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1927— 2007

Photo: Compagnie Béjart Ballet Lausanne



By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 5 DECEMBER 2007— After many years of ill health, Maurice Béjart, one of the most influential and controversial figures of 20th century ballet has died in Lausanne at the age of 80. The man with the piercing ice-blue eyes who became a choreographer because he claimed  he was unable to do anything else*, revolutionized dance, taking it out of concert halls and into public places, bringing  a whole new audience to see his hugely popular spectaculars which combined dance with drama and a certain form of heavy idealism.

Spectators around the world crowded into football stadiums and sports arenas as well as theatres to see his exhilarating and highly theatrical works which were frequently branded  pompous and pretentious by critics who cringed at his indiscriminate use of classical music. He mixed, for example, Bach (Mass in B Minor ) with Argentinian tangos in Notre Faust, Richard Wagner with traditional Indian music as in Les Vainqueurs), and Tchaikovsky with Pierre Henry as in Nijinsky, clown de Dieu.  His bare-footed dancers would wear pointe shoes in the same ballet which adroitly mingled classical technique and modern dance as well as traditional folk-dancing, western or oriental as the case might be.  And more often than not, he gave the solo roles to men rather than women, who were virtually reduced to figurants in some of his later works. Yet while being adored by millions, his long-haired, bare-chested boys also irritated.

But Béjart did what nobody else did; he popularized dance, making it the art of the 20th century, changing its course and giving people the images, emotion and lyricism they craved. And too bad for the critics! At the height of its glory in the 1970's, his company, Ballet of the 20th Century, was one of the most exciting in the world.

Webern Opus V, Choreography: Maurice Béjart
Marie-Agnès Gillot - Jean-Guillaume Bart
Photos Icare

Born in Marseilles, the son of the philosopher Gaston Berger, Maurice changed his name to Béjart as a tribute to Armande Béjart, the wife of Moliere, the French playwright he idolized. He began studying literature before turning to dance and being hired by the Opéra of Marseilles, but the first part he was given consisted in crawling on all fours across the stage of the Opéra of Vichy. Decked out as worm in white satin, his role was to climb out of a cardboard apple in Le Festin de l'Araignée , a fact which decided him to head for Paris to continue his training!

He enrolled at the Wacker studio where he worked with Mme Rousanne alongside Roland Petit and Pierre Lacotte whose names are as important as his own in ballet in France. He then studied with Lubov Egorova before perfecting his training in London with Vera Volkova, the leading western authority on the Vaganova teaching method. He also danced for a year with Mona Inglesby's International ballet, spending most of his time dancing the prince in Swan Lake despite what he considered his limited stature, of 1m 70. This period, Béjart assured me on one of our meetings, had profoundly marked him. It was full of "very special memories".

Variations pour une porte et un soupir
Choreography: Maurice Béjart
Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris
Photo: Laurent Philippe

He danced in the company of Birgit Cullberg as well as the Royal Swedish Ballet and in 1950, created his first choreography, Firebird, re-staged in 1970 for the Paris Opéra Ballet. The definitive version reflected, as did many of his works, the atmosphere of the times which in this case were the dreams and revolts of post-68, and the rhythmic vigour of the music lent itself perfectly to his militant interpretation.

The early 1950's were, however, marked by an intense struggle not only to find his own style, but by the more mundane matters of day to day life, when, lodging in a room with no running water and broken windows, he relied on food parcels from home to survive. In 1953 he founded his first company, Les Ballets de l'Etoile, and brought attention to himself with Symphonie pour un home seul, remarkable for being the first ballet choreographed to musique concrète , recorded sounds not made with musical instruments; he was 28 years old.

Le Boléro, Choreography: Maurice Béjart
Nicolas Le Riche
Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris
Photo: Laurent Philippe

And then matters accelerated when Maurice Huisman, director of the Theater Royal de le Monnaie in Brussels, invited him to create a ballet on Stravinsky's Sacre du Printemps with a specially assembled company of dancers, including Tania Bari, who remained Béjart's ideal interpreter over the next ten years.  Innovative and extremely daring for the time, the work was wildly successful and led to the formation, the following year, of the magnificent Ballet of the 20th Century, which was to remain based in Brussels for the next twenty-seven years. With the staging of Boléro only months later, Béjart's international career took off with the force of a rocket.

At its creation, Boléro, Béjart's brazenly sensual and violent work set to Ravel's powerful score had a soloist, a woman, dancing on a red table surrounded by forty boys, bare-chested, their large eyes heavily made-up, whose repetitive movements perfectly interpreted the implacable rhythms of the music. The ballet was subsequently danced by a man surrounded by women, and then a third version had a man seducing an adoring circle of men. The ballet, originally created by Duska Sifnios, was then dominated by the charismatic young Argentinian dancer, Jorge Donn, Béjart's muse and lover from 1963 until his tragic and untimely death from AIDS in 1992. For Donn, the meeting with the hypnotic Béjart, when he was only seventeen years old, had changed his life. "Never before", he said, "had he seen such virile, magnificent choreography for a male corps de ballet". No one before Maurice Béjart had choreographed predominantly for men.

  Fortunately, both Bolero, as well as Donn's sublime interpretation of L'Adagietto, set to Mahler's beautiful score, have been preserved on film, The Art of the 20th Century Ballet. For Béjart, Gustave Mahler was the last of the great romantic composers, and while Adagietto is a modern work without a story, it is nonetheless about a man who is searching for his soul. Like most of Béjart's ballets, it carries a strong spiritual message.

Jorge Donn, Shonach Mirk, Rita Poelvoorde, Kyra Kharkevitch, Yann Le Gac, Patrice Touron, Michel Gascard and Philippe Lizon were just some of the fabulous dancers who were part of the Ballet of the 20th Century, inspiring Béjart to create a whole plead of triumphantly received ballets over the next 20 years. His Romeo and Juliet, set to the score by Berlioz, which he created in Brussells in 1966, with not only Proenca as Juliet, but with Bortoluzzi, Donn and Patrick Belda, the young dancer who died in a car accident in 1967, was said by many to be a masterpiece. Héliogabale, with Le Gac in the central role, and the joyful, Eros Thanatos , 1980, which was composed of fifteen extracts of previous works could also claim this distinction.

Gaité Parisienne, 1978, based on the life of Offenbach, brought the effervescent Victor Ullate to the fore, while Notre Faust, 1975, was only one of the countless creations inspired by Donn.
While most of his 250 works were for his company, Béjart, when the occasion arose, created for certain star dancers, such as Maia Plissetskaia, to whom he gave Leda.  He was mesmerized by Suzanne Farrell, Balanchine's last great muse, wanting her, he told me in Lausanne, to dance everything he'd ever written and "a 1000 other works" he wanted to create for her. In his Memoires, he wrote that he had felt like Botticelli with the girl who posed for Spring when he first met her. As it turned out, she danced with his company from 1970 to 1975, and created roles in several of his ballets notably Sonate No 5, Bach, 1970 and Nijinsky, clown de Dieu , (1972), inspired by Nijinsky's own diary, where Farrell incarnated Nijinsky's dream, and Béjart's too. Their relationship was to continue as Farrell returned regularly to teach at Lausanne.

Les Chaises, after Eugène Ionesco and set to a score by Wagner,  which Béjart first created and danced himself in Rio de Janeiro in 1981, was presented at the Theatre des Champs Elysées in Paris in 1984 in a reworked version. Interpreted on this occasion by the legendary German ballerina, Marcia Haydée partnered by John Neumeier, it ranks as one of Béjart's major works.
In 1971 he choreographed Chant du Compagnon Errant, set to Mahler's lieder for Rudolf Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi, one of the most beautiful and emotional of all his works. It tells the poignant story of a wayfarer, a romantic student pursued by fate who fights against loneliness before being led away by the hand of destiny. But after 20 years of moving interpretations when it had virtually become a signature role for the Russian dancer in his later years, Béjart, considering it was no longer being danced to his liking, sent Nureyev a letter withdrawing his right to dance it when the latter was so ill. It was one of the French choreographer's less generous gestures.

It wasn't the first time he had crossed the Russian dancer. In 1986, Nureyev had invited Béjart to create a new work at the opera, Arepo, a ballet of limited interest. After the première, Béjart, royally acknowledging the applause, took it upon himself to nominate two new étoiles.  Passed off by Nureyev as an April Fool's joke, the matter should have ended there but for a most unpleasant attack by Béjart in the newspapers condemning Rudolf on the running of the Paris Opéra.

Did he want the post of Director himself? Probably not. He had already been offered the position by André Malraux in the late sixties, together with Boulez and Jean Vilar, and had spurned the opportunity, saying that the only thing to do with the Paris opera was to "burn it down and breed snakes there in the ruins", adding that it had no more interest for him than "a wimpy bar or a Broadway MacDonald's…..rather less."* 

IXe Symphonie de Beethoven
Choreography: Maurice Béjart
Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris
Photo: Jacques Moatti

However, that did not stop him giving the company some of his finest works nor being present on each occasion to rehearse the dancers himself.  Not only do Sacre du Printemps and Boléro form a regular part of the Paris repertoire, but also the French choreographer's ballet on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony . Whether or not one holds with the French choreographer using this "cult" score, the choreography does seem to accentuate its call to fraternity. It more than fulfils the composer's wish to exalt universal man and references to a choir and voices are written on the original score in the composer's own writing. The dance follows the development of the composition from anguish to joy, from shadows to light and it was and remains a work which reaches out to enormous audiences.

The interest of Variations pour une porte et un soupir, set to Pierre Henry's "musique  concrete", created in 1965 and which entered the Paris Opéra's repertoire a couple of years ago, is that it is an improvisation for 7 dancers which takes the form of a game of chance, different each evening. At a time when Cunningham was relatively unknown in Europe, dance to the sound of a door grating coupled with heavy breathing did not go down too well. In contrast, Webern, Opus V , one of Béjart's fluid, timeless pas de deux, created by Jorge Donn partnered by Marie-Claire Carrié in Brussells in 1966, and danced by the Paris Opéra the following year, is one of the most beautiful in its repertoire.

Le Mandarin Merveilleux, Choreography: Maurice Béjart
Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris
Photo: Laurent Philippe

Bhakti 111, 1980, in which Hindu music and gods mingle with classical western choreography, was the result of two successive visits to India where he discovered a country who believed in Shiva, the God who created the world while dancing. After a visit to Iran, where he wandered in the desert and met God in the sun, he converted to Islam. Sept danses Grecques, created in 1986, was given to the Opéra school in 2000. The Miraculous Mandarin , created by the Lausanne company before entering the Paris Opéra repertoire the same year, is a work which owes much to its brilliant staging, with specially designed costumes by Olivier Bériot and stunning sets by the Paris Opéra workshops, rather than to its choreographic content. It is possibly the only work of value since leaving Brussells. After Donn's death, it became more than obvious that "the lemon had been squeezed dry", to quote another prolific French choreographer. Creations dating from and since the disastrous 1789 , when dance gave place to philosophical declarations, to politics and to a certain form of theatre, disappointed even his most fervent admirers.

Le Mandarin Merveilleux, Choreography: Maurice Béjart
Ballet de l'Opéra national de Paris
Photo: Laurent Philippe

After a quarrel with the management of the Theatre de la Monnaie in 1987, Béjart disbanded his company and formed another troupe in Lausanne, changing its name to Béjart Ballet Lausanne, while Mudra, the international school of dance and the performing arts which he had founded in Brussells in 1970, and which had trained such exceptional dancers as Shonach Mirk and Yann Le Gac, moved along with him, becoming the Ecole-Atelier Rudra Béjart Lausanne in 1992.

But despite the many talented dancers who have passed through the school and into the present company, Béjart Ballet Lausanne , situated in the Chemin du Presbytère, remained a shadow of the Ballet of the 20th Century. No strong personalities emerged, and the hundred or so dancers and students in the Swiss town who consider him a genius and who themselves became his reason to live, seem more like a group of obedient school-children without a temperament and mind of their own.

"I was the father of my company", he joked, "now in Lausanne, I'm their grandfather". It's also true to say that the last few years have been marked by official awards for his lifetime contribution to dance from around the world rather than for any new creations.
Stravinsky, Boulez, Wagner, Pierre Henry, Mahler, Stockhausen, Bartok, Ravel……Iran, Japan, Greece, Egypt… Baudelaire, Goethe, Nietzsche, Fellini, Pasolini, no text, religion nor musical score has been sacred, and Maurice Béjart's own favourite ballet, he was wont to say, was always "the next one". The Tour du monde in 80 minutes, his last work which he directed from his wheelchair, is programmed to be shown in Lausanne at the end of the year. He was, he said, an architect with a house to build. With The tour du monde , it appears that his house has been completed.

Maurice Béjart was, according to his wishes, cremated, and his ashes scattered in the North Sea from the bay of Ostende.

*Most of the stories, quotes and dates come either from Maurice Béjart's book, Un Instant dans la vie d'autrui or from my own conversations with him. And while he had a remarkable memory for souvenirs, he would, he admitted, get very confused over exact dates, which for him, were without great importance.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for  

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Béjart's Lumière: A Sentimental Wallow in Nostalgia or a Bad Attack of Indigestion?

Béjart's Le Concours at the Palais Garnier

The Royal Danish Ballet at the Paris Opera

Nureyev: Everything He Ever Said or Did

External Links

Compagnie Béjart Ballet Lausanne

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