When San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Mathilde Froustey, finally hangs up her pointe shoes—perhaps at 42; hopefully at 45, but only if she continues to work harder and harder to stay in shape—there’s only one job offer that will keep her in ballet: artistic director. That means she’d lead an entire company like a general.
There’s a caveat: the 34-year-old French dancer, who’s lived in the Bay Area for the better part of a decade and is married to Michelin-starred chef Mourad Lahlou won’t leave her adopted home. She mentions her current company, which is led by the renowned Helgi Tómasson (who recruited her here) and the Oakland Ballet, though there are other local companies as well.
But if that doesn’t happen, at least if it doesn’t happen right away, Froustey has another plan for her next act: she wants to open a nonprofit center for the arts that allows artists to create, exhibit and perform without worrying how they will afford it, and without allowing their vision to collapse under a pile of bills. For some time she ran La Maison, a small artist enclave in East Oakland that allowed dancers, painters, photographers and more to create, but she’d like something bigger and more permanent.
“I think artists need free spaces to work and rehearse and exhibit,” said Froustey, whose sentiment is echoed daily by many local musicians that this publication covers, during a break in rehearsal around the block from the ballet’s rehearsal facility.
Ballerinas—they’re just like us!
“I’d like to create a center where money doesn’t apply. Everything is ruled by money here, and art is not and should not be,” Froustey said.
The American ballet system has three tiers of dancers, with the Corps. Du Ballet at the first level. The vast majority of the company is in this tier. They neither make enough money to live comfortably nor have the time to pick up other jobs on the side because the time commitment needed to dance, she aid. And those who are here on work Visas are not allowed to work for anyone else.
“So what they do is … they live with, like, six people in an apartment to pay little rent,” Froustey said. “I don’t know if all the people working in tech can say, ‘Oh, I’m the best tech person in the world’ in order to be paid this huge amount of money while we are some of the best dancers in the world, and we’re not paid [comparably].”
That’s why she wants a place where other Bay Area artists have a chance to focus on creating rather than surviving.
“I’m really privileged because as a principal in the San Francisco Ballet, I’m able to just [dance] and pay the rent,” she said. “I feel privileged and like I have something to give back to my community.”
Mathilde Froustey is privileged,
because growing up in the South of France, she and her brothers was exposed by their mother to various athletic and artistic pursuits. She played soccer and tennis, she swam and she skied, she took horse riding classes. She was in the theater and played violin (which she’s still able to do, at least a little).
And then there was ballet, which—as is now well-known in ballet circles—was not something she was crazy about. Her mother signed her up because she wanted Froustey to work on her posture. Here, Froustey slouches down in her chair to imitate how the self-described tomboy used to present herself when she was a child. She was 10 at the time, where most dancers start when they’re 4 or 5.
“And I hated ballet. I hated it that much that I got fired from the class,” she said. “I was a bit of a hyperactive kid, and my mom was really young. In order for me not to destroy the house, she had to make me do things, and that’s why I did all those things. Ballet was too static for me. I needed to run and play and scream, and ballet was the opposite of that, and it was painful, and my hair was in this bun, and this pink tutu. I was, like ‘eww.’”
Her mom refused to let her quit because the year was prepaid, and took away her skateboard for a week—yes, she skateboarded, too—until she got her act together. She returned more focused and picked up ballet quickly. Undoubtedly, her abilities as an athlete helped her cause. Eventually, she even decided that she liked it:
“‘It’s not that boring. And the music is not that bad. OK, it’s not rap,’ or whatever I was listening to at the time, ‘but that’s OK; I like it.’”
Two years later she was enrolled at l’École de Danse de l’Opéra national de Paris, The Paris Opera Ballet’s professional dance school. That was the beginning of her ballet career, though her mother never pushed her and allowed her to back out whenever she wanted. The ballet school was difficult because Paris was eight hours away from home, and Froustey didn’t have any family with her. She was 12 and could come home just once every three months.
Froustey graduated from the school and climbed the ranks at the Paris Opera Ballet, which has more than San Francisco’s three tiers. Eventually she was promoted to sujet (soloist) just below the top position of principal dancer. She started getting principal (lead) roles and had no complaints with not getting officially promoted higher—for a while.
“After years of that, it got to be frustrating to have the parts but not the title,” she said. “Maybe with age I started to feel insecure. … ‘If the director changes, I’m still the soloist, and if the director doesn’t like me, I won’t have the parts anymore.’ If I’m principal and the director changes, that’s my job. I’m safe. I started to get frustrated and unhappy, and I think there is nothing worse than a frustrated artist.”
She became withdrawn, but then she started to think about finding a solution and remembered meeting San Francisco Ballet’s director Tómasson in 2006 at one of her performances.
“I didn’t speak English at all, so I was like, ‘Whatever,’” she said.
But she remembered that encounter in 2012, when she was ready for a change. So she called him up.
“Literally two days later, I had my principal contract. I didn’t even have to come here!” Froustey said.
Tómasson said he already knew everything he needed to know about her drive.
“She’s a wonderful dancer and she has such great stage presence that really comes across the footlight, and I think something that connects very easily with the audience when she steps on the stage—your eye goes to her,” he said. “The combination of that and her obvious joy of dancing was all there, and there was no question in my mind that she would be the right dancer for this company.
Froustey became one of few people to give up a position in Paris.
“That doesn’t happen. Nobody leaves Paris Opera Ballet,” she said.
For her first couple of years
in San Francisco, as her reputation grew, she kept her path back to Paris open by taking a sabbatical. Many expected that she would be back. But as she fell in love with the Bay Area, that slipped away. On stage, she received the same high-profile roles as she did in Paris, but she also got the security she wanted.
“You need this feeling of security in order to take risks on stage,” she said.
This country’s ballet culture may not be as deep-rooted as it is in France, where it’s been growing since the time of Louis the XIV, but she sees ways in which the U.S. has an advantage. Every big city seems to have a company, with at least one or two companies in every state, she said. France has three companies in all.
“I’m always surprised how many ‘Nutcracker‘ performances there are every December in all of America,” she said. “There is a big dance tradition in America with Broadway, with [choreographer George] Balanchine; it’s just different than France. … It came from immigration; it came from American history. It’s rich, and it’s changing, and it’s inspiring.”
A couple of years ago Froustey was introduced to San Francisco chef Mourad Lahlou. The two fell in love and married last September, and live in Sausalito, where they spend free time hiking in nature. Not that they have had a lot of free time—not even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He cooks for me as much as I dance ballet for him at night, which is, no, I don’t come home, put my pointe shows and tutu on and dance ballet in the living room because I’ve been dancing all day. He’s been cooking all day. … He comes back at 1 a.m. or midnight, and it’s kind of late to do a pot-au-feu.
Before the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders, Froustey would dance most days and Lahlou would work late most nights. He’s yet to miss one of her performances, often leaving his restaurant, changing his SUV for the show, and then going back to work afterward.
That remained true even after the pandemic, when the SF Ballet began doing videoconference rehearsals and classes, and Lahlou worked to keep his restaurants alive. Froustey began helping out at Aziza, on Geary Boulevard, where she dances in her spare time.
She describes their supportive partnership as being each other’s No. 2. Her No. 1 is ballet, while his is his restaurants. At the time of this interview, he was away in Hawaii, trying to open a new restaurant there—plans have changed for the time being. She was rehearsing for what she didn’t yet know would be the one and only performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“We’re fine with that,” she said. “In our hearts, we’re number ones.”
In her free time, Froustey enjoys photography, visiting the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and traveling.
“I’ve never been [what] we call ‘bunheads,’” she said. “A bunhead is someone who’s living ballet, drinking ballet, breathing ballet. I need my time off. I need other passions. … Any kind of art scene, anything art-related that is outside of the ballet will attract me. I’m really curious. Anything that seems interesting or weird, I will go.”
Typically, dancers get one month off each year, when she and Lahlou will go to visit her mom and brothers in France, and elsewhere in Europe or Asia, though this year everyone is staying put.
The ballet company also tours oversees—again, not in 2020—which Froustey also lives for and tries to cram in as much as possible during her time by visiting historical or cultural spots before a class or performance.
The ballet company’s work year runs July through May, with every month through December devoted to training. Practicing for nine hours a day without seeing the stage for so long stresses many of the dancers out, she said. The break this year will be even longer, as the company has announced a season that will run from January to June 2021.
Performing in front of people makes it all worth it, which has been maddening to many of SF Ballet’s dancers. Froustey said that before she would go on stage each time, she made a point to listen to her breath, the movement of the floor, the others dancers moving around her and the technicians working. What we may refer to as “white noise,” she calls “caviar for the ear.” And she can’t wait to get back to that.
“I love the theater’s noise. All those noises you have in the theater you don’t have in normal life,” she said. “This is my noise. I know one day I’m going to stop dancing, and I will never hear those noises anymore.”