Encounters with life, death and love

The French Revolution, Queen's albums, Buddhism... The prolific choreographer Maurice Béjart tells John Percival of his eclectic inspirations
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The Independent Culture

You should hear the enthusiasm with which Maurice Béjart speaks of bringing his company back to London. He has good reason; London and Brussels together were the making of him, with a joint Stravinsky double-bill 40 years ago combining Sadler's Wells Opera in Oedipus Rex and a new production of The Rite of Spring commissioned by Maurice Huisman, then newly appointed director of Belgium's Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. Béjart was the choreographer and it was danced by an assembly of four small companies: his own; Janine Charrat's; Western Theatre Ballet; and the TRM opera-ballet. The success of this Rite led Huisman to invite Béjart as resident choreographer. Never lacking ambition, he soon named his new company the Ballet of the Twentieth Century and made it famous worldwide.

You should hear the enthusiasm with which Maurice Béjart speaks of bringing his company back to London. He has good reason; London and Brussels together were the making of him, with a joint Stravinsky double-bill 40 years ago combining Sadler's Wells Opera in Oedipus Rex and a new production of The Rite of Spring commissioned by Maurice Huisman, then newly appointed director of Belgium's Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie. Béjart was the choreographer and it was danced by an assembly of four small companies: his own; Janine Charrat's; Western Theatre Ballet; and the TRM opera-ballet. The success of this Rite led Huisman to invite Béjart as resident choreographer. Never lacking ambition, he soon named his new company the Ballet of the Twentieth Century and made it famous worldwide.

Actually, Béjart's links with London go back further than that. "It was really my youth," he says, "where I began to understand what ballet could be." The son of a philosophy professor, Béjart was born in Marseilles. After his early training and initial engagements in France he came to study in London with our best teacher, Vera Volkova. At the same time he watched night after night, in the cheap standing places of Covent Garden, to see how Ninette de Valois and Frederick Ashton were building a national company of Sadler's Wells Ballet. Imagine his delight when, three decades later, he and Dame Ninette were jointly awarded the Erasmus Prize by the Queen of the Netherlands for their artistic achievements.

Few people now remember Béjart as a dancer, but he had a certain success. Among other things he was one of Margot Fonteyn's partners in the Rose Adagio at the opening of Roland Petit's Ballets de Paris, he toured Britain with International Ballet where Bluebird, Siegfried and Les Sylphides were among his roles, and he was the first man to introduce Bournonville's choreography to modern British audiences in a season at the Princes (now Shaftesbury) Theatre, where two of his own early small ballets were shown without much impact.

He founded his first company at the age of 25 and has run one ever since under various forms and titles. Almost half a century on, aged 73 and with nearly 300 productions under his belt (not to mention novels, memoirs and a play), he is still creating one big ballet a year and several smaller pieces. Diversity has been the name of his game - from pure dances to works built around an actor, from an evocation of Nijinsky's life and art to a government-commissioned commemoration of the French Revolution, from eastern philosophy to reinterpretations of famous scores. The link he sees running through his work is that "All my ballets are, above all, encounters - with a piece of music, with life, with death, with love... 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."

The programmes he has picked for London this time run from one end of his career to the other, showing both its variety and its depth. On the one hand is Bolero, almost the first ballet he made on appointment in Brussels. The relentless pulse of Ravel's familiar score drives a soloist on a table and a surrounding crowd of men to a crescendo of ecstasy. Made originally with a woman as the focal point, we have seen it more often recently with a man in the lead. This season it is to be done both ways, with Sylvie Guillem as guest star sharing the role with Béjart's own dancers. That she was willing to fly over specially from Sydney (where she is dancing the same role with the Australian Ballet to open the Olympics) is evidence of the admiration dancers, even the most illustrious, have for the choreographer.

On the same programme with the long-lasting Bolero is a world premiere. Béjart says he thinks it is "fun, but the idea is not to be funny". He began by making a dance to songs by Alban Berg for one woman and two men, then got them to dance exactly the same steps to songs by Elton John. Now they will do both, one after the other, to show the effect of music.

Also on the bill are other works new to London, Adagietto (music from Mahler's Fifth Symphony), which Béjart made as a farewell to his Brussels discoverer Maurice Huisman, and his Seven Greek Dances to music by Mikis Theodorakis. "We had not done this for a long time," Béjart says, "but Claude Bessy wanted it for her pupils at the Paris Opera Ballet School, so I saw it again and thought it would be good for the company." Béjart was also keen to show a ballet he has created from Gogol's The Overcoat, so that will replace Adagietto for two nights.

The other London programme comprises just one work, which at its Paris premiere had a long and deliberately nonsensical title, but for English speakers has been renamed Ballet for Life. The death at only 45 of his former leading dancer and long-time friend Jorge Donn was the starting point. About that time, Béjart found himself a little chalet above Montreux with a wonderful view of Lake Léman. Donn had been a great fan of Freddie Mercury, the lead singer of the pop group Queen, who also died at 45. After his death, Queen released a new album, and on the cover was exactly the same view.

"I'm extremely sensitive to that kind of coincidence," Béjart says, so he began reading all he could about Mercury and his Zoroastrian beliefs. The similarity he found in Donn and Mercury, two very different personalities, was "the same passion for life and to display themselves". From this grew the idea of the ballet. He listened to all Queen's numbers and made his own choice, finding that he was most drawn to the live recordings. He watched their videos and was inspired by them. For contrast with all these modern songs, he added some piano and instrumental pieces by Mozart, who also died young.

Béjart says Queen's music came as a bolt from the blue: "Invention, violence, humour, love - it's all there." He insists that he sees the ballet as "something very positive, romantic and happy at the same time, not so much about Aids as the way young people fight it, just as they struggled against consumption in earlier centuries.

He wanted white costumes, because they provide a kind of rigour, however extravagant the forms, and asked Gianni Versace to design them, finding it a pleasure to work, again, after a gap of some years (and sadly for the last time) with an old friend. He loved working with the famous couturier because his enthusiasm was infectious, and also because, for all his worldwide success, "as soon as we started work, he had the anxieties and care over trifles of a beginner. Me too - it was one of the secrets of our friendship."

The only specific reference to Aids in this Ballet for Life comes when one of the dancers, Gil Roman, speaks: "You told us make love, not war. We made love - why does love make war on us?" Béjart claims that if he had not said that the ballet was about death, the public would not have seen that aspect. In any case, he prefers to think of it as "a ballet about youth and hope, because, as an incorrigible optimist, I believe that, as Queen sing, 'The Show Must Go On'."

Béjart Ballet Lausanne, Sadler's Wells, London EC1, 20-30 Sept (020-7863 8000)

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