Guillaume Diop, the 23-year-old ballet dancer, says he is “still a little bit on cloud nine,” following his promotion by the Paris Opera to its Étoile category.
The move is the first time a black person has received the ballet’s coveted top rank.
“I haven’t really realised that it has really happened. I feel like it was a dream, but I’m still very emotional and very, very happy,” says the dancer.
Unusually, Diop was propelled to the ballet’s highest rank without having to go through the “Premiere” category for several years.
The “Danseur Étoile” (“Star Dancer”) rank is given for rare excellence and only a handful of dancers have made it there directly in the past 50 years.
“I think that being an Étoile at the Paris Opera is a major honour because it is a title that is very difficult to get. It requires an enormous amount of work and it’s a long way to go, given all the levels there are at the Paris Opera.”
Diop also feels the weight of responsibility that comes with the title. Talking about representing dance and the prestigious French school internationally is something he describes as “a very beautiful institution, three centuries old, so it is a form of responsibility, but it is a beautiful responsibility.”
View this post on Instagram
Diop, who was born in Paris to a Senegalese father and a French mother, was among five black or mixed-race authors who in 2020 published a manifesto “About the Race Question in Opera”.
“The fact that I am described as the first black Étoile dancer of the Opera is not something that upsets me because it is a fact, and I am happy about it,” says Diop. He adds that what does bother him is “when it is passed off as positive discrimination. That’s something I don’t think is fair in the end.”
View this post on Instagram
He explains that it was before starting dance school that he received comments about his colour: “The year I took the dance exams I was told: ‘Look, there are no black people at the opera.’ I was told that I had a big butt, flat feet, all the stereotypes about black people.”
“But then, once I got to the dance school, no, not at all.”
Since starting at the Paris Opera in 2018, Diop has danced in several Étoile roles, with lead performances in “La Bayadere”, “Don Quixote”, “Swan Lake”, and “Romeo and Juliet”.
“I started off in extremely difficult conditions,” he says. “At 21 years old, to take over a three-act ballet with an Étoile dancer in a week is not easy. I had crazy days. I worked from 10am to 7pm. We ate in 20 minutes at 12pm, because I had this feeling that I had to prove that I was up to the task.”
The announcement of his promotion was made on stage following Diop’s performance of “Giselle” in Seoul.
“If there had been someone like me when I started dancing, it would have been easier for me. And I think it would have been much easier for my parents because it would have reassured them. And so I’m really happy and proud to represent that too because I am aware that it will help children and families to get into dance.”
Jose Martinez, the Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director, said Diop’s “artistic qualities, his charisma and his potential” had been the reasons for his choice.
“At no point did it cross my mind to appoint him because of the colour of his skin,” Martinez said, adding: “It’s a very good thing that this has happened.”