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

Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending

"No formal training. No dance studio. No mentor," says Erik Saradpon about his beginnings in hip hop.

"I think that's why I'm especially tough on these guys, because I don't take the relationship for granted," he says, referring to his students. "I'm like a dad to them. I had a shortage of role models in my life. I wanted that so badly. I project that onto my kids."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
From Coppélia. Photo by Toshi Oga, courtesy of MOGA

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Nanette Grebe/Getty Images

Have you heard the story about the dancer who needed a double hip replacement…at age 16?

It's not an urban legend—just ask iconic choreographer Mia Michaels. In a video series about dance injuries, produced by Apolla Performance Footwear, Michaels tells the tale of a teenage comp kid who pushed so hard she ended up in surgery.

That dancer's harrowing story was one of the inspirations for the Bridge Dance Project. The new initiative—brainchild of Jan Dunn, co-director of Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and Kaycee Cope Jones, COO of Apolla—aims to connect members of the competition and commercial dance communities with dance science experts. While many academic and professional concert dancers have benefited from recent advances in dance medicine, that information hasn't made its way to most of the young students in convention ballrooms. And as the technical demands on those students increase, so does the number of injuries.

We talked to Dunn and Jones about how the Bridge Dance Project was born, the initiative's long-term goals, and why young competition and commercial dancers should make injury prevention a priority.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Jessica Kubat (center) with her studio staff. Photo by Vincent Alongi, courtesy of Kubat

Jessica Kubat's path to becoming a studio owner wasn't typical or glamorous or the product of a family business, handed down. When she opened MJ's House of Dance in Lindenhurst, New York, this past summer, she had just turned 40, was a mom of three, and had worked at two different studios long-term. Over the last two and a half years, she'd painstakingly saved up $25,000 and had gone to the Small Business Development Center at a local college on Long Island for help creating her business plan. Her area was moderately saturated with studios, so she spent considerable time planning what would set her school apart—live musical accompaniment, for one—and hired a marketing director nine months before the business even opened. It was a methodical, careful approach—Kubat calls it "the old-fashioned way"—to opening a studio, and it's paid off: She started summer classes with 75 students and is well on her way to reaching her first-year enrollment goal of 250 dancers. "When I turned 40, I decided that it was time to do something bigger," says Kubat. "I always wanted to own a studio—it was just never financially available to me."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
From "Boston—Our City." Photo by Rachel Hassinger, courtesy of BalletRox

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix, has been called the Queen of Fundraising by colleagues. A studio owner and high school dance coach with over four decades of experience, Clough is known for her smart and successful fundraising ideas.

Now, Just For Kix has created a new online tool to help everyone tackle their fundraising goals, whether you're raising money for uniforms, extra classes, or to cover the cost of travel for your dance team's next convention.

Clough shared a few of her best fundraising tips, including everything you need to know about the new tool:

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox