INSPIRING ARTISTRY THROUGH DANCE
Marie-Jose Payannet watches students rehearse a piece in her Louisville-based studio, Danse Etoile, on a rainy afternoon. Set to modernistic music with a pulsating bass beat, the dancers circle one another, flapping arms with a sharp head-bobbing movement. “They are ravens,” she explains, not taking her eyes from the couple. “Stretch the fingers! Sharper movement!” she calls out over the music, her body subtly moving in sync with the choreography.
Though Payannet claims it has been quite some time since she has taken a ballet class herself, it is clear from observing her that she is a trained ballerina. Her movements are graceful, her neck long, her posture elegant. In her youth, she achieved her ballet training at the Conservatory of Classical Dance and Music in Avignon, France. Though she auditioned for and was accepted to Paris Opera Ballet, her parents wanted her to stay at home with them and remain in school. As a result, she studied ballet in the evenings after attending school full time, on days that didn’t end until 10 pm. “I knew I was never going to be an etoile (star). But I had a passion for dance and I wanted to pursue it,” she explains.
After studying and performing as an apprentice in a ballet company in France, she married and moved with her husband to the United States, where she danced as a principal with Huntsville Ballet and performed various roles as a guest artist. She began teaching after suffering a back injury and enduring a car accident, and was subsequently asked to be the apprentice company director at the former
Ballet Nouveau in Broomfield, Colorado. Extensive experience in various companies and schools across the world led to a pull to begin choreographing and teaching students in her own way. Payannet founded Danse Etoile in 2004. “In very big classes, many students get forgotten. I wanted to do something to focus on everyone, not just the best one. I love to choreograph, I wanted to be free to do whatever… very different things, modern, contemporary, ballet… I wanted to be free,” she elaborates, eyes shining as she sits surrounded by photos of exuberant dancers in impressive poses: These are examples of her students performing in her works.
Still, it has not been an easy experience. Payannet started Danse Etoile with “$100 in my pocket,” and there have been struggles ever since. Finding studio space, completing grant applications after long days in the studio, having enough men to do partnering roles, and losing students after they graduate and move onto college have all proven challenging. These difficulties were made even more intense as Payannet persevered as a mother and woman in an industry where leadership is often male-dominated. “I forgot that it is a man’s world,” she says. “There was a feeling that I had to prove myself.” And prove herself she has, with dedicated regular audiences and sold-out performances. This success is attributed not only to her students’ training, but also to the unusual story ballets selected by Payannet. Audiences will not see typical ballets by Danse Etoile. There are no familiar strains of “Waltz of the Flowers” emanating from her studio. “So many companies do Nutcracker; I don’t think I would add anything by doing one,” she explains. Rather, Payannet creates unique ballets to stories such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Snow Queen, collaborating with Colorado-based composer Bruce Klepper to create truly original works. “I want to inspire exploration of art, for people to go home and want to research these stories,” she says.
Not just the stories are different; the dancers are as special. This is an emphasis of Payannet’s school and company. “When you go to a huge company, in the corps it is important for everyone to blend. It’s beautiful for a visual element. But I feel also that the uniqueness of the person will shine if you give them the opportunity, and they then become a better artist for it. Even though technically they might not be perfect, the audience appreciates the artistry of each dancer.” Indeed, Payannet emphasizes the importance of teaching her students to be artists, and not simply technicians, though she acknowledges that both are important. “We talk about music, we talk about art, painting. During summer intensive, I have them read poems and recite them in performance. Trying to encourage them to be artists in a general way (not just dance) will encourage them to go to the theater, to read books, to paint,” she says. “We don’t give a chance to young people to be smart sometimes; we dumb them down. I think that teachers should be harder and expect more. You raise the bar, and they meet it. If we continue to do that as teachers and parents, ballet and classical music will survive.”
Briana Selstad Bosch is a Denver native. She trained in classical ballet with the late Karen Williamson of American Ballet Theater, Kris Kehl of Colorado Ballet, and Carla Parks’ Academy of Classical Ballet. She went on to train at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and Colorado State University with Melissa Corr and Jane Slusarski-Harris, While at CSU, Briana obtained her degree in Technical Journalism. Following her undergraduate study, she went on to achieve her Master’s in Business Administration from the University of California – Irvine, while training in dance at the Maple Conservatory and working on the brand management team at Disney. Following graduate school, she returned to Denver, where she danced with Ballet Ariel for four seasons and performs guest artist work.
Briana founded Ballet5280 in 2017, a ballet company that strives to create a healthful and supportive environment for dancers. They are in their first season.