the Paris Opera Ballet: The Institutional Origins of Personal Charisma »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 12 | 2023, mis en ligne le 08 septembre 2023, consulté le 11 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Joël Laillier

Lecturer in Sociology, University of Orléans, Centre Maurice Halbwachs

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