Maestro of the Dance
By TIMOTHY GORDON
I remember first meeting Maurice Béjart in his dressing room at the State theatre in Stuttgart in August 1993. I had just had a briefing from Marcia Haydee, the famous Stuttgart ballerina and director of the Stuttgart Ballet, about Béjart's request for me to teach at his company. Béjart was setting Mozart's Magic Flute as a ballet on the Stuttgart Company. He had previously observed me giving class to the company on stage for about a week, this sole figure in black, watching intently in the centre of the auditorium. Marcia told me that Béjart wanted me to teach his company for a three-week stint in Athens. I had in fact been planning to return home to Australia after the Stuttgart contract had finished; but Marcia reiterated that if Béjart wanted me to teach I could not refuse.
We met in his dressing room; a picture of Jorge Donn (Béjart's long-term companion and inspiration) lay on the table in front of us. I felt a certain amount of trepidation meeting this icon of dance. I found his penetrating blue eyes arresting and intelligently assuring. He remained at his age an extremely striking and well-built man.
We seemed to be able to talk easily and, of course, I said yes to his offer, though the trepidation remained. It is always daunting to teach new companies, rather like arriving in a new country and not being able to speak the language. This was true for me back then in a literal sense as well: having to be instantly understood by a lot of people who spoke another language was stressful. In this case, the language was French and I could not speak it. I grasped no more than poorly pronounced ballet terms that were part of my education and background. Of course, ballet terminology is in French, but to pronounce it with the accent and flair of a native speaker is a skill one cannot acquire overnight. The dancers took real delight in correcting my poor pronunciation and generally (with a few exceptions) there was a lot of laughter and mimicry. For his part, Béjart spoke many languages fluently and with complete naturalness, changing languages as easily as gears in a vehicle, alternating tongues according to the people he was with at the time and often at a rapid pace.
I was aware that the Béjart Ballet was a unique institution with an illustrious history of formidable dancing, especially that of the male soloists. Béjart is well recognized for changing the balance between male/female traditions in ballet, where traditionally the male supported the ballerina and remained as a secondary figure in the choreographic plot – as in the formal classical repertoire that Marius Petipa had created in ballets such as Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and Raymonda, etc. Béjart had established and succeeded in developing work that celebrated the male dancer in all his capacities – as dance artist, athlete, poet, dreamer, warrior, primal beast, clown and actor – not just as a fork-lift for the ballerina in fancy costume. This is celebrated in the many works he created on Jorge Donn and other great male stars including: Paolo Bortoluzzi, Michel Denard, Rudolf Nureyev, Michel Gascard, Koen Onzia, Martyn Fleming, Kevin Haigen and Gil Roman, among many other superlative dance artists over a number of decades. The concept of returning ballet to the people, and especially young people, is another of Béjart's great accomplishments. Sports stadiums were often used as venues for performances and, because of the brilliance and power of the work, as well as the outstanding dancing and sheer numbers of male dancers, Béjart's company attracted a fresh new audience for dance in the 1970's and continues to do so up to the most recent productions.
Great female dancers whom Béjart has celebrated in his company have included Maina Gielgud, Tania Bari, Rita Poelvoorde, Suzanne Farrell, and many guests, including Sylvie Guillem, all of whom were utilised for their particular abilities and artistry.
Béjart thought the classical class to be very important and always was on the lookout for helpful and distinguished teachers for his company and school. Azari Plissetski (brother of Maya Plisetskaya and nephew of the great Bolshoi pedagogues Sulamith and Asaf Messerer) was, and remains, the resident teacher at ‘Rudra', the Béjart School, and for the main company, both of which are stationed in Lausanne, Switzerland. He had been a star of the Bolshoi Ballet and has been with Béjart for many years. Azari hails from the most illustrious line of Bolshoi Ballet pedagogues and dancers. He is a teacher with an enormous pedagogy in classical dance and ballet production. Azari was most generous in his attitude toward me and made me feel at ease straight away when I arrived in Lausanne for the first time.
The dancers were used to a certain kind of class and knew what to expect from the teacher. Being one of the hardest working companies in the world, I imagined that the Béjart Ballet would prefer a certain calmness and freshness in a new teacher, especially on tour where the demands and stresses of performing are most evident. I was relatively positive about the challenge at hand. My old friend Martyn Fleming, with whom I had trained at the Australian Ballet School, was a dancer with the company for many years and it was very exciting to see him as a fully fledged mature artist of the Béjart company and to see him dance while remaining so uniquely himself.
After I arrived in Lausanne, I was given a dressing room to change in. It had been the late Jorge Donn's (1947-1992), Béjart's enigmatic star dancer. I was taken aback and moved by the way everything had been kept exactly as he had it as a dancer in the company. Practice clothes, dance shoes, cards, letters, photographs, everything was as if he was still there.
I started teaching the company in Lausanne before we left for Greece. The tour of Athens went very well – a welcome surprise, given my initial trepidation. I recently discovered a programme that had a little note from Béjart stating: "Thank you, we are going to miss you, Maurice". I had been to Athens several times before as a dancer with both the Australian Ballet and the Netherlands Dance Theatre and especially liked the relaxed pace of the city. The Athens programme included: Mr C (With Annie Chaplin and Gil Roman),Opera, Ballade de la Rue Athina, Le Mandarin Merveilleux (featuring the brilliant Belgian dancer, Koen Onzia), and L'Art du Pas de Deux. In Athens I could at last see the company in action for the first time. I could finally understand the qualities that made the company so renowned. The classical and raw individuality of the dancer bonded together like prince and pauper encapsulated into one creature. I have to say this is something only a man like Béjart, who was secure in all his attitudes to life, could develop. It was a matter of supreme trust between himself and the dancers that made it possible for the dancers to override their limitations and devour the timelessness of his work. I remember two significant outings with Maurice. The first was in Lausanne just after my arrival. We went to dinner. I was warned that Béjart enjoyed silence while eating. I was prepared to just munch away quietly and answer when and if the opportunity came. However, conversation seemed to come naturally, and of course I was most interested in whatever he had to say. So much so that I do not remember many details! I do recall something amusing about the American oil heiress, Rebekah Harkness, and the theatre she was to build and how she had her name all over the walls and how Béjart had turned her offer down. We talked about the different dancers that had performed his legendary Bolero, including Maya Plisetskaya (Prima Ballerina Assoluta of the Bolshoi Ballet) and how he had to hold up numbers so she would remember the repetitive sequences and phrases in the choreography. Plisetskaya was unused to learning a role of that kind. I very fortunately had seen her dance Bolero in Sydney, Australia, a most extraordinary and unforgettable experience. It was Béjart's favourite interpretation.
Béjart discussed teachers with me and also methods of working with dancers. Rosella Hightower stood pre-eminent among the others that had influenced and trained his dancers when the company was based in Brussels, where it was known as "Ballet of the Twentieth Century". I did mention to Béjart that the last ballet I had danced in before retiring from the stage was strangely one of his own, Gaîté Parisienne. This is a dance drama with a murder mystery strewn throughout the many cameo and group ensembles. He even guessed the role that I had danced as a guest with the Australian Ballet in 1988 when Maina Gielgud was artistic director of the company and had acquired a number of Béjart works for the Australian Ballet. Mine was a cameo role in the ballet, that of Ludwig of Bavaria (the mad and eccentric king). Maina's mother, the late Zita Gordon Gielgud (the Hungarian actress and friend of Béjart) was performing with us in the work. Zita performed Gaîté later at the Paris opera when she was 90! A truly formidable personality and one I knew reasonably well. We would see each other more or less on a weekly basis later while I was living in Lausanne. We would meet for a laugh, a coffee and discussion, mostly about dance. Her dog Peroushka was particularly angry on my visits. Although a tiny terrier it had a relentless and determined bark, which would hardly diminish during our engaging conversations.
When on tour in Palermo, Sicily, people in the street would greet Béjart with cries of "Maestro". I remember staying in the Grand Hotel there. It was being renovated or reconstructed at the time. Relentless drilling commenced in the early hours before the heat set in for the day. Many of the dancers left the hotel because of the deplorable and unrelenting noise. Somehow, Béjart stayed there, and in his room was a chair called "Wagner's Chair". And there Béjart sat as he spoke to me about the genius of the composer. In his career Béjart had choreographed The Ring Cycle, a mammoth work that spanned several nights and he was a great admirer of Wagner's music.
My second tour with the company included performances in Paris, Roubaix, Lille and Normandy in 1994. Sylvie Guillem was rehearsing and performing with the company in Paris and I was told that she was coming to class. Sylvie turned up wearing a giant red jumper, her sinuous limbs appearing nonchalantly underneath the red garment, like creeping and tenuous feelers that had the articulation and strength of growing creeper vines. I had thought about some appropriate combinations that would befit someone with such a prodigious technique as hers. Also I shuddered to think that I had to give class in the presence of – and for the benefit of – this amazing dancer. I was accustomed to dancers who were stars (or thought themselves to be so) who preferred their personal versions of my training combinations, adjusting them to suit themselves. This behaviour is difficult for any teacher. But to my delight Sylvie followed the class at an athletic pace and was fully engaged in what she was doing. Béjart commented that we looked like brother and sister and that she thought I was the most turned out dancer she had ever seen. I could see neither the resemblance nor the "turn out" thing as being me. However, I enjoyed the thought that others may think so, although I was unsure whether it was a compliment or not...
Béjart always took a call at the end of each performance, an event that was a performance in its own right. He fronted up no matter the public reaction to the performance. He was after all a figure with presence that had an historic voice in the world of dance and theatre. He never seemed anxious about the audience's reaction to his work, no matter the era from which he decided to draw his repertoire.
He was very much the Zen master in rehearsals, sitting fluidly yet in perfect balance on the edge of his stool, half ready to get up and fully observant and uncompromising in his demands on dancers, famous or not. The focus and attention of the Béjart company in rehearsals was bar none, all those present were absolutely entrenched in their purpose and work, which of course carried through into the riveting performances they produced. Béjart was a director of dancers and a true man of the theatre. He was perhaps a uniquely "cinematic choreographer", drawing from the dancers their own unique characteristics and qualities, and doing so in a manner few other choreographers can manage to carry off. Technique was taken for granted in the company and used as a vehicle for interpretation, not an end in itself. There is a fearlessness and focus in the performances that makes Béjart's company so memorable. Textures of movement and symbolism layered within the choreography loosen the stereotypical ballet poses. Often with the women simply clad in leotard and tights, the men in pants and bare torsos. The power of seeing the body as it is and to observe how it works is amazing and exciting to behold on the stage. Béjart's choreography contains the primal, contemporary and the theatrically cinematic qualities, all collectively placed within the classical framework through the interpretation and vision which is so uniquely Béjart. His interpretation of dance weaves a glorious web, revealing his philosophy and inspiration, with eastern and western culture uniting in the creative productions that he choreographed and directed in the second part of the twentieth century.
One distinct rehearsal of Les Chaises in Lausanne with Marcia Haydee in 1993 (later to retire) was particularly revealing. Marcia had got a taxi from Stuttgart to Lausanne in her ski-type body suit and obviously was not feeling like doing the rehearsal flat out. She didn't wear point shoes, and merely marked through the beginning of the piece before Béjart stopped her, and insisted she put her points on and do it full out. Even with her little objection, he demanded that that was what he wanted from her and of course she obliged and things changed in the studio to a near-performance atmosphere. The dancers in the company never "marked" anything: that is "walking" through their parts. It simply wasn't done.
The Béjart company has a particularly gruelling schedule on tour and they dance a phenomenal number of performances throughout the world every year (except in this part of the world). I recall Béjart saying to me that he had no wish to go "down under", which I thought was fair enough but not fair for us who reside "down under". The studios in Lausanne house the Rudra School and the main company. The building that contains both is a practical structure and, if I remember correctly, was previously a boat shed converted to studios, dressing rooms and canteen (which served up an excellent menu daily). Béjart would eat with the students of the school and company. Other areas in the building included wardrobe and administration. The studios are airy, light, and wonderful to dance in. Lausanne is a calm and gracious place to live, sitting on the slopes that descend down to Lake Leman. It is easy to get to anywhere else in Europe by train and the company can bullet off to Paris and other main centres without a lot of kafuffle. The company is unpretentiously glamorous, like Béjart himself who always wore simply black. Black T-shirt, black pants and black shoes. I knew that he liked to live simply and without a lot of "things". He and a very small number of people ran the company; I was very impressed by that, the economy of staff and people running the school and company.
The performances the company did had wonderful lighting. This was especially so with the Queen ballet, and Ballet for life, or Le Presbytere n'a rien perdu de son charme ni le jardin de son éclat, which also had costumes by the late Gianni Versace. The company and Béjart had a great success with this recent work. I sat with Mikhail Baryshnikov (a real honour for me) watching the first rehearsals in the Salle Metropole, the Art Deco cinema Béjart had converted to his dance theatre.
I moved from the Netherlands to Switzerland in 1996. I had made contact with an Alexander Technique training course in Fribourg to finish my diploma. I lived close to the Béjart headquarters, gratefully staying with my friend, dancer, and repetiteur with the company, Valarie Renault, and teaching occasionally for the school. When the company went on tour, I accompanied them. I was on a student visa in Switzerland and not allowed to work. I could only work with the dance company outside the country, which fortunately was when they wanted me.
The South American Tour was my last with the company in 1997. It was a gruelling tour for the dancers: Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, Bello Horizonte, Curitiba, Santiago de Chile, and Buenos Aires. The dancers included Gil Roman, Juichi Kobayashi, Koen Onzia, Dominico Levre, Igor Piovano, Julien Favreau, Gregor Metzger, Kathryn Bradney, Christine Blanc, Mercedes Villanueva, Maria Tosta, and Myrna Kamara, among others. The repertoire was spectacular, especially the new work, mentioned above, Le Presbytere n'a rien perdu de son charme ni le jardin de son éclat, which played to enormous houses with rapturous responses from audiences everywhere it was performed.
In 1996, The Tokyo Ballet came to Europe with a programme of mostly Béjart works, including Bolero, Rite of Spring, Petrouchka, ‘'M', and Firebird. I was invited to teach for the three months that the tour lasted. It is a large company of dancers but efficient and very disciplined. Sylvie Guillem was a guest for the Athens tour with Jonathan Cope from the Royal Ballet in London. Sylvie danced Bolero, her long red hair mattered across her face by the end of this exhausting work, and she also appeared with Yasuyuki Shuto in Sacre du Printemps. And Jonathan Cope from the Royal Ballet danced with Guillem in the leads in Paquita to an enraptured audience.
Just as George Balanchine was the female orchestrator for dance/ballet, believing dance is woman, Béjart attended to the male orchestration, believing dance belongs to men and is part of them. This is especially liberating for male dancers, who suffer all kind of ridiculous prejudice in our unimaginative and ignorant society (something especially felt in this part of the world). No other choreographers in the ballet world over the last half a century are as directly representational of the sexes and their role in dance as the previously mentioned choreographers.
I realise as I write this that I am indeed extremely fortunate to have had the experiences I had with Béjart. I would like to acknowledge Maurice Béjart and celebrate this kind of living life, life as art, art as a life and creative act, and the contribution he made to dance.
Cher Maurice, may your name and heritage continue to live on through the colossal work that you have done for dance and dancers in your magnificent life's work.
Adieu, grand maestro, inspiration and ‘Padre' of Dance. We, your friends and fellow artists, will miss you till the end of our own time. May we take courage and inspiration from you to continue onward.
Maurice Jean Béjart (1927-2007)
Born Marseilles, France
Copyright Timothy M. Gordon,
January 1, 2008 (Bonne anniversaire, Maurice)