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Maurice Bejart – The Art Of The 20th Century Ballet –

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French choreographer who attracted large new audiences to ballet with showmanship and work of striking originality

(Article from 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 1789…et 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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