Thursday, May 5th, 2022
Samuel Akins - Part 1: Black in the Paris Opera Ballet
Cover image: Samuel Akins
Image by Jess Brohier
I met Samuel Akins because of a Facebook message recently posted by Patrick Banks of Little Africa Village. Banks was inquiring about an apartment for Akins, who was "coming to a pivotal point" in his time at the Paris Opera Ballet. Though I was unable to assist with the living arrangements, I immediately offered to interview Akins for the ETBP blog and Banks introduced us by email. Akins and I had a delightful, no-holds-barred conversation last Saturday, and this post is the result! Read Part 1 below.
A Birmingham, Alabama native, Samuel Akins is a 25-year-old African-American man who has been dancing professionally since the age of eighteen. He fell in love with the art form at the age of seven and studied at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. He went on to study at the Professional Children's School and trained at the American School of Ballet in NYC before relocating to the West Coast to join the Los Angeles Ballet. He danced there for four years, and then returned to his hometown to dance as a principal in the Alabama Ballet.
From Birmingham, Akins moved to Melbourne, Australia for personal reasons, and wanted to pursue dance there. After 2 years of searching, he was unable to find work in Australia. During this time, he co-founded an advocacy organization called Diverse Dancers Australia to address the lack of diversity within the Australian dance community.
We pick up the interview here.
ETBP: When did you get the idea to pursue dancing professionally in Paris?
SA: Well, it was in the French courts and at the Paris Opera where most of the codes of ballet were created. So, when we're learning about dance and dance education, we learn about the Paris Opera. It's the first thing up for a lot of us. It's considered one of the world's best ballet companies ... and obviously the first. I never imagined myself here or with this company for a multitude of reasons ...
Around this time last year, I decided that I needed to continue with my career. I couldn't wait any longer to find an Australian company to accept me, and I sent audition applications everywhere. I was on a random Website and saw that there was a concours (competition) for the Paris Opera Ballet, which was happening in July. I knew this didn't happen frequently, and when it did, there were generally specific criteria for acceptance - certain age ranges and similar things.
But this was an open competition!
I told myself that this was a dream, but that it wasn't for me.
I was teaching in a ballet school in Melbourne at the time and I'm very close with the director. I told her about the competition and she convinced me to apply. And just as I made the decision, Melbourne went into another Covid lockdown!
Thankfully, everything kind of transcendent happened - the day the lockdown lifted was the day the application was due. I rushed to drive to the dance studio and took photos with my phone. Because of the time difference between Australia and France, I was very concerned that I might miss the deadline. So, instead of waiting until I got home, I pulled over to the side of the road and uploaded my application.
The following Monday morning, I received an email invitation asking me to come to Paris to audition in person!
At that point, I had about three weeks, four weeks, 4 1/2 weeks to decide if I was going to go and how I was going to train, because I had been in lockdown!
Samuel Akins at the barre at Paris Opéra
Image courtesy of Samuel Akins
Akins then explained how he had to petition the Australian government to leave the country because of the audition, obtain a visa, and arrange to get a Covid vaccine so he could enter France (he was not old enough to be vaccinated at that stage of the pandemic). Once all that was accomplished and he purchased his plane ticket, he had roughly 2 1/2 weeks to train. Jasmina Stevkovski, the director at the Melbourne Academy of the Arts (where he taught), saw him training alone after putting in a full day at work and volunteered to help him.
ETBP: What did the interview process consist of?
SA: The audition was on Tuesday, and I arrived late Sunday or Monday. I took a class the day before because I had heard that the Paris Opera dances on a raked stage,* and I'd never done that before. I also wanted to take a French ballet class because the French style is a bit different from how I was trained in the American style.
When I walked into the audition, I saw so many men from all over the world -- people pulled up with their suitcases and talking in Russian, Chinese, French, Italian, Brazilian, every language ...
They put us all in a dressing room, and it was like a scene from like a movie ... guys going everywhere, getting dressed ... hairspray, makeup, putting on the numbers ...
Because my name is Akins, I was Number 2 out of about 200 people!
I hadn't taken any French at the time. I understood some, but everything was in French.
Palais Garnier auditorium and stage
FHKE - Source: Wikimedia Commons
There were several rounds of auditioning. We had the barre round, and there were cuts. Then there was a center round where they gave combinations and you danced in the center, followed by more cuts. For the final round, you have to perform the variation like the solo they chose.
And the whole time, there's a jury of about 25 people from the Paris Opera watching you, including the dance director, the Director General of the Opera, dancers, teachers, étoiles - people who have been a part of the opera for more than eight years. They make the decision, and it comes down to tallying points that you score.
For the first two rounds, they called out numbers. I couldn't really understand, but I managed to make out that I had been selected to go on to the second round. After the second round, they called the dancers selected for the third round by name - including me.
There was a young woman administrator watching the audition and I told her how scared I was. A man behind me assured me that it was very good that I made it that far because usually, somebody who's not French or not even European never makes it that far. I was the only brown person in the audition.
For the final round, when they call your name, you bow and walk down some stairs. You signal for the pianist to begin playing, and then you dance. I remember that when they called my name, my nerves went away, and I just performed for my life.
When the final ranking is announced, the dancers assigned numbers 1-4 are usually the ones who are offered long term contracts. I was on the list for short term contracts. About a week later, they contacted me and told me they'd like me to work for the season.
I think I waited in France for about a week, and then things shut down because of Covid. I went back to Australia and returned to Paris to begin working in October 2021.
Watch this 5:41 minute video of Akins entitled "4 Days 'Til Paris" to see him rehearse and talk about his move to Paris for the 2021-2022 season with the Paris Opera Ballet.
*A raked stage is one that is built at an incline. The stage at Palais Garnier is sloped at a five-degree incline from upstage (the furthest point from the audience) to downstage (the area closest to the public).
Read Part 2 of Samuel Akins: Black in the Paris Opera Ballet HERE.