Patrick Dupond, French Ballet Virtuoso, Dies at 61

Renowned as both a star dancer and the director of the Paris Opera Ballet, he was a household name in France from an early age.

Patrick Dupond performing with the Paris Opera Ballet in 1986. His star quality and charisma made him a favorite of audiences.
Credit...Pascal George/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Patrick Dupond, a star dancer and former director of the Paris Opera Ballet who won worldwide renown in the 1980s and ’90s for his virtuosity, glittering technique and flamboyant personality, died on March 5 in Soissons, France. He was 61.

His death — confirmed by his companion, Leila Da Rocha, who did not specify the cause — was major news in France, where Mr. Dupond was a household name, synonymous with dance for many.

A statement issued by the Élysée Palace said, “The president of the Republic and his wife hail a great star of the 20th century, who was able to conquer new audiences for dance and make his talent felt beyond our borders.”

Mr. Dupond shot into the limelight at 17, when he became the first French dancer to win the gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in Bulgaria. He was a low-ranking member of the Paris Opera corps de ballet at the time, but he left Varna as a star in the making.

Back home, he began to acquire soloist roles. “I have three more years to go before reaching the rank of étoile,” he told an interviewer when he was 18, showing astonishing confidence about attaining that prestigious title. (The word means “star.”) It is the only one at the Paris Opera that is bestowed at the discretion of the management rather than won through competition.

“I want to dance all the principal roles available — all the princes,” Mr. Dupond said.

His confidence wasn’t misplaced. He was given the title étoile in 1980, at 21.

Along with dancing “all the princes” in the great 19th-century ballets — “Swan Lake,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” “Giselle” — he worked with a broad range of choreographers, including Alvin Ailey, Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Alwin Nikolais, Roland Petit and Twyla Tharp. He became an international star, performing with American Ballet Theater and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and touring with his own group, known as Dupond and His Stars; its members included Sylvie Guillem, Monique Loudières, Manuel Legris and Laurent Hilaire.

His stints abroad and with other companies were partly motivated by dissatisfaction at home. After Rudolf Nureyev became the director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983, Mr. Dupond found himself performing less frequently and looked for opportunities elsewhere. He scored a particular triumph with Maurice Béjart’s company in “Salomé” (1986), a solo in which he emerged in a voluminous dress as a seductive, androgynous presence.

“Béjart understood me completely, my ambivalence, my half-male, half-female selves,” Mr. Dupond said in a 2007 interview with Danser magazine.

Reviewing that solo in The New York Times in 1995, Anna Kisselgoff wrote: “There are dancers and there are dancers. And then there is Patrick Dupond. One of ballet’s few remaining superstars, he may break a few rules, but he will always give a performance in the truest sense.”

ImageMr. Dupond in 1997. “One of ballet’s few remaining superstars,” a New York Times reviewer once wrote, “he may break a few rules but he will always give a performance in the truest sense.”
Credit...Alain Fulconis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Dupond remained a major presence at the Paris Opera. Despite rumors of an uncomfortable relationship with Nureyev, in 1984 he created the role of Romeo, with Ms. Loudières as Juliet, in the director’s own version of “Romeo and Juliet.”

Although at the time Mr. Dupond spoke of a rift, he later denied it. “There was no personal problem between us,” he wrote in the 1993 photo book “Patrick Dupond.” But in truth “there wasn’t enough room for both,” Ariane Bavelier of Le Figaro wrote, even if Nureyev couldn’t entirely dispense with Mr. Dupond’s star power.

In 1988, Mr. Dupond became the artistic director of the Ballet Français de Nancy, showing his taste for contemporary ballet as he acquired works by George Balanchine, Jiri Kylian and Ulysses Dove. His two-year stint there was to be a training ground for the biggest job in French dance: In 1990, he was offered the directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet, replacing Nureyev. He was the youngest person ever to hold the position.

“I know everyone is going to say that’s a little quick,” Mr. Dupond told The Times. “But a lot of things have happened quickly since I was born 30 years ago.”

With the Opera initially locked in a battle over the rights to Nureyev’s versions of the full-length classics — a significant part of the company’s repertoire — Mr. Dupond turned to other choreographers, staging Vladimir Bourmeister’s “Swan Lake,” Mr. Neuemeier’s “Nutcracker,” Mr. MacMillan’s “Manon” and Mats Ek’s contemporary version of “Giselle.”

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Credit...Bertrand Guay/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Dupond continued to tour and to make guest appearances, as well as acting in two films, “Dancing Machine” (1990), with Alain Delon, and “Danse avec la Vie” (1995).

When Hugues Gall was appointed director of the Opera in 1995, Mr. Dupond resigned, later stating that “there was no way I was going to stick around as an understudy.” But Mr. Gall then appointed Brigitte Lefevre, who had been Mr. Dupond’s deputy, as director of dance.

“I can’t say that the atmosphere was great, after that,” Mr. Dupond told Le Monde in 1997. “I wasn’t cast in anything; I was put on the shelf.”

He nonetheless remained a member of the company until 1997, when in order to serve as a member of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, he missed three days of rehearsal without authorization, and he was dismissed.

Patrick Dupond was born on March 14, 1959, in Paris. His mother, Nicole Charles, was 18 when he was born; she worked as a cloakroom attendant in a Parisian brasserie. She first raised Mr. Dupond alone and later with her companion. He didn’t meet his father until he was 30.

His mother signed him up for ballet classes as an attempt to harness his wild energy. Seeing his potential, his ballet teacher introduced him to Max Bozzoni, a former Paris Opera Ballet principal, who took him on as a pupil.

Mr. Bozzoni, who would remain his teacher for life, shaped Mr. Dupond’s early dancing years and sent him to audition for the Paris Opera Ballet School at 10. His talent and charm made him a favorite of the school’s director, Claude Bessy, who championed him despite his often rebellious attitude and frequent misdemeanors.

“Patrick was what he was: wacky, telling lies, making up characters,” Ms. Bessy said in an interview with Le Figaro. “He was a spoilt child and an enfant terrible. Everyone adored him.”

Mr. Dupond was accepted into the Paris Opera Ballet at 16, and Mr. Bozzoni suggested that he enter the Varna competition. After winning the gold medal, he steadily ascended the Paris Opera ranks — although his virtuosic technique and crowd-pleasing style were not to everyone’s taste.

“Of course, you don’t want to extinguish the fire or facility or the enthusiasm,” Violette Verdy, then the director of the Paris Opera Ballet, said in an interview with The Times in 1977. “But you also have to knock him on the head and explain to him that what he sometimes does is in such poor taste that it belongs more to the Moulin Rouge than to the Paris Opera.”

“It’s because I like him so much,” Ms. Verdy added, “that I am especially hard on him.”

Mr. Dupond’s star quality and charisma kept him a favorite of audiences even after he left the Opera. In 2000, a serious car accident left him with 134 fractures, constant pain and an addiction to morphine that took him a year to overcome. But he returned to the studio, working with Mr. Bozzoni to regain his strength. Less than a year after the accident, he appeared onstage in a musical, “Un Air de Paris.”

In 2004 he met Leila Da Rocha, a former professional basketball player who had retrained as a dancer and choreographer. Although Mr. Dupond had always been open about his homosexuality, notably in an autobiography, “Étoile” (2000), he described their encounter as love at first sight.

Ms. Da Rocha encouraged him to appear on several reality television shows, including, most recently, as a jury member on the French edition of “Dancing With the Stars.” Together they taught and staged works at her dance school in Soissons.

In addition to Ms. Da Rocha, he is survived by his mother.

In a 2000 interview with the newspaper Libération, Mr. Dupond set forth his credo as an artist: “To please, seduce, divert, enchant; I feel that I have only ever lived for this.”