Maurice Béjart: Ballet for Life

With The Tokyo Ballet’s premiere of Dances in the Mirror next week (Béjart Ballet Lausanne AD Gil Roman is in town rehearsing the company)  followed by Bolero at the Stuttgart Ballet (Cranko, Van Manen & Béjart triple bill) it is a good time to recap on the Béjart canon.

From Tokyo, Kris Kosaka guest blogs:


 

Maurice Béjart. Photo: Béjart Ballet Lausanne ©

Maurice Béjart, French Choreographer (1927-2007), deserves another look in the Anglosphere. Revered in Asia and South America, admired in Europe, Béjart was mostly derided by American and London critics as a showman. Arlene Croce, ballet critic for The New Yorker, disdained him as “Beige Art”, dismissing him as not a choreographer but “a purveyor of sensation.” London, too, turned up its nose at his ambitious, avant-garde ballets, although Béjart himself said, “Ballet is part of the theater; I want my dancers to be on stage like human people… who give emotion to the audience.”

He created ballets infusing pop music with classical (Queen and Mozart in “Ballet for Life”, 1997), honored celebrities (Fellini in Ciao, Federico – 2003,  Versace in Bolero for Gianni 1999, among others); he blended Western and Eastern culture and philosophy, his ballets literally traveled the world, bringing other cultures to the stage; he choreographed to Indian Raga or Ravel’s Bolero; he produced ballets in football stadiums, arenas, and on empty stages with dancers wearing kimono.

A prolific creator, his works span four decades, and he engaged with all the leading names in ballet, including Maya Plisetskaya, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Sylvie Guillem and Suzanne Farrell. He also argued with them, in a well-publicized spat with Rudolf Nureyev that reportedly caused Béjart to leave his native land for elsewhere. His blend of the contemporary and classical, his trademark scores that combined pop with Wagner or Japanese shamisen with Strauss, his blurring of genre and his attention to different cultures and traditions now seem prophetic.  Whatever your ultimate judgement, Béjart’s works infused ballet with an energy and controversy that attracted young viewers and markedly reconsidered the art.

Haruo Goto and artists of The Tokyo Ballet in The Kabuki. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

Béjart in a Nutshell

Béjart was born Maurice Berger on January 1, 1927 in Marseilles, France.  His father was the philosopher Gaston Berger.  Young Maurice started ballet in late childhood on a doctor’s recommendation to strengthen him after various illnesses.  An avid theatre fan, he later changed his surname to Béjart to honor Molière’s wife, Armande Béjart.

Although diminutive for a danseur (5’4) he trained in Marseilles, Paris and London, where he was a student of Vera Volkova, Margot Fonteyn’s teacher. He joined the International Ballet Company in London in 1948, also working for The Cullberg Ballet and appearing as a guest artist for the Royal Swedish Ballet, before launching his own company in Paris in 1953, Les Ballets de l’Etoile, which in 1957 became Ballet-Theatre de Paris de Maurice Béjart.  Symphony for a Lone Man, in 1955, established his reputation as an innovator with a theatrical focus towards ballet.

Left: Mizuka Ueno and artists of The Tokyo Ballet in Bolero. Right: Mizuka Ueno and Haruo Goto in Bhakti. Both Photos: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

He established schools in Belgium, Africa, and Lausanne. Surrounded by fame and celebrities, he reportedly lived simply and mostly alone. He established Béjart Ballet Lausanne in 1987. Under its current artistic director Gil Roman, the company frequently travels to showcase Béjart’s works.

Béjart had a long term relationship with Jorge Donn, an Argentine danseur, before his death from AIDS in 1992.

Selected Awards and Accolades

  • Elected free member of the French Fine Arts Academy (Académie Française)
  • Belgian Ordre de la Couronne
  • Eramus Prize (1974)
  • Japanese Medal of the Order of the Rising Sun

Béjart‘s Choreography

Although many of his works are avant-garde in story –Mother Teresa and the Children of the World, 2002 stands out particularly –  his steps clearly reveal his classical training and preferences, while his music shows a wide range of tastes, from classical to pop to musique concrete and pretty much anything in between.

Naoyoshi Nagase and artists of The Tokyo Ballet in Danses Grecques. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

He also frequently revealed his genetic inheritance as the son of a philosopher, as with his balletic interpretation of Jean-Paul Sartre‘s “No Exit” (Sonata for Three, 1957) or his complete self-psycho-analytical (or indulgent, whichever you prefer) reconstruction of The Nutcracker, 1998.

He tackled narratives as diverse as Shakespeare, Hamlet, 1990, to murder mysteries, set at a ballet competition, Le Concours, 1985.

Selected Major Works

  • Symphony for a Lone Man: Choreographed to musique concrete the electronic sound that was emerging in music, ballet critic Arnold L. Haskell praised the way “classical and modern dance vocabularies mingle.”
  • The Rite of Spring, 1959: A radically experimental version of Stravinsky’s work.  Now considered by many to be his best work, a philosophical musing on the individual vs. the group.
  • Bolero, 1961 :  A certified hit, it characterizes the erotic qualities of Bolero across sexualities, using three incantations of the same steps, one with a female soloist and male corps, one with a male soloist and female corps, and an all-male version. His company in Lausanne includes four separate versions in their repertoire.
  • Nijinsky the Clown of God, 1971: Béjart’s tribute to Nijinsky with music by Tchaikovsky.
  • Ballet for Life, 1997: First performed in Paris in the presence of Elton John and the three surviving members of Queen, the rock group Béjart honors with the ballet.  Béjart said:

My ballets are first encounters …with a piece of music, with life, death, love… with people whose past and work are embodied in me… I love Queen, they are inspiration for me, they guide me…

  • The Nutcracker, 1998: Béjart’s derided version supposedly acts as a tribute to his mother, who died when Bejart was 7 years old, and features such puzzling characters as a cat, two transvestites/angels, two prostitutes/fairies, and Gil Roman as Marius Petipa.

His company, Béjart Ballet Lausanne, toured Japan in 2010, showcasing his works, and chose to present his final piece (he was working on it at the time of his death) Tour of the World in 80 Minutes, 2007, Béjart’s “Firebird”, and “Sonata for Three” 1957.

Mika Yoshioka and artists of The Tokyo Ballet in The Kabuki. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

Tokyo Ballet Original Productions by Béjart

  • The Kabuki, 1986 – A retelling of the famous Japanese tale of the 47 ronin– leaderless samurai who seek revenge.

Because his repertoire is so wide and varied – overall more than 200 ballets in addition to directing operas, plays, and films – there may be something in Béjart to please most dance fans, although you should start conservatively, choosing your own interests first, in musical and narrative terms. Avoid The Nutcracker for your first taste of Béjart, for instance, as reportedly only true Béjart fans can find it palatable.

Béjart’s innovative blurring of genre and style, his melding of culture and ideas, his overall influence on the world of dance,  cannot be denied.

Mizuka Ueno in Don Giovanni. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

Videos

  • Maya Plisetskaya and the Bolshoi perform Bolero [link]
  • Kateryna Shalkina and Julien Favreau perform The Rite of Spring [link]
  • Béjart Ballet Lausanne in an extract of The Nutcracker [link]
  • The Tokyo Ballet in Danses Grecques, Don Giovanni and The Rite of Spring [link]
  • The Tokyo Ballet rehearses The Rite of Spring [link]
  • Suzanne Farrell and Jorge Donn dance Béjart’s Romeo and Juliet [link]
  • Diana Vishneva and Igor Kolb dance Bakhti [link]
  • Jorge Donn performs an extract of Nijinsky: The Clown of God [link]
  • Maya Plisetskaya and Jorge Donn in an extract of Leda [link]
  • Teaser for Jean Claude Wouters‘s documentary featuring The Tokyo Ballet in The Kabuki [link]

Artists of the Béjart Ballet Lausanne and The Tokyo Ballet in Le Sacre du Printemps. Photo: Kiyonori Hasegawa / The Tokyo Ballet ©

Sources and Further Information


About the Author:

Kris Kosaka lives in Kamakura, Japan. Kris writes frequently for Japan Times, and has also submitted to Ballet Magazine and The Opera Critic, two webzines on the arts. Anything she can’t get accepted elsewhere, she posts to her blog, Across Cobwebs and Chasms.

Kris writes from Hokkaido, Japan where she recently moved after 15 years on the main island, mostly in the small town of Kamakura. She writes frequently for Japan Times, and teaches Japanese history and literature at an international school.

5 Comments

  • [...] A film based on the 47 ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, will be released later this year, while Maurice Béjart, French choreographer and frequent collaborator with The Tokyo Ballet, offered his own [...]

  • February 17, 2012

    Bat-Ami Gordin (@zongrik)

    @bmiller007 the pic reminded me of choreography of bolero http://t.co/4214anBy that’s why when i look at pic, all i hear is the ravel

  • January 31, 2011

    David

    I was sad when I learned that Maurice Béjart died. About 2 years after I started taking ballet, I saw that Etoiles: Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet where his work is featured. In that film, I loved his choreography to Mozart. Then, I looked him up and saw that he had died just a few months after I had started taking ballet classes.

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by The Ballet Bag, pchan/naomi. pchan/naomi said: See, see! RT @theballetbag New post in the bag: guest blogger Kris Kosaka looks at Maurice Bejart's life & works: http://j.mp/fs9Pay #ballet [...]

  • [...] Maurice Béjart: Ballet for Life. [...]