She was featured in Reset (the 2015 film documenting Benjamin Millepied's creation of a new ballet), and bloomed in leading roles as a breath of fresh, American, air was hitting the Paris Opera Ballet. Her rock-solid technique, combined with contagious energy and sparkling musicality singled her out as a rising talent by Millepied's standards. As a POB-bred dancer, Eléonore Guérineau excels in pristine footwork and elegant épaulements, embodying the long-cultivated qualities of the école française.

But a few months ago, the 29 year-old sujet (soloist) announced she would take a year off to leap over to Ballet Zurich. She has been offered a soloist position by Christian Spuck and she is eager to flourish and take on new roles. “I loved that Ballet Zurich is a small-scale company of 36 dancers, where I could take the time to dig further into a role. I took a class there before signing my contract and found the atmosphere inviting”. The repertoire is wide, ranging from classical ballets such as Ratmansky’s Swan Lake and Bart’s Giselle to neoclassical works by Spuck himself or contemporary pieces. "Performances in Zurich are rarer than in Paris: each one must be jaw-dropping for the audience. It’s a lot of pressure but the challenge feeds my motivation".

As she welcomed me in her happy, suburban family house, it was hard to believe that this serene mother to a 4 year old daughter was about to leave her cozy household to pursue her career abroad. “I’m taking the dog with me”, she says cheerfully. The decision to leave alone was hard to take but Eléonore Guérineau says she is supported by an understanding husband (a professional photographer). Having a daughter almost deterred her from moving out, and then she thought it could set an example for the little girl. “I want to teach her that it’s important to fulfill her dreams”. Her grand écart between Paris and Zurich was made possible thanks to fundraising. Although she highly values the Paris Opera Ballet, which she calls home, Guérineau feels it’s just the right time for her to seek artistic opportunities elsewhere. “I’m nearly 30 and I’m hungry for new roles. I do need to move forward, to challenge myself. My body is still in very good shape. It’s now or never for my classical career to take off!”. In spite of stunning performances at the yearly internal concours de promotion (POB dancers have to pass an internal audition each year to be promoted from one rank to the next), Guérineau didn't make it to the rank of première danseuse (first soloist) in the past years. However, she was noticed earlier on by “great names” in the ballet world. Manuel Legris approached her when she was still a coryphée. “I was debuting in the company back then and I didn’t feel like leaving. I believed I could make things change for women with my petite, athletic frame”. But, she recalls, « I remained an understudy for 8 years until I was promoted to sujet (soloist) in 2013. Before that, I didn’t get the opportunity to dance on stage the minor classical variations I rehearsed every day in the studio». Some choreographers (none other than Jean-Guillaume Bart and William Forsythe) offered Guérineau her first standout moments under the spotlight. Forsythe threw her into the deep end by casting her in Artifact Suite when she was only 17. “He prompted an epiphany. He taught me how to channel my energy into creative phrasing. I started to understand who I was as a dancer. It allowed me to free up my dancing in the classical ballets”. Forsythe also advised her to seek inspiration from Ghyslaine Reichert, a former corps dancer with unusual features. Guérineau deemed it was a positive message for her tiny, slightly muscular stature, in a stereotyped company. But over the years, very few roles came her way. 

Millepied changed her dancer’s life, though, by casting her as Lise in La Fille mal Gardée in 2015 and then as Giselle in 2016. The latter came as a real shock to Guérineau: “I couldn’t believe it until I began rehearsing the role. Giselle was a myth to me. My coach was Monique Loudières, whom I deeply admired as a dancer, and the journey proved inspiring. I realised that I needed to be nurtured as a soloist. Corps de ballet implies collective work only. It can be powerful, when we align in a V of doom-laden swans for instance. But I need to grow as an individual now”. Her joyful presence on stage made her a natural fit for the first act of Giselle. “I was told to hold back my inner energy, which was only suitable for La Fille. Giselle radiates tragedy from the start and she’s genuinely in love. I could spend my life fine-tuning my interpretation of the characters” More unexpected was her take on the second, white act, as the so-know sunny dancer ethereally flew onstage, infusing the steps with expressive life. “I focused on exuding a serene softness, letting go of all the tensions in my upper body. Monique Loudières helped me mold the ghostly character my way. I tried to be more than a romantic 19th-century engraving, in an attempt to speak to the modern audience”. Modernising classical ballet is an ever-concerning challenge for ballet companies and Guérineau might have found a way to achieve it by incorporating references from her everyday life. Indeed, Giselle revealed a promising vehicle for her dramatic potential. Unsurprisingly, she refers to Monique Loudières or Elisabeth Maurin as childhood models, both admired for their interpretative aura. "Being small, I wouldn’t be able to identify to Zakharova", she laughs. But she admits being captivated by superstar Sylvie Guillem, a long-limbed “flamboyant dancer of unrivaled intensity”. When it comes to contemporary ballerinas, Guérineau says she looks up to Marianela Nunez for the rich nuance of her dancing. Another highlight for her as a spectator was Nicolas Le Riche’s Boléro. “I was awestruck by his performance”.

Born with natural gifts, namely beautifully arched feet and a soaring jump, Guérineau’s training was not an easy ride. She took her first ballet steps at 3 in kindergarten and realised how much she loved it when classes abruptly stopped. Raised in the suburbs of Paris, by parents who had no connection to ballet, Guérineau soon became serious about it and won various competitions, before she got accepted at 11, after one failed attempt, into the prestigious Ecole de danse de l’Opéra de Paris, directed by Claude Bessy at the time. “My first year there was far from fun”, she recalls, giggling. “Even though I already had fairly advanced technique, even on pointe, I had to learn everything from scratch like all the other girls. Luckily, I skipped a class and got admitted straight into the upper level. But I was still a Bambi back then”. Guérineau remembers that she exhausted her own body out of perfectionism. As a result, inevitably she slipped into bad habits. “I was afraid I wouldn’t fit into the expected stereotype. I had to take extra weekend classes to regain my posture”. Once the French technique was ingrained in her body, Guérineau could relish the challenge of being creative. She owes much to her teachers, of course, quoting Mrs Cerrutti and Arbo as major tutors. She was only 16 when she was hired by the POB, after dancing an extract from Cleopatra. It’s noteworthy that strong characters suit her well: indeed, when she was promoted to sujet, it was thanks to her interpretation of Carmen.

Although she’s always been a powerhouse technician, Guérineau says she now wants to be more than that, and is keen to develop as an actress and explore as many styles as she can. A versatile dancer, Guérineau was overwhelmed by her encounter with Crystal Pite, one of the hottest choreographers right now. Living to the fullest is her mantra and she expects artistic growth from her Zurich experience, although she’s aware that she will be constantly challenged. Her family duties kept her busy in Paris, and Guérineau had very little time to indulge in hobbies. When in Zurich, she hopes to take to teaching. But her schedule in late August will already be hectic: the whole company will be rehearsing Spuck’s latest creation, Guérineau says, her wide blue eyes gleaming. A flying start for a rare bird.