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No. 70: Young Artisans, les petits rats de l’opéra

Today I spent the afternoon watching a very young group of artisans at the annual demonstration of the petits rats de l’opéra at the opulent Palais Garnier.

Les petits rats are a select group of students of the Paris Opéra Ballet, all of whom dream of becoming stars, the best of whom go on to become professional dancers in the Paris Opera Ballet Company.

There is limited information on where the term “petit rat” comes from. When I first saw the term, I thought it referred to the fact that the very young students are always cast in the role of the mice in the Nutcracker. But what I learned today, is that the term more likely comes from the dodgy early history of the lives and “careers” of the young children who danced for the opera house.

Louis XIV established the Paris Opera Ballet and School in 1713. En fait, the school is the oldest ballet school in the world and is where classical ballet technique and terminology was standardized. Louis had high hopes for his ballet but unfortunately his drive for excellence took quite a toll on his dancers, especially the children.

The young dancers in training were not the children of the haute bourgeoisie who lived in the elegant quartiers of Paris. Rather, most were children of the working poor who lived in an extremely different world in the marginal quartiers of Paris. They joined the Opéra between the ages of six and eight to help support their families and worked six day weeks like factory workers. Mostly malnourished, with not much more than the clothes on their backs, many of the dancers were forced to supplement their income by offering sexual favors to the abonnés (bourgeois ballet subscribers). Because of their poor living and working conditions, they became known as the “petits rats de l’Opéra”, or the little rats of the Opera.

Nowadays the rats train in a modern, state-of-the-art location in a suburb of Paris, which houses dance studios, classrooms and dorm rooms. Children come from across the economic spectrum. They attend academic courses in the morning and train between four and six hours in the afternoon. They live and breathe ballet, and pretty much give up their childhood in exchange for the hope of becoming l’étoiles. There are still rumors that their lives are not much better than the earliest rats, published reports (denied by the Opéra) have described an extremely grim daily existence at the school.

Still there is no denying the results are magnificent. The children are thrilling to watch. Their strength, poise, talent and stage presences is staggering for such young dancers. It was inspiring, albeit a bit sad after researching the school, to see these young artisans expressing their passion for their craft, and dancing as if it was the only thing in the world worth doing.

Ecole de danse (saison 2010-2011)

Sur cette photo, tu peux voir les “petits rats” de l’Opéra de Paris lors d’un cours de danse avec un de leurs professeurs. (© Agathe Poupeney)

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. MELewis #

    What a lovely tale! I’d never heard of les petits rats before….interesting that such appalling history has produced such a fine tradition. Merci!

    December 9, 2013
    • You’re welcome. Yes, I was happier when I believed that they were endearingly called the rats because of the Nutcracker…and as a mother of two aspiring dancers, I am certainly familiar with the extreme discipline and likely harsh daily life at a boarding school for extraordinary young dancers. From my daughters’ experience with French ballet masters, I know the daily reality it is even harder in France than in America.

      December 9, 2013

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