Maurice Béjart: Influential choreographer who attracted huge audiences to ballet


Maurice Jean Béjart, choreographer and director: born Marseilles, France 1 January 1927; died Lausanne, Switzerland 22 November 2007.

One of the most influential and controversial European choreographers of the second half of the 20th century, Maurice Béjart was an unashamed populist, attracting huge, mainly young, audiences for his ballets. Although he was often discussed as if he was a modern-dance choreographer, his dancers were classically trained and his ballets were founded on classical technique.

His large-scale works especially were greeted with almost hysterical enthusiasm in countries all around the world, although most critics in Britain and the United States received them with almost equal opprobrium, disliking their mixture of mysticism and popular culture.

Béjart himself had a clear-eyed view of his gifts, remarking once to a critic who was about to see a mixed bill at the Paris Opéra which concluded with one of his pieces, "Well, it's not one of my best ballets and it's not her best role. I would leave early and have a good supper." He would probably have described himself as a man of the theatre and at his best he could produce tremendous spectacles as well as finely constructed small-scale works.

Maurice Béjart was born in Marseilles in 1927, the eldest of three children of the distinguished philosopher Gaston Berger and his wife, Germaine. A photograph of Béjart taken at the time of his first communion shows a slender boy with dark hair and remarkable light-blue eyes, which he inherited from his mother, an exceptionally beautiful and elegant woman whom he later commemorated in his version of The Nutcracker.

It was because of his slight physique that a doctor recommended that the 11-year-old boy should take some form of exercise or sport. With two great interests in life, reading and the theatre, young Maurice thought dancing might be a good idea. And so it proved.

As soon as he could, he moved to Paris to study with such celebrated teachers as Leo Staats, Lubov Egorova, Nora Kiss and Madame Rousanne. She too would be memorialised, in his ballet Gaîté Parisienne. Later, on the recommendation of Margot Fonteyn, he moved to London to study with Vera Volkova.

Having adopted the stage name Maurice Béjart – a homage to Molière's wife the actress Armande Béjart – he toured with several small companies. In 1949 he joined Mona Inglesby's International Ballet and danced a number of important roles, including the virtuoso Bluebird pas de deux in that company's Sleeping Beauty. The following year he joined the company of the Swedish choreographer Birgit Cullberg, where he had his first experience of modern dance. He also worked with the Royal Swedish Ballet for a time, which led to his first film choreography and his first Stravinsky ballet, The Firebird, made for a 1952 film starring the dancer Ellen Rasch and the baritone Tito Gobbi.

Although he had been choreographing since an early age it was not until 1953, after a break caused by ill-health and obligatory military service, that Béjart formed his own small company in association with the actor and writer Jean Laurent, based at the Théâtre de l'Etoile in Paris. The most important work of this period was Symphonie pour un homme seul, danced to the musique concrète of Pierre Henry. Béjart's musical tastes were eclectic, and he could just as happily make dances to scores by Albinoni or Gerry Mulligan, or mix electronic sound with Tchaikovsky, as he did later in Nijinsky, clown of God (1971).

His breakthrough came in 1959 when he created his version of Rite of Spring for a season of dance at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. The cast was made up of dancers from his own small company, Western Theatre Ballet and Les Ballets Janine Charrat, plus the troupe from the Monnaie. The mix of theatricality and eroticism proved an instant hit and Béjart was invited to become resident choreographer at the Monnaie with a greatly enlarged company which he renamed Ballet of the Twentieth Century.

It was here that forged his reputation, making small works like Webern Opus Five and his homage to Marius Petipa, Ni fleurs ni couronnes (a deconstructed version of the Rose Adagio) as well as monumental works for the vast Forest National arena in Brussels. The company toured widely, provoking near-riots at the Avignon Festival with Mass for the Present Time. Golestan – garden of roses was given at Persepolis, and The Triumph of Petrarch premiered in the Boboli Gardens in Florence.

Béjart attracted some exceptional dancers, notable among them Paolo Bortoluzzi, Shonach Mirk, Maina Gielgud and the Argentinian Jorge Donn who for more than two decades was a central focus of Béjart's life, both professionally and personally. Dancers loved working with him. "He's wonderful. He inspires you," remarked one. Many remained with him throughout their careers, despite the modest salaries paid even to principal dancers.

Other famous dancers were happy to work with Béjart for short periods or in specially created works. These included Jean Babilée, Fernando Bujones, Sylvie Guillem (for whom he made several ballets), Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vassiliev (for whom he created a very individual Petrushka). For Rudolf Nureyev he made a duet, Songs of a Wayfarer, to the Mahler song cycle, which Nureyev danced for many years. Balanchine's muse, Suzanne Farrell, was a member of the company for a period and when she left to rejoin New York City Ballet, Balanchine is said to have remarked that "she left him as a girl and came back a woman". Certainly her remarkable technique had not declined during her years in Brussels, since Béjart insisted on a very high standard of teaching for his dancers.

Despite the adulation surrounding him, Béjart remained entirely level-headed, living quite simply. He had a keen and often earthy sense of humour. This was evident in his ballet Le Concours, a murder mystery set at a ballet competition, which featured such characters as "a ballet-mother". He made no secret of his homosexuality, neither did he advertise it, and he generally lived alone. Nor was he backward in expressing his admiration for other choreographers.

In 1987, following a dispute with Gérard Mortier, the new director of the Monnaie, Béjart moved his base from Brussels to Lausanne in Switzerland, despite a personal plea from King Baudouin of the Belgians. In Lausanne he had good working conditions, complete artistic freedom and the possibility of re-establishing the dance and theatre school he had set up in Brussels. (A similar school, Mudra Afrique, operated in Dakar between 1977 and 1985).

He continued working, creating and touring widely. In all, Béjart made more than 200 ballets, besides directing operas, plays and films. Most of his work was for his own company, but he made several ballets for the Paris Opéra (he was offered the directorship there on more than one occasion but always declined). For the Deutsche Oper Berlin, he made an ambitious full-evening work, Ring around "The Ring", which encapsulated all four of the Wagner operas.

Béjart wrote prolifically, including several volumes of autobiography and a novel, Mathilde (1963), plus copious programme notes for his ballets. Despite several serious bouts of illness in the last few years, he continued working. His last ballet, Around the World in 80 Minutes, is due to be premiered in Lausanne on 20 December.

Béjart received numerous awards and prizes during his life. They include the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun and the Belgian Ordre de la Couronne. He was appointed to the Académie des Beaux Arts in 1994 and was appointed Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 2003. In 1974, he won the Erasmus Prize.

Judith Cruickshank

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