Maurice Béjart

The French choreographer who modernized ballet

Maurice Béjart conducting class at his school in Brussels

The rock concert experience, with its mass appeal and raucous atmosphere, is not commonly associated with classical, opera house ballet. But in the 1960s, French choreographer Maurice Béjart (1927–2007) created grand theatrical spectacles that were performed in sports arenas and circus tents and spoke to a younger generation.

Over 45 years he made 250 ballets that revolutionized the artform. His works blended unconventional music (think Queen and Mozart), explored spirituality, philosophy and sexuality and portrayed artistic figures as superstars. Though received with much skepticism by American and British critics, Béjart is credited with introducing Europe to contemporary dance and influencing the styles of noted choreographers Sasha Waltz, Angelin Preljoçaj, Boris Eifman and the late Pina Bausch.

Maurice-Jean Berger was born in Marseille, France, to a Senegalese-French father. Studious and frail, the young Béjart took dance to improve his stamina, and he was immediately hooked by its demands of the mind, body and soul. After graduating cum laude in philosophy from the Lycée de Marseille at age 16, Béjart began studying ballet in earnest. He made his professional debut with the Marseille Opera two years later.

At 18, he abandoned his college studies, changed his name to one that referenced a famous French satirist’s paramour and moved to Paris to study with teachers Leo Staats (Paris Opéra Ballet) and Lubov Egorova (Imperial Ballet and Ballets Russes dancer). Béjart was successful as a dancer despite his short legs and diminutive stature (5' 4"). During his decade-long professional dance career, he performed with Mona Ingelsby’s International Ballet company, dancing the role of Siegfried in Swan Lake 239 times, and with the Royal Swedish Ballet. At 23 he created his first work, and three years later, he launched his first company, Les Ballets de l’Étoile.

The beginning years of his company were not easy. Béjart lacked money and a clear aesthetic. He changed the company’s name three times. But with La Symphonie pour un homme seul (1955), a ballet that played with themes of alienation and love, he discovered his mandate—the application of classical ballet steps to unconventional ideas—and made history with the use of musique concrète, an electronic compilation of taped music and found sounds.

In 1959, Brussels became Béjart’s new home, after the executive director of Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie commissioned him to make a large-scale work. Béjart chose Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. He recast the role of the sacrificial virgin as a young man, transforming Nijinsky’s pre-modern Slavic costumed tribe into a corps of nearly naked athletes of God. This won him the Young Critics’ Prize and the position of the theater’s artistic director. Béjart gave his company a big name—the Ballet of the 20th Century—and attracted seasoned dancers, including former New York City Ballet principal Suzanne Farrell, who danced with the company for five seasons.

For the next 27 years, the generous financial support, large corps of dancers and opera house workforce allowed Béjart to work on a grand, collaborative-style scale à la Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. In 1961, Béjart crafted his signature solo Bolero for his star performer, muse and lover, Argentinian ballet dancer Jorge Donn, and the role has since been danced by Mikhail Baryshnikov, Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev. Known for radically reinterpreting ballet masterpieces, his 1970 Firebird featured a male revolutionary leader rising up like a phoenix to continue his mission. But perhaps most unique is his Nutcracker (2000), which was inspired by his boyhood obsession to reconnect with his dead mother. Tchaikovsky’s original score remained, but the ballet’s enchanting scenes were transformed into sexual fantasies full of erotic images, and its beloved characters were replaced with a cartoon-like cat, transvestites, prostitutes, boy scouts and Marius Petipa as M, Mephisto.

During this period, Béjart founded three schools that emphasized not only ballet but also world culture and philosophy: Mudra (Hindi for gesture) in Brussels; Mudra Afrique in Dakar, Senegal; and Rudra. The last is a free, two-year school and junior troupe he opened in 1992, after the company moved to Lausanne, Switzerland. This school continues today, offering classes in ballet, Graham technique, Japanese martial arts, music and drama.

In 2005, Béjart made his last work, Round the World in 80 Minutes, in celebration of his 80th birthday. When asked to name his favorite work from his repertory, Béjart often answered, “The next one.” His ballets ranged across national boundaries, through every musician and kind of music, and delved into the philosophies of history’s great thinkers. Béjart’s boundary-breaking work still thrives today through his company dancers, whose performances exude the rebellious choreographer’s flamboyant style of heightened theatricality and ecstatic fearlessness. DT

 

Freelance writer Rachel Straus is based in New York City. She holds graduate degrees from Purchase College Conservatory of Dance and Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Photo:  Gibey Christian, courtesy of Dance Magazine archives

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Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

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Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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