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Eleonora Abbagnato

text Teresa Favi

February 29, 2024

Eleonora Abbagnato, the story of an étoile

Our conversation with the director of the Corps de Ballet of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, on the company’s debut in Dubai

She was the first Italian dancer to become the Étoile of the Opéra National de Paris, the temple of French ballet, and for more than a decade she has led the prestigious corps de ballet at Rome Opera House. Eleonora Abbagnato is one metre 70 of nerves, muscle, beauty and extraordinary elegance.

Born in Sicily, the largest island in southern Italy, Eleonora always believed in the spark that was lit in her at the tender age of three: “I’d follow my mum around her dress shop, but instead of playing I used to spy on the girls at the dance school opposite; a few months later, I started taking my first steps”. Her talent quickly became clear, and soon after her eleventh birthday Eleonora left Palermo for Monte Carlo and Marika Bresobrasova’s Academy, where she excelled immediately. The following year she was discovered by the acclaimed French choreographer Roland Petit, and began her ascent to stardom. In 1992, aged 14, she entered the prestigious École de Danse of the Opéra National de Paris. Three years later she joined the company and started climbing the ladder of ballet hierarchy: coryphée in 99, sujet in 2000 and première danseuse in 2001.

In 2010 she was awarded the National Order of Merit for her services to the Opéra and to France, and on 28 March 2013, following nomination by dance director Brigitte Lefèvre, Eleanor was appointed Danseuse Étoile by Nicolas Joel, director of the Opéra National de Paris.

Eleonora Abbagnato

In 2015 she received the sought-after position of director of the corps de ballet at Rome Opera, next year marking ten tears in charge, during which she has succeeded in developing the company considerably, bringing in well-known international choreographers, major productions and high-level guest dancers. All this generated acclaim from audiences, evidenced by the numerous sold-out shows in recent years, show after show. Success after success. And in May, Eleonora Abbagnato and her Rome ballet company are set to perform at Dubai Opera.

Which show will you be taking to Dubai?

We’re taking a show that was dreamed up during the pandemic to give our dancers something to do. I got France involved, and we started working at Palazzo Farnese (the magnificent home of the French Embassy in Rome, ed.) in homage to Angelin Preljocajthe French director and choreographer of Albanian descent, who is definitely one of the top contemporary artists. At my invitation, Preljocaj’s unmistakable choreography and direction returned to Rome with his classic female duet Annonciation (1995), and a new piece, Nuit Romaine, specially written for our company. It was a huge project that also involved collaboration with Dior, who created over 100 stage costumes designed by Maria Grazia Chiuri, as well as Rome Opera House, obviously in partnership with the French Embassy in Italy.

You’ve been director of the corps de ballet at Rome Opera since 2015; what does the job mean to you?

These days we’re like a family, but that doesn’t mean I’m not immensely proud of this prestigious role, and I’ve always taken on its challenges and responsibilities with enthusiasm and determination.

What are the company’s strengths, and what are its distinctive features?

It’s a company that’s growing every year, thanks to constant daily efforts, the stimulus of working with great guest choreographers, and openness to innovation and great contemporary dance, along with our important work on the classical repertoire. It’s a competitive combination and highly valued both in Italy and abroad, taking us on tours which - like this one to Dubai - put us on the world’s most prestigious stages.

Eleonora abbagnato

What’s your favourite thing to teach students?

From my dancers I demand hard work, passion and commitment, but what really interests me is their ability to express emotions through dance. With the corps de ballet I also like to transmit something that’s more of a desire than a lesson: how to always surprise audiences and arouse emotions that touch the heart of everyone who comes to see us.

What has been the greatest challenge of your career?

Getting to the home of world dance as the only Italian to take the difficult but important route to enter the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera, an almost impossible goal which I managed with support from Claude Bessy, my teacher during my three years at the École. For me, dance has always come first, and this enormous passion gave me the strength to achieve even my most ambitious dreams, like being the first Italian étoile in the Paris Opera.

Is there an encounter that changed your life?

Yes, with the great dance teacher Pina Bausch; it happened at the most wonderful time in my career, when I was just 18. It was during a casting for The Rite of Spring in Paris. Pina Bausch changed the way dance is done, the approach to our bodies, beauty, femininity, everything, even ordinary life for dancers, and made it possible to express all this in our work.

You’re keen on fashion and always elegantly dressed; what does style mean to you?

I love fashion and follow it closely. My father worked in the fashion industry, with Renzo Rosso (the founder of Diesel), who’s a family friend and my godfather. So from a very young age I got used to feeling confident in beautiful clothes.

Dance and fashion have often intersected in your career…

I’ve always had really friendly relations with big names in fashion, from Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana - among the many dresses they’ve made for me, I particularly remember the one I wore to dance at Sanremo Festival - to Valentino, who designed the costumes for my performance at the 2009 Vienna New Year’s Concert; Laura Biagiotti , who created the costumes for the Baroque Suite ballet; Fendi, and Karl Lagerfeld, who once chose me for a photo shoot at his New York studio; and Dior, whose Maria Grazia Chiuri created over 100 costumes for the Rome Opera show we’re taking to Dubai. These are real, authentic relationships which I carry in my heart and have occasionally brought to the stage in a long-established ballet tradition: think of the artistic partnership between Roland Petit and Yves Saint Laurent.

What do you value most about made in Italy fashion?

It’s one of our strengths. The excellence of Italian fashion distinguishes us in the world. In itself it’s a form of culture. This year we’ve done something similar with our wonderful Italian choreographers, creating a Young Choreographers’ Evening to showcase Italian excellence in contemporary choreography.

Ms Abbagnato, is there a dream you haven’t yet achieved?

I already have everything I wanted.


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