/ 28 June 2024

French ballet star Guillaume Diop joins Joburg Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty

Guillaume Diop+monike Cristina Lauge Sorensen 2 (1) (1)
Dream team: Guillaume Diop, from Paris, and Monike Cristina (partnering him), will dance in Joburg Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty this weekend. Photos: Lauge Sorensen and James Bort

This is a contemporary fairy tale. There are back-and-forth Instagram likes, a DM from the princess to the prince, with an unusual request, and a happy ending.

IRL, it actually happened.

We are at the French ambassador’s residence, a croissant’s throw from the Union Buildings in Pretoria. I’m being filled in about the real-life events that brought young French ballet superstar Guillaume Diop to dance in Joburg Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty.

Ambassador David Martinon is hosting the 24-year-old Diop, one of the youngest people, and the first black person, to be promoted to the exalted status of “étoile” dancer at Paris Opéra Ballet. In ballet, this is a massive deal.

An étoile (star) is the highest of the respected Paris Opéra’s five ranks. Last year, at the age of just 23, the prodigious Diop bypassed the rank of “premier danseur” in the highly hierarchical 355-year-old company — a most unusual move. 

Paris Opéra has 154 dancers, 17 of them danseurs étoiles.

Joining Diop and me on the veranda overlooking the residence’s rolling lawns is the equally striking and charming Joburg Ballet principal dancer Monike Cristina. They will take the leading roles in The Sleeping Beauty, based on the timeless fairy tale about love conquering all.

The two, who are clearly good friends, are giggly when they tell me how the major coup of getting Diop to South Africa came about.

First, I ask Cristina what made her think Diop should dance here in South Africa.

She smiles: “Very easy. He’s amazing. He’s gorgeous. He’s a nice person. He’s a talented dancer and he’s representing very well for us … so I’m feeling very lucky and blessed to dance next to him.”

It started with Brazilian-born Cristina liking one of Diop’s posts on Instagram. He liked one of hers back. That gave her the courage to slide in with a “very crazy but why not” direct message. She asked him: “Maybe you can come?”

Diop, who had seen footage of what Joburg Ballet has been doing recently, texted back: “Yeah, I really like the company. It would be fun if we could dance together.”

An excited Cristina immediately told Joburg Ballet’s go-getter CEO Elroy Fillis-Bell, who wasted no time making it happen. He elicited the support of the French Institute and the happy result is Diop will perform opposite Cristina in The Sleeping Beauty on Friday 28 June and Sunday 30 June at the Joburg Theatre.

It will be a major production, with around 50 dancers, staged by ballet mistress and producer Sophie Sarrote who, for many years, was a dancer with the famed La Scala Ballet in Milan. 

Set to music by Tchaikovsky, the demanding ballet will be accompanied by a 57-piece Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Chad Hendricks.

Diop was brought up in Paris by a Senegalese father and a French mother. He started dancing at the age of four. He did so because of his sister, who is 18 months older.

“We have a very special relationship and she was dancing,” he tells me. “I wanted to do just like her.”

It is also because he has always been a shy person. 

“When I was little, I wasn’t very good at expressing myself. And my parents noticed dancing was truly a way for me to express myself with my body. And it just seemed easier for me to do so than with words.”

I ask if the shyness is still an issue.  

“Actually, on stage, I’m not shy at all. It’s, like, in life that I’m shy. But on stage I always feel myself,” he says and adds a comment about how welcoming South Africans are. 

“I’m not shy here because I’m very comfortable with everyone.”

Diop joined the Paris Opéra’s ballet school at the age of 12, where he trained for six years.

“I always knew that dance would be an important part of my life but I really decided to make it my job when I was 15 or 16,” he says.

In 2018, he became a professional dancer and joined Paris Opéra, one of the most respected ballet companies in the world. 

He was entrusted, despite his young age, with some of the greatest roles in the company’s classical repertoire, such as Romeo (in Romeo & Juliet), Solor (in La Bayadère) and Prince Siegfried (in Swan Lake), after successfully replacing injured soloists at short notice. 

But like most fairy tales, especially real-life ones, Diop has had to negotiate dark clouds in his stellar career. When he auditioned for Paris Opéra’s ballet school he got racist comments. 

As he told AFP last year: “People told me: ‘There are no blacks at the Opéra,’ ‘They won’t pick you because you’re black.’ They told me I had a big bottom and flat feet — all the clichés about black people.”

Diop feels there is a “glass ceiling” for black ballet dancers. In 2020, he co-wrote, with four other black dancers at the company, a manifesto titled “De la question race à l’Opéra de Paris”. It opened a conversation with management on the lack of diversity, inclusion and representation. 

Management responded positively because it was clear “we wanted to make Paris Opéra a better place for people of colour”. He adds “Even when we wrote the manifesto, I wasn’t seeing it like a political thing. I was seeing it like an experience thing, like a human thing, like sharing what we go through as humans.”

The manifesto, which received support from more than 400 employees at Paris Opéra, reverberated far beyond France, garnering international attention. As a result, significant measures, such as adapting costumes and make-up to accommodate diverse skin tones, were implemented.

Diop says he doesn’t come from an overtly political background but his parents gave them “values like tolerance and living together and accepting other people, no matter what they are, like … you know, if they’re same colour or sexual adherence or not”.

As one of “25 to Watch” last year, Diop has “handled every challenge with grace”, Dance Magazine said in its write-up. 

“How about the physical challenges?” I ask him. 

“It is very hard because you must be very strong but, at the same time, you must not be too thick, so it’s really all about balance.

“I think it’s also mentally difficult because sometimes it’s a very competitive world. So, sometimes it’s very hard to stay focused on yourself, and on your own growth, and not being too sensitive about corrections or the way people see you.”

At Paris Opéra, ballet dancers must retire at 42. In the light of this short career, I ask Diop about lifestyle. “Can you ever go out partying?” I wonder.

“Yes,” he says without skipping a beat and bursts out laughing with Cristina. “I even took him to a party,” she says with a wink.

Can you eat and drink what you want to?

“It depends on when the performance is … if I’m having a show or a performance the next day, I’m going to be careful,” Diop says.

“I’m not going to eat burgers and drink tons of wine. But it’s not so much about how I look but more about having energy and, like, eating the right food.

“We mostly eat pasta or some greens before a show because it gives you long-lasting energy.”

When I ask about his role in The Sleeping Beauty, he gives me the short version.

“I’m dancing the role of Prince Désiré, who is saving Aurora [Cristina] from the sortilege that the wicked fairy Carabosse did to her. So, I’m kissing her and she wakes up …”

Those ballet fans who are fortunate enough to watch their performances this weekend will obviously live happily ever after.