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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