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In Memorium, 2-1: Maurice Bejart
Last Rites for an Eternal Dance Maker

By Maina Gielgud, A,O.
Copyright 2008 Maina Gielgud

LONDON -- Love his work or hate it? No, either way it goes much further than that; adore, revere, or abhor, revile! -- in either case Maurice Bejart's importance to dance in the 20th century can hardly be overestimated.

Maurice Bejart, photographed by Philippe Pache. Photo courtesy Bejart Ballet Lausanne.

A rebel? Oh yes, but with his roots firmly planted in the classical tradition in which he was trained by the great Lubov Egorova, and Mme Rausanne (later to be immortalised into Madame in his "Gaité Parisienne").

Although in his early days, touring the UK with Mona Inglesby's Ballet International, he performed roles such as Prince Siegfried in "Swan Lake" and the Bluebird in "The Sleeping Beauty," he knew that he was not a truly classical dancer. (Some of my fondest personal memories of him are of his showing me photographs of himself in these roles, and roaring with laughter at them!) And it was perhaps because of this that he initially turned to choreography.

At first, he choreographed small classical works, often partnering the French soubrette ballerina, Solange Schwarz. Later, for himself and a small group of colleagues, he made a hit with his "Symphonie pour un Homme Seul," in part due to the use of Musique concrete by the French composer Pierre Henri.

In 1959, at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the first performance of his "Rite of Spring," merging his own company with Peter Darrell's Western Theatre Ballet, was the catalyst for the meteoric path of the Ballet du XXeme siecle, a company of some 65 dancers which performed his work all over the world, in venues ranging from stadiums and arenas to circuses and sports palaces as well as traditional theatres, playing to audiences of up to 30.000.

In the beginning, Bejart's work was created on his small group of colleagues, who, like himself, although classically trained were not ideally suited to the classical repertoire. Later, in the large company in Brussels, and in the smaller group of Bejart Ballet Lausanne, he had the pick of some of the best classically trained dancers in the world, many of whom chose to work with him, rather than in a traditional classically based company. Indeed, renowned artists from the top companies, such as Nureyev, Plisetskaya, Haydee. Vasiliev, later Guillem, and others were all desperate to guest with the company, or have him create works for them to dance.

In all cases his gift for bringing out previously undreamt of talent and personality in his creations for individual dancers was immediately apparent, as was his gift for attracting and developing amazing male dancers.

His legacy is twofold: that of having shown the world that male dancing can be as or more interesting than female, and that of being the first to take dance to a multitude of people who would never previously have felt dance had any relevance to their lives.

Bejart Ballet Lausanne in Maurice Bejart's "Symphonie pour un Homme Seul." Photo courtesy Bejart Ballet Lausanne.

The division I mentioned initially between those who adore and those who detest seems to be clear, and cuts between the anglo saxon nations and the others.... In France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, and Japan, he is a hero, almost a god. To English and American critics -- well, almost a devil! This is due in part to his use of philosophical themes, and tendency to popularise them, something which in turn appeals to those who normally speaking feel that they don't 'understand' dance.

His work is usually easy to understand, and his use of music by great classical composers such as Mozart, Wagner, Mahler, and Stravinsky, mixed with all other sorts, ranging from popular songs and Hawaian tunes to commissioned scores, etcetera, also helps to make his work immediately accessible (and sneered at by some critics!). Some of his work, that is, because one should not forget his use of the aforementioned Musique Concrete, as well as a variety of far more difficult scores, such as those by Webern, Stockhausen, and various commissioned scores.

Maina Gielgud in Maurice Bejart's "Bhakti." Photo courtesy Maina Gielgud.

As a dancer, I had the privilege of working with Bejart for four years between 1967 and 1971 -- some would say the golden years. Certainly they were intensely creative, and it was at that time that the touring and performing in vast venues was at its peak. There was amazing male talent, from Paolo Bortoluzzi to Jorge Donn. Germinal Casado was still dancing, and my first year, a number of very 'classical' dancers were engaged, including Daniel Lommel, Angele Albrecht and myself. We were rather looked down upon by the oldies, as having a long way to go to 'learn the style.' Nevertheless this did not seem to stop Maurice from creating a number of roles on us, and we thrived on it.

To work with he was the dream choreographer: he of course knew the music backwards, and, in big lines, what he was looking for, but the dancer participated very actively in the creative process -- one truly felt indispensable, and that the choreography would not be the same were it created with another dancer. There was never wasted time, in rehearsal or in the way rehearsals were scheduled. (Perhaps surprisingly, that is not always the case even with the most renowned choreographers!)

Maurice Bejart had that gift of making the person he was talking to feel that they really mattered to him. He appeared to give you his entire attention. Those piercing blue eyes have led countless people to believe that he uncovers things about you that others cannot. He was delightful in conversation, with a wonderful sense of humour, and the wish and ability to share his almost encyclopedic general knowledge, whether it be of the arts, the place you were visiting, or almost anything else. He also acquired a way of letting you know when he needed to move on -- quickly, not unkindly, but definitely!

Perhaps his love and need of sharing was one of his most endearing traits, be it in his work or with his friends and colleagues. I think because of this, he was quite hurt by (as he saw it) being misunderstood by critics in England and the United States. Most of all those in England, as he had a very soft spot for this country.

He was uncommonly generous; almost anything casually admired would end up 'un petit cadeau pour vous' ('a little present for you').

As a self-confessed workaholic, he took everything in his life that he saw, experienced and felt, and in turn, one way or another, fed it into his work.

Maurice was never happier than in the studio, working and creating with his dancers, and if he were to have only one wish for the afterlife, I feel absolutely certain that it would be for a studio, music and dancers to work with -- just a continuation of his earthly life....


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