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

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Harlequin Floors
Burklyn Ballet, Courtesy Harlequin

Whether you're putting on a pair of pointe shoes, buckling your ballroom stilettos or lacing up your favorite high tops, the floor you're on can make or break your dancing. But with issues like sticking or slipping and a variety of frictions suitable to different dance steps and styles, it can be confusing to know which floor will work best for you.

No matter what your needs are, Harlequin Floors has your back, or rather, your feet. With 11 different marley vinyl floors available in a range of colors, Harlequin has options for every setting and dance style. We rounded up six of their most popular and versatile floors:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Lani Corson. Photo by Royce Burgess, courtesy of Corson

Aerial work is growing in popularity in the dance world these days. Don't believe us? Check out this Dance Magazine article! If you're a studio owner who didn't grow up with aerial training (let's face it, how many of us really did?), then you may be feeling a little apprehensive about what to look for when bringing on a new aerialist faculty member. You know exactly what you want from your ballet teachers, your jazz teachers, your tap teachers, heck—even your tumbling teachers! Aerial, however, is a whole other ballgame.

To help you feel confident you're bringing in a teacher who is safe for your dancers, we sat down with Lani Corson, NYC aerialist, circus performer, adjunct professor at Pace University and teacher at Aerial Arts NYC, to get the inside scoop on exactly what you should be looking for.

Enjoy!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance teachers have a lot of strengths (communicating corrections, choreographing gorgeous movement, planning excellent recitals, cleaning technique—just to name a few) but when it comes to interior design—talent isn't exactly a given. So when studio owners remodel or build, worrying about the decor can feel a little overwhelming (you've got just a few too many other things to worry about, don't you?).

No need to fear! In 2019 we have Pinterest, which shows us all the latest trends we should know about. To help you make the best design decisions for your studio, we've compiled a list of public Pinterest pins we think you'll love.

You're welcome!

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

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Unsplash

Is dance a sport? Should it be in the Olympics? They're complicated questions that tend to spark heated debate. But many dance fans will be excited to hear that breaking (please don't call it breakdancing) has been provisionally added to the program for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Vanessa Zahorian. Photo by Erik Larson, courtesy of Pennsylvania Ballet Academy

At the LINES Ballet Dance Center in San Francisco, faculty member Erik Wagner leads his class through an adagio combination in center. He encourages dancers to root their standing legs, using imagery of a seed germinating, so that they feel more grounded. "Our studios are on the fifth floor, so I'll often tell them to push down to Market Street," says Wagner. "They know that they should push their energy down to the street level." By using this oppositional force, he says, dancers can lengthen their bodies to create any desired shape.

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

After years of throwing summer parties at your studio, you're likely fatigued by coming up with themes and event details. You want your students to have a good time, but you're also up to your eyeballs in choreography and costume decisions.

Never fear! We've come up with party themes and activities to do during the event. Delegate tasks to your teachers and office managers, and voilà! You have a stress-free party ready to go.

Have a blast, people!

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock

Q: I recently returned to a modern dance class after a long absence. While I didn't feel any acute pain at the end of class, the next morning I could barely walk from the soreness in both my Achilles. What can I do to fix this?

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Q: I'm trying to think of ways to maximize studio space and revenue during the summer. What has worked for you?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox