January 2, 1927– Maurice Béjart
A frighteningly clever man, French choreographer Maurice Béjart benefited from his father’s interest in history and philosophy, and his ballets are filled references to classical works; his books and program notes reflected that knowledge. He was stubborn, occasionally lost his temper, and was known for his enjoyment of solitude. Kind and tolerant, he was adored by his family, worshiped by his dancers and staff, and idolized by fans of dance around the world.
In the 20th century, most of the great European dance companies presented classical ballet as a quintessentially 19th-century art form. If one European artist should receive credit for recognizing and then addressing its arrested development, it is Béjart.
He saw ballet as a 20th-century art form that would be as popular as film. Béjart remained committed to this vision throughout his life, both during his 17-year residency at the Brussels’ Théâtre de la Monnaie, until 1987, when after changes by management at the Monnaie resulted with Béjart and his company losing their lease, he renamed it Béjart Ballet Lausanne, and moved to Switzerland.
Béjart married classical ballet technique with the sensual and spiritual dance traditions of India, Africa, China and Japan. His spectacular productions were presented in concert halls, but also in circus arenas and sports arenas. His works involved ancient and modern music for dancing, but also used words and dialogue, drawing from opera, musicals, vaudeville, and Asian theatre, especially Kabuki. His celebration of eastern cultures in his dances reflect his personal commitment, which owed much to Sufi traditions and he made a yearly retreat to a Buddhist monastery.
The influence of African dance on his work, and his commitment to the creation of a dance school Mudra-Afrique in Dakar, were Béjart’s tribute to his African grandmother. European artists who inspired Béjart’s ballets: Vaslav Nijinsky, Charlie Chaplin, William Shakespeare, Molière, Richard Wagner, Charles Baudelaire, Friedrich Nietzsche, W. A. Mozart, were also the artists who mattered to him in his life off-stage.
His productions, epic or small, were consummately crafted works of total theatre. Technically, his dancers were always the top tier of international companies, where with soloists, especially the male dancers, most especially Jorge Donn, were stars. Béjart was as inspired by the dancers in his company and they by him. The greats asked to work with him, including Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhaïl Baryshnikov, Suzanne Farrell, Marcia Haydée, and Judith Jamison.
For five decades, Béjart created 250 individual dance works, including more than 40 full-length ballets, for his own companies in Paris, Brussels and Lausanne and on tour, and for festivals and companies in France, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Russia, Japan, Brazil, Austria, Greece and the USA., which inspired, invigorated and informed a broader audience than mainstream ballet.
Born in Marseille, Béjart was brought up by his French-Senegalese father, Gaston Berger, a teacher and philosopher, after whom a Senegal university is now named. His mother died when he was seven.
He graduated from Lycée de Marseille where he was 16 and took up dancing on the advice of his family’s doctor. The enthusiasm for classical dance changed both his life and his name; Berger became Béjart, reflecting both his connection and his admiration for Molière, whose relationships included both a lover, Madeleine Béjart, and a wife, Armande Béjart. Five-foot four-inches tall, he made his debut as a ballet dancer at the Marseille Opéra in 1945, before moving on to Paris Opéra, and the International Ballet company in 1947.
His Paris-based company, Les Ballets de l’Etoile, later Le Ballet-Théâtre de Paris, ran from 1953 to 1959, and featured contemporary and electronic music. In 1960, he presented at Sadler’s Wells, astonishing contemporary works, including a full-length ballet, Orphée, to electronic music, and his dramatic, African-influenced version of The Rite Of Spring. The same year, The Ballet of the 20th Century the official dance company of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, was born, and Béjart said:
“I started living at the age of 33.”
Ballet of the 20th Century was based in Brussels from 1960 to 1987, and it left virtually no one indifferent. He attracted both adulation from mass audiences and skepticism from critics. In 1973, for the Ballet du XXe Siecle, he premiered Golestan, with Iranian traditional music. Among his works is a thoroughly revised version of The Nutcracker, inspired by his own story, which he staged in 2000. It still uses Tchaikovsky‘s score, but completely scraps the original plot and characters, instead supplying a new story about a boy’s efforts to re-connect with his mother, with a look into the boy’s strange sexual fantasies. The production design is full of erotic images, shocking to many audiences. The production has been issued on DVD.
His Firebird was played as a Vietcong guerrilla rising like a phoenix. Beethoven’s Ode To Joy was an ode to brotherhood in a sports arena. The 1960s slogan ”Make Love, Not War” is the overriding theme of his Romeo And Juliet. His Bolero uses Ravel’s score accompanied by the increasing sexual tension of a group of men reaching for a male soloist atop a table. He maintained that choreography could be compared to political action. He had a genius for tapping into the popular consciousness, hitching a quite conservative choreographic invention to radical abstract music in the 1950s, hippy mysticism in the 1960s, and high fashion and arena rock in the 1970s and 1980s.
His glorification of men and his pop-cultural references brought a new following among young people, attracted by the potent combination of mysticism, camp and sex.
In addition to his published writings, including a memoir and a novel, plus numerous film records of his earlier work, we now have recently issued DVDs of his latest stuff. Not only did he point ballet on to a path into the 20th century, but also showed the way forward into the 21st century.
Here is a juicy bit: American ballerina Suzanne Farrell, the star of George Balanchine‘s New York City Ballet, left Balanchine due to his possessiveness in 1970. She became Béjart’s star in Brussels for five years. American critics raised on Balanchine’s exquisite abstract ballets were particularly acid about Béjart, one wrote:
“Every time I see the Béjart dancers, they’ve lost more muscle tone and added more makeup.”
However, some felt that when Farrell returned to Balanchine in 1975 her dancing had a more personal expressiveness.
A public scandal erupted between Béjart and Nureyev, whose directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet was disrupted by Béjart. Béjart’s Songs Of A Wayfarer was one of Nureyev’s staples as a dancer. When he became the Paris Opera Ballet director, Béjart resented Nureyev’s appointment, believing that, as a Frenchman, a superior choreographer and a successful popularizer of ballet, he should have been given Frances’s top ballet job.
Nureyev invited him to create new ballets in the company, but after a première, Béjart attempted to promote two young male dancers in whom he was interested. Nureyev was forced to walk on stage in front of the audience and quip “April Fool”. The French press made it a scandal, and Béjart had to back down. However, he continued to lobby to replace Nureyev, reinforcing his feeling that he was unappreciated in his own country.
Béjart lived quite simply. He made no secret of his gayness, but he wasn’t an activist. Jorge Donn, his Argentine star dancer, was his longtime lover, but Béjart lived alone. Donn was taken by the plague in December 1992 in Switzerland, gone at 44. Béjart died in 2007 at 80 years old.