Maurice Béjart
© 2007 - Ben Heine
Maurice Bejart, Innovative
Choreographer of Modern Ballet


By Lewis Segal


Maurice Bejart, for four decades an extraordinarily innovative and influential choreographer and company leader in Europe who often received critical scorn in the English-speaking world, has died. He was 80.

Hospitalized last week with heart and kidney trouble, Bejart died at Lausanne's University Hospital in Switzerland. In response to Bejart's death, French Culture Minister Christine Albanel called him "one of the greatest choreographers of our time."

He "played an essential role in making a large number of people love contemporary dance, without ever ceding to the easy way out or renouncing his deep demands as an artist," she said. "He never stopped surprising us, until the end."

Although he began his ballet career dancing the 19th century classics in pristine versions staged from the choreography notebooks of what is now the Kirov Ballet, Bejart eventually developed a complex style of contemporary ballet. It incorporated movement influences from a number of cultures, along with a flamboyant theatricality very much in the neo-Expressionist tradition of Western Europe but foreign to classical dancing. A key element of that new style was its refusal to accept conventional notions of what kind of dancing, roles and prominence "belonged" to males versus females.

Contrary to their original versions, Bejart cast a man in the title role of his "Firebird" and in "Bolero" created a sexually indeterminate ballet: It is danced with 40 men and one woman, 40 women and one man or with an all-male cast.

"I and a few others have fought for men's liberation in ballet -- true equality," he said in a 1985 Times interview, "though, of course, it is normal when you fight for equality that it looks like you are too much on the other side." Above all, his approach to ballet was personal and intuitive, insisting, as he said, that "dance is a tool for expressing myself totally, for being, breathing, living, becoming myself."

He was born Maurice Jean Berger on Jan. 1, 1927, in Marseilles, France, the son of self-taught philosopher Gaston Berger. His mother, Germaine Capellieres, died when he was 7. From age 14, he trained at the school of the Marseilles Opera Ballet where, he told The Times, he remembered being the only boy in a class of 25 to 30 girls.

"It was not right," he said. "Life is a balance between men and women. If I push the boys [as a choreographer], it is because there still needs to be a reaction against the prejudice that it is not good for men to dance."

After earning academic degrees in Marseilles and in Aix en Provence, Bejart continued his dance studies in Paris and London with a number of major ballet teachers, including Vera Volkova. He made his debut as a dancer in 1945, adopting the surname of the playwright Moliere's wife. His performing experience included stints with the Marseilles Opera Ballet, the International Ballet in London, the Cullberg Ballet and the Royal Swedish Ballet, where he choreographed for the first time in 1950.

In 1953, after serving in the French Army, he co-founded the Ballets de l'Etoile in Paris, which he also co-directed.

In 1955, his ballet "Symphonie pour un homme seul" attracted enormous attention as the first classical choreography set to musique concrete, music put together from a number of electronic and other noninstrumental sources.

Two years later, the company changed its name to the Ballet Theatre de Paris de Maurice Bejart.

But during this period he also worked with other institutions, including Belgian television and the Opera in Brussels, where he created an enormously popular version of "The Rite of Spring" in 1959. It became his signature work.

Its acclaim led Bejart to move to Brussels in 1960, where he founded the Ballet du XXieme Siecle based at the city's opera house, the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie. After his arrival, attendance at the Monnaie shot up from 40,000 a year to 250,000, and Bejart's success at home was matched abroad.

However, critics often disapproved of works that were long on philosophical and dramatic content but short on pure dance -- particularly ballets that emphasized sensual and often openly homoerotic male dancing.

In hindsight, many of the attacks seem to be barely veiled homophobia, but Bejart took them in stride. "A creator who does not shock is useless," he said at the time. "People need reactions. Progress is only achieved by jostling."

He also created arena spectacles on the grandest scale, in particular his celebrated stagings of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1964 and Berlioz's "Romeo and Juliet" for Brussels' Royal Circus in 1966. His "Messe pour le Temps Present" premiered at the Papal Palace in Avignon, France, in 1967, and the following year he choreographed "Ni Fleurs, Ni Couronnes" for the Olympic Festival in Grenoble.

He expressed his interest in the music of Wagner not only through choreography for his own company, but also for others, most notably the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, and the Berlin Opera. Virtually every company on the European continent wanted him or someone with the same unorthodox approach to classical dance.

"Ballet is part of the theater," he told the New York Times in 1983. "I want my dancers to be on stage like human people . . . who give emotion to the audience."

In 1970, he established the Mudra Center, a groundbreaking international performance academy in Brussels. In 1978, Mudra Afrique opened in Senegal. But friction with the Monnaie management caused him to move to Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1987 and found Bejart Ballet Lausanne.

"I want to question, renew myself again," he said to explain the move, downplaying any conflicts. "I want a new start toward the future, to create something new."

In 1992, he founded a school in Lausanne similar to the Mudra Center and began a series of collaborations with international ballet stars, designers and musicians. And his success in Switzerland sustained his reputation as one of the greatest creative artists in all of Europe.

At the beginning of this century, Bejart transformed "The Nutcracker" into an autobiographical fantasy about a young, motherless boy -- and ultimately the ballet became what he called "a kind of hymn to the ideal mother that he does not know of." Eventually, that boy met a woman who might be, in Bejart's words, "the mother and maybe Terpsichore," goddess of dance.

Bejart was a close friend of the late fashion designer Gianni Versace and recently, for the 10th anniversary of Versace's 1997 murder, he choreographed a two-part ballet, "Thank you, Gianni, With Love," in Milan.

His many awards include the Hammarskjold Prize (1973), the Erasmus prize (1974) and the Prize of the Society of Dramatic Authors (1980).

His writings include a number of essays and several books, including a 1963 novel, "Mathilde ou le temps perdu," and two theater pieces: "La Reine vert" (1963) and "La Tentation de Saint-Antoine" (1967).

"I tried to write a few books, but I don't think they are so good," he said seven years ago in a television interview. "But I try to explain myself in every ballet."

He amplified that statement in an interview the same year with the London Independent: "All my ballets are, above all, encounters, with a piece of music, with life, with death, with love," he said, "with beings whose past and work reincarnate themselves in me, just as the dancer who I no longer am is reborn every time in interpreters who surpass him."

Bejart is survived by a sister. His longtime companion, Argentine dancer Jorge Donn, died of AIDS in 1992.


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Maurice Bejart (Obituary)

Maurice Bejart dances during a rehearsal at
the Comedie Francaise in Paris in 1980.


French choreographer who attracted large new audiences to ballet with showmanship and work of striking originality
By The Times
Maurice Béjart probably did more than any other choreographer in the past century to win vast new audiences for ballet. He was by temperament a populist, eager to make ballet as direct and lively an art as cinema, and to attract the same kind of public; but he found no difficulty in reconciling this with the introduction of philosophical themes into his work, often based on oriental culture and beliefs.

In his native France and its neighbouring countries, most critics and the public saw him as unable to do anything wrong; many reviewers in Britain and the United States found it difficult to allow that he could do anything right. History is likely to assess him nearer to his own estimation, which was that as a man of the theatre he worked constantly to extend his reach, with results that varied in quality but were rarely dull.

At his best, Béjart produced some of the most exciting dance theatre of our time. Among his astonishingly large output of about 220 creations, the three most likely to survive in the repertoire are his devastatingly simple but gripping Bolero and his highly original treatments of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring and The Firebird. In both of these latter, characteristically, he gave more importance than usual to male dancing. His Firebird was the leader of a partisan troop, shot and killed in battle but returning in spirit to inspire continued resistance. For Rite, he abandoned the original idea of a single female sacrificial victim in favour of showing a man and a woman chosen to save their tribe through ritual copulation and death.

Often, Béjart worked on a monumental scale, producing spectacles that demanded large arenas and sometimes involved actors as well as dancers. The huge Forêt National sports stadium in Brussels and the courtyard of the Palais des Papes at Avignon were long among his regular venues, and for the bicentenary of the French revolution, the French Government commissioned him to create nous in the great hall of the Grand Palais in Paris.

At the other extreme, however, he could make a fastidiously precise short pure-dance piece such as Webern Opus 5 for just two dancers, and in Ni fleurs, ni couronnes he created variations on episodes from The Sleeping Beauty. The Paris Opera commissioned several ballets from him, and his Le Molière imaginaire, based on the playwright's life and works, had its premiere at the Comédie Française starring Robert Hirsch, doyen of that theatre, in the central role, which Béjart himself later played with distinction.

There was often humour as well as showmanship in his creations; Le Concours, for instance, combined a whodunnit mystery with parodies of ballet life, including recognisable caricatures of some habitual competition judges.

Dancers loved working with him. Among the international stars for whom he created roles were Jean Babilee in Life, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Fernando Bujones, Suzanne Farrell in Nijinsky, Clown of God, Sylvie Guillem repeatedly, Rudolf Nureyev in Songs of a Wayfarer, Maya Plisetskaya in Isadora and Vladimir Vassiliev in a very personal treatment of Petrushka. But he also grew his own stars within his company, especially the male dancers; Paolo Bortoluzzi, Jorge Donn and others brought both poetry and heroism to their roles, leading a marvellous men's ensemble from which new talent constantly emerged at need. Nor did his women soloists ever lack notable roles to show off their gifts.

Born Maurice-Jean Berger in Marseilles in 1927, he was educated at the lycée there and extended his mind by avidly reading the books in the library of his father, a professor of philosophy. He also began ballet classes at the Marseilles Opera, making his inauspicious debut as (by his own account) a weedy-looking grub crawling out of an apple in Le Festin de l'araignée. As a teenager he first tried his hand at choreography with a solo for himself, Petit Page. Moving to Paris, he furthered his studies with some of the best ballet teachers including Lubov Egorova, Madame Rousanne (whom he lovingly depicted in his ballet Gaite Parisienne) and, later in London, Vera Volkova.

After a season in 1948 with Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris (during which he was one of Margot Fonteyn's partners in the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty), Béjart joined Mona Inglesby's International Ballet, dancing the classical leading roles — Bluebird, Prince Siegfried, the man in Les Sylphides — on tour all over Britain. There followed a period dancing with the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm, for which he staged an early version of Firebird on Swedish television.

The 1950s were for Béjart a decade of struggling to establish himself with freelance work and his own small companies. He began to make a name with experimental work such as Symphonie pour un homme seul, which in 1955 was the first ballet to use the musique concrète (by Schaeffer and Henry) that was about to become fashionable, and Sonate à trois, a danced version of Sartre's Huis Clos to music by Bartók.

Béjart's breakthrough came in 1959 when the new director of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, Maurice Huysman, wanted to present The Rite of Spring and invited Béjart to choreograph it. To provide enough dancers, they added to the local opera-ballet Béjart's own group, Janine Charrat's company from Paris and the Western Theatre Ballet from England.

The enormous public success of this production led Huysman to offer Béjart his own large company based in Brussels but touring widely, which he boldly named The Ballet of the Twentieth Century.

It was only after more than a quarter-century of success with a world-wide public that a dispute over funding with the new director of the Monnaie, Gérard Mortier, led Béjart to move his base from Brussels. In spite of a personal plea from the King of the Belgians, and tempting offers from other cities, he chose to accept an invitation to settle in Lausanne, where he was promised complete artistic freedom, good working conditions for his dancers, and the facilities to continue the dance and theatre school which he had started in Belgium. It is notable that the school's graduates include many choreographers who have never emerged as imitators of Béjart but have been encouraged to find their own way forward.

Béjart had more than once been offered the directorship of the Paris Ballet de l'Opéra, but had declined it. This did not prevent him from announcing the promotion to étoile of two men in that company for whom he had created roles — an announcement that had to be formally contradicted by the management as being without authority. In 1974 Béjart became, jointly with Dame Ninette de Valois, the first from the world of dance to be awarded the highly respected Erasmus Prize.

With maturity and success, Béjart developed an impressive appearance, not tall but with a commanding air, helped by the unexpectedly blue eyes that shone keenly in contrast to his dark complexion, black hair and beard. Besides his prolific work for the dance stage, he produced operas, always controversially, and made a revealing film, Je t'aime, tu danses, in which he appeared with the young dancer Rita Poelvoorde.

He also wrote voluminously: a novel, Mathilde ou le Temps perdu, inspired by his passion for Wagner, two plays and three volumes of autobiography, besides long discursive programme notes for many of his productions. These last could sometimes seem pretentious, but in private life he was a man completely without side: simple, direct, even earthy, and full of admiration for the work of others (Frederick Ashton's choreography was an early and lasting inspiration for him). He neither flaunted nor hid his homosexuality but chose almost always, even in long-term relationships, to live alone.

Advancing years, and sorrow at the death of some close friends, did not interrupt his activity and originality. He continued making new ballets right until this month, in spite of illness (exhaustion plus heart and kidney problems) that required his frequent admission to hospital. His final creation, under the title Round the World in 80 Minutes, will have its premiere on December 20 in Lausanne.

It was characteristic of Béjart that when he reached his 70th birthday he celebrated it with the creation of a big new work, Le Presbytère, to music by Mozart and the group Queen, which took as its theme those who had died young, especially from Aids, but treated it with a startlingly positive outlook and celebratory conclusion.

Maurice Béjart, choreographer and ballet director, was born on January 1, 1927. He died on November 22, 2007, aged 80


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