The term “étoile” was first associated with the finest soloists of the Paris Opera Ballet at the end of the 19th century to underline a performer's exceptional qualities and charisma. Serge Lifar, ballet master (artistic director), choreographer and dancer at the Paris Opera from 1930 to 1945 and again from 1947 to 1956, sought to raise the quality of the company by officialising and then enshrining the title of Étoile through the gradual establishment from 1940 onwards of a public nomination ceremony within the Ballet: Lycette Darsonval and Solange Schwarz were the first to be named Étoile in 1940. The introduction of the title of Étoile would transform the Paris Opera Ballet profoundly, inspiring a competitive spirit which to the present day helps to develop the artistic excellence of the Company.
Solange Schwarz was the first dancer to be named an Étoile on the stage of the Palais Garnier (with the curtain closed, in front of the other dancers of the Company) at the end of a performance. The performance in question was the premiere of Serge Lifar’s Entre deux rondes, in which she had performed one of the two leading roles (the Little Dancer), alongside Serge Lifar himself (the Statue).
In 1941, Serge Peretti, who had performed in many of Serge Lifar’s creations since the early 1930s, was the first male dancer to receive the title of Étoile.
Ascending to the rank of Étoile—the highest in the Paris Opera Ballet’s hierarchy—is a true consecration which is not earned by promotion through competition, unlike the ranks of Quadrille, Coryphée, Sujet and Premier danseur. Until 1972, Étoiles were named by the Director of the Opera on the recommendation of the ballet master in charge of the Company, then, after that date, on the nomination of the Director of Dance (a post created in 1972).
Alongside Solange Schwarz, Lycette Darsonval and Serge Peretti, Yvette Chauviré appeared in Serge Lifar's great wartime creations: Joan von Zarissa, Les animaux modèles and Suite en blanc. She was named an Étoile in 1941 at the end of the first performance of Istar, choreographed for her by Serge Lifar.
When he was named an Étoile in 1946, Michel Renault was just nineteen years old.
The responsibility of an Étoile is immense: obviously, the title recognizes technical and dramatic excellence, but it is also a commitment to provide outstanding performances in the greatest and most challenging roles in the repertoire.
Roger Ritz was named an Étoile in 1947, at the end of the première of Le Palais de Cristal, George Balanchine’s first creation for the Paris Opera Ballet.
Inaugurated in 1926 by the great ballet master Léo Staats, Serge Lifar gave the Défilé du Ballet its definitive form in 1947: if the Corps de ballet parade in lines, the Étoiles advance alone towards the front of the stage, from the most recently named to the most senior.
If Étoiles are most often chosen from within the Opera Ballet, some have been appointed who were not part of the Company. Such was the case with Nina Vyroubova, the first dancer to join the Ballet directly as an Étoile in 1949 after debuting in Caen and performing briefly with Roland Petit and Janine Charrat’s Ballets des Champs-Élysées.
Liane Daydé was named an Étoile in 1950, when she was just 19 years old.
Standing in at the last minute for Liane Daydé in the title role of Blanche Neige for which she had not rehearsed, Madeleine Lafon was named an Étoile in 1952.
An atypical dancer who saw dance as “a state” rather than a profession, Jean Babilée, trained at the Paris Opera’s Ballet School, was named an Étoile after just four years at the Paris Opera: After his appointment, he would dance on the stage of the Palais Garnier for just nine months before leaving the Ballet to establish his own company.
Like Nina Vyroubova before them, the German, Peter van Dijk, and America’s Marjorie Tallchief joined the Ballet directly as Étoiles in 1955 and 1957. At the time, just a few years after the Second World War, the accession of a German dancer to the rank of Étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet was highly controversial.
Claude Bessy appeared in numerous creations, notably Serge Lifar’s Les Noces fantastiques, prior to being named an Étoile in 1956. The victim of a serious car accident in 1967, she managed to return to the stage just nine months later.
In 1957, Serge Lifar asked Josette Amiel to dance in the first performance of Chemin de lumière with Peter van Dijk: she played the Young Girl. It was in this role, to become her favourite, that she would be named an Étoile a year later.
George Skibine made his debut dancing the cancan at the Bal Tabarin in 1936. After a brief spell at the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, where he created his first choreographic works (1950-1956), and a stint at Ruth Page’s Chicago Ballet (1956 and 1958-1959), he was named an Étoile dancer at the Paris Opera where, in 1958, he became ballet master—a position he would hold for some forty years.
Michel Descombey, a former pupil of the Paris Opera Ballet School entered the Ballet in 1947. A Premier dancer in 1959, he was ballet master from 1962 to 1969, a position he would later hold in Zurich and then in Mexico at the Ballet Teatro del Espacio, where in 1977 he would become co-director and principal choreographer.
At the request of the then Minister of Culture, André Malraux, Attilio Labis was made an Étoile by George Skibine at the end of a performance of Gene Kelly’s Pas de dieux.
Jacqueline Rayet was made an Étoile after performing Giselle (by Coralli and Perrot).
La responsabilité des danseurs Étoiles va au-delà de la scène : pris comme modèles par les autres danseurs de la Compagnie, ils y entretiennent un esprit d’émulation et participent à la transmission des techniques et des méthodes de travail.
Étoile dancers retain their status throughout their entire lives, even after their careers as performers are over. After they reach retirement age—which today is set at 42—some continue their work in house, passing on their knowledge and experience.
Some of them, including Christiane Vaussard, Max Bozzoni, Jean-Guillaume Bart, Carole Arbo, Fanny Gaïda, and Wilfried Romoli will return to the Paris Opera Ballet School as teachers.
Ballet master and choreographer of the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas between 1948 and 1957, then assistant to George Balanchine at New York City Ballet, a post he would hold until 1983, the American John Taras spent a brief spell as ballet master at the Paris Opera in 1969-1970.
In 1971, Claude Bessy was named interim Ballet director. One year later she became the Director of the Opera’s Ballet School, making substantial reforms, notably by establishing a boarding system and overseeing its relocation to a newly-built complex in Nanterre.
Jean-Pierre Franchetti performed in the premiere of Maurice Béjart’s Firebird in1970 at the Palais des sports in Paris, a ballet in which he would be made an Étoile on the stage of the Palais Garnier one year later.
Others, like Serge Peretti, ballet master between 1946 and 1947, Patrice Bart, associate ballet master from 1990 to 2012, or Laurent Hilaire, also an associate ballet master since 2005 have pursued careers as members of the Ballet's executive staff.