French dance star Hilaire fuses tradition, reform as head of Russian troupe

French dancer Laurent Hilaire, the new artistic director of Moscow's Stanislavsky Music Theatre ballet troupe, watches dancers ahead of a performance of Giselle

French dance star Laurent Hilaire, the new artistic director of Moscow's renowned Stanislavsky Music Theatre ballet troupe, has vowed to expand its repertoire while preserving its rich traditions.

"This is an opera and ballet house with a certain history, culture and tradition," Hilaire, who took on the position in January, told AFP during a recent interview.

"The goal is not to make revolution, to change everything. The goal is to open up the company's repertoire."

The 54-year-old Frenchman's appointment represents a rare case of a foreigner picked to head a Russian ballet troupe.

Spanish dance legend Nacho Duato's tenure as the director of the Mikhailovsky Theatre ballet in Saint Petersburg from 2011 to 2014 left many ballet Russian critics and amateurs with lukewarm impressions.

Hilaire, a former principal dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet, is now trying to avoid that fate, walking a tightrope between tradition and reform in a country that prides itself on its legendary ballet troupes.

He said his diversification plan for the repertoire of the Stanislavsky Theatre, Moscow's second most prominent ballet and opera house after the Bolshoi, will not reject the ballets choreographed by Vladimir Burmeister in the 1960s.

"There is no way we will touch this," he said. "This is part of the theatre's history. This needs to be kept."

- Becoming an 'etoile' -

Hilaire's ties to Russian ballet predate his appointment to the Stanislavsky.

In 1985, the 22-year-old Hilaire was named principal dancer -- or "etoile" -- by legendary Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev after a performance of Swan Lake choreographed by Burmeister.

The former ballet master of the Paris Opera is now set to stage Serge Lifar's "Suite en Blanc", William Forsythe's "The Second Detail" and Jiri Kylian's "Petite mort" in July, his first programme at the Stanislavsky.

"For this first night I wanted three emblematic pieces that represent what I want to offer the company," Hilaire said.

Hilaire, who has a five-year contract with the troupe of 120 dancers, said he is pleased to work with artists who "wish to grow" and dance in a very "physical, committed and unselfish" way.

"I could have never imagined becoming the artistic director of a theatre like the Stanislavsky," he said. "This occurred very naturally, although this happened without me being aware to some extent."

- In Petipa's footsteps -

Hilaire is the first Frenchman to lead a Russian ballet theatre since famed choreographer Marius Petipa, who was invited by the imperial ballet to work in Saint Petersburg in the 19th century.

Despite arriving in Moscow in the dead of winter, with temperatures sliding to minus 30 degrees Celsius, Hilaire says he enjoys living in the Russian capital.

He speaks to dancers through an interpreter but hopes to be able to speak to them in Russian in the near future.

At the time of his appointment, observers said Hilaire's work could be hindered by a language barrier, an issue the French star is trying to avoid.

"I spent many years at the Paris Opera Ballet, I come from there, but I have also worked a lot abroad, in the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia," he said.

"Of course I want to pass on the experience I have gained."