The Paris Opera Ballet was good to Mathilde Froustey. She joined the world-renowned company at age 17 after just two years in the Paris Opera Ballet School, worked her way through the ranks, and eventually became a soloist. After 11 years in the company, Froustey needed a change.
At the end of 2013 she signed a contract with San Francisco Ballet, making her the newest, and most talked about principal dancer. "I was really happy at Paris Opera," she begins in slightly self-conscious English that is much better than she thinks it is, "It's a great company and it's a great city, Paris. But I needed to get fresh air."
"[Something that is] very different at San Francisco Ballet than at Paris Opera is that everybody comes from the school. So most of the dancers know each other from eight years old. It's always the same people around you. You cannot get into the company if you have not done the school. There is nobody from a different country. It's all just French people. I felt like I needed to change companies to see something else; to see other people, other languages, other choreography."
"Being a new principal, it's a lot of pressure. I mean, everyone is looking at me. Everyone is waiting to see me onstage. Paris Opera is such a huge company." Froustey pauses. "When you come from Paris Opera people are waiting to see you."
And she's not being immodest here. The Paris Opera Ballet has been a major company for longer than the United States has been a country. The Paris Opera Ballet School has churned out some of the most famous dancers of all time, such as Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire. Ballets created on the Paris Opera Ballet stage hundreds of years ago are still regularly performed today. To say that there is pressure is almost an understatement.
And although there are many similarities between the repertory at POB and SFB, there's still an unbelievable amount of new material to learn. Remembering about a dozen new ballets in one season can seem daunting, especially after 11 years of consistent repertory.
"Sometimes I feel like maybe I'm too old to do this," Froustey says, which is almost unbelievable coming from a woman so slight she could be mistaken for one the the teenage students from the San Francisco Ballet School. "I'm 28! I'm not so young," she exclaims, "I look young, but I'm not! But, no, it's never too late."
Froustey is currently working on the title role of Giselle, a romantic ballet that requires equal amounts of acting and technique. "It's a huge role," she explains, "In your life you have a few ballets that you really want, and this is one of those. But also I'm really shy with it because all of the most important ballerinas in the world have done it. I'm so happy to do it, but I don't want to be just one Giselle in all the Giselles. I want to be special."
Ever the perfectionist, Froustey spends time in between shows and classes not only adjusting to life in San Francisco, (and being blown away by steep rent, "It's so crazy, it's cheaper in Paris!") but also working on her craft with the help of her filmmaker fiance, Charles.
"I like to rehearse my roles with people in the movie world. My boyfriend is a movie maker -- so I used to ask him, 'So what do you think? Is it okay if I do this?' Because he doesn't know anything about ballet and so he has new eyes.... He tells me when I should change something so that the audience will get it. It's important to speak with people who are not in the ballet world."
Along with the new choreography, Froustey will be dancing with all new peers, something that excites her. San Francisco Ballet has about 75 dancers; half the size of Paris Opera Ballet.
"Everybody is working very hard and also everybody is really nice. Really. It's not fake," she says. "Everyone is working very hard and everybody has a lot of things to do. They just focus on their job. It's [the] American way to be, you know? Just focused, being proactive, and working very hard."
San Francisco Ballet's 2014 season starts on Jan. 25 with Giselle, and continues through Feb. 2 at the War Memorial Opera House (301 Van Ness). Visit sfballet.org for more information.