Bejart, Maurice

Bejart, Maurice
Jan. 1, 1927-Nov. 22, 2007
Belgian dancer and choreographer


The most lionized, avant-garde ballet master in Europe is Maurice Bejart, the controversial director-choreographer of the Ballet of the Twentieth Century (Ballet du XXe Siecle), Belgium's national dance company. The classically trained Bejart founded the Brussels troupe in 1959, after six years of experience with his own company in Paris, where he was a pioneer in electronic and intermedia compositions. Bejart is known for his flamboyant theatricality and his treatment of dance as total spectacle, as visual music rather than as moving sculpture; his penchant for massive patterns; his intermingling, or fusion, of diverse musical styles, themes, and movements, such as Oriental with Occidental, and classical with modern and natural; and his daring revamping of traditional materials.

Much of Bejart's revamping, or contemporizing, has reflected an engage, New Leftish political position and a desire to evoke healthy animality or eroticism, as in his Bolero (Ravel), in which forty men, in turn, and one ballerina thrust pelvises. But in his basic philosophy he is mystical, viewing ballet theatre as neo-religious ritual. "Those who approach dance as an intellectual exercise," critic Greer Johnson of Cue magazine has observed, "are likely to be left unpersuaded by Mr. Bejart." Those most persuaded by him, apparently, are the precise audiences he is avowedly trying to attract, the young and the unsophisticated "masses" untouched by conventional balletomania. Bejart, a prolific choreographer, relishes nothing more than mounting his more grandiose works, such as the Ninth Symphony (Beethoven) before such audiences in sports stadiums and other large amphitheatres. "Ballet is popular art of the twentieth century," he has asserted. "But for the large public, ballet must change as much as music and painting have."

Maurice Bejart was born Maurice Jean Berger in Marseilles, France on January 1, 1927 to Gaston and Germaine (Capeilleres) Berger. He has two brothers, Alain and Philippe, and a sister, Claudette (Berger) Verges. Bejart was exposed to Oriental philosophy from earliest childhood by his late father, an extraordinary man as described by Bejart in an interview with Elenore Lester for the New York Times (January 24, 1971): "My father was too poor to go to school when he was young, but he taught himself while he supported the family working as a fertilizer salesman. He studied the conventional school subjects but also taught himself Chinese and became a Vedanta disciple. At the age of thirty-five he took his baccalaureate examinations with eighteen-year-olds. He became a teacher and rose to become general chief of universities."

As a child, Bejart was attracted to theatre generally. He became interested in ballet specifically when his parents enrolled him, at the age of fourteen, in the ballet school of the Marseilles Opera for therapeutic reasons, because he was physically frail. When he graduated from the Lycee de Marseilles in 1945 his parents wanted him to matriculate at a university, but instead he went to Paris, studied ballet under Leo Staats, Lubov Egorova, and Madame Rousanne (Rousanne Sarkissian), and served a two-year apprenticeship in Roland Petit's dance company. Then, in London, he studied under Vera Volkova and danced with Mona Inglesby's International Ballet, which was trying to attract new, young audiences. In 1952 he was a guest artist with the Royal Swedish Ballet, dancing, among other roles, Jason in Birgit Cullberg's Medea. He began trying his hand at choreography while with the Royal Swedish Ballet.

In 1953, following his compulsory tour of service in the French army, Bejart, with writer-critic Jean Laurent, organized Les Ballets de l'Etoile, named for the Theatre de l'Etoile, the company's first home. Later, when the troupe moved from the Theatre de l'Etoile to perform at other Paris theatres and on tours of Europe, its name was changed to Le Ballet-Theatre de Paris. Early in the history of the company he choreographed for it L'Inconnu (Scarlatti), La Belle au Boa (Rossini), Voyage au coeur d'un enfant (Pierre Henry), and Haut-Voltage (Marius Constant, Pierre Henry), based on Jean-Paul Sartre's play Huis Clos. Later Bejart created Le Teck (Gerry Mulligan), Orphee (Henry), and Sonate a trois (Bartok).

By the time that Bejart formed his Paris company, Pierre Schaeffer had been experimenting for several years with his musique concrete (taped music produced by the combining and electroacoustical manipulation of sundry sounds, not necessarily instrumental). Bejart became interested in it because of the obviously vast new range it opened in musical concordances for bodily movements and emotions.

According to critic-historian Arnold L. Haskell, Bejart's Symphonie pour un homme seul, with music by Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, was the first musique concrete ballet ever created. After witnessing its premiere at the Theatre de l'Etoile in July 1955, with Bejart in the leading role, Haskell reported in his Ballet Annual 1957: "In this work the daily loneliness of contemporary man is represented not, as hitherto, by violincellos, but by footsteps, voices, and other familiar noises distorted and confused as in a nightmare…. On a bare stage swept by shafts of pale light, he [Bejart] wanders among shadows which resemble automatons and moves to the rhythm set by the shrieks and whispers of musique concrete. Woman, played with savage intensity by Michele Seigneuret, symbolizes a morbid, egotistical love which is powerless to rescue man from his anguish. Classical and modern dance vocabularies intermingle. A perfect cohesion is achieved between gesture, rhythm, and sound. This is the masterpiece of the new genre, a work of brutal, hallucinatory power." Two years later Haskell wrote of another Bejart creation, Promethee: "It is amazing, the feeling of size and importance that he [Bejart], and his artistic collaborator, Bernard Dayde, were able to give to a ballet for a handful of dancers. The familiar legend was told with strong dramatic effect and with a feeling of antiquity but without any archaistic tricks."

Commissioned by Maurice Huisman, director of the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie, home of the Brussels Opera, Bejart choreographed his own version of Le Sacre du printemps to Stravinsky's music, a version without classical steps and with groupings daring in their novelty, such as fifty dancers writhing as one mass. With an expanded company, Bejart staged the premiere of the powerful work at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in December 1959. The performance was an extraordinary triumph with public and critics, and after it the Bejartists remained in Brussels as the Ballet of the Twentieth Century, with Bejart as its director.

When the Brussels troupe performed Bejart's Le Sacre du printemps at the Festival of Nations in Paris in 1960, Bejart won the festival's Grand Prix in choreography, critics raved about his unusual "gymnic forms," "staggering motions," and "perfection of overall groupings," and one predicted that the work would "leave its mark upon the history of ballet." In collaboration with the painter Salvador Dali, who conceived the idea, Bejart choreographed the dance spectacle Gala for presentation in Venice in the summer of 1961. Dali angrily disassociated himself from the production before its presentation, objecting to such scenes as one involving destruction of national flags and another, a stage full of bloody cattle carcasses.

In staging operas for the Brussels Opera, Bejart from the first used heavy, surrealistic visual embellishment, or the reverse. For the Bacchanale in Wagner's Tannhauser, in 1961, he prescribed costumes simulating nudity (along with explicitly sexual movements). His production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, in 1962, had an ostrich doing a Charleston-like dance, an enormous eye hanging from the ceiling, and a disembodied, pulsating lung in a rib cage that opened and closed. Descendants of Viktor Leon and Leo Stein, the librettists, sued Bejart when he added to the operetta The Merry Widow such scenes as the heroine dancing on a corpse-laden battlefield and hobnobbing with beggars. In Bejart's version of Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust (1963), Marguerite did a striptease.

Bejart conceived of his Ninth Symphony (Beethoven) as a religious-like rite, with the audience participating in a spirit of brotherhood. The large-scale work, employing fifty dancers and a full orchestra and chorus, with soloists, premiered in the Royal Circus (Cirque Royal) in Brussels in 1964. Two years later the same site was chosen for the initial presentation of Bejart's Romeo and Juliet (Berlioz), in which the Shakespearean text was twisted to accommodate antiwar and antityranny sentiments. Later, when Romeo and Juliet was performed in Lisbon, Portugal, Bejart appended some topical political comments in a spontaneous speech to the audience and Portuguese authorities expelled him immediately.

Bejart's liturgical concept was developed most explicitly in Messe pour le temps present, first performed at the papal palace in Avignon, France as part of the Avignon Festival of the Arts in 1967. That long work is eclectic in its sparse music (some jazz, rock, and raga and much wooden percussion-usually done by Bejart offstage, with blocks-and chanting) and its philosophy (which includes elements of Eastern mysticism), and it is open-ended, with the audience participating differently on different occasions. (Some performances end with the members of the cast, and members of the audience who wish to join them, sitting in silent meditation.) Like other Bejart works of monumental scale, Messe pour le temps present uses virtually no costumes or scenery, which, Bejart believes, "were once a valuable part of ballet-but that is now over."

In 1968 Bejart, who has since retired as a dancer, was still performing principal parts in some of his productions, including La Nuit obscure, based on St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul. "Like many of Bejart's works," a writer noted in Dance (October 1968), "this one is conceived as a highly theatrical fusion of speech, gesture, and movement." The Bejartians received thunderous applause from the tens of thousands of arena spectators who witnessed their contribution to the inaugural festivities at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968. At the 1969 Avignon Festival of the Arts politically agitated young people reportedly showed greater affinity for the Bejart troupe, along with the Living Theatre, than for any of the other participants.

Greer Johnson visited the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in September and reminisced about his "too-brief stay" four months later (Cue, January 23, 1971): "People who are not 'prepared' for Bejart's work tend to react to it with immediate, almost visceral enthusiasm. Adequately briefed on controversial critical opinion about the Ballet of the Twentieth Century, I was myself quite unprepared for what so electrifyingly happened the moment the curtain went up." In Johnson's opinion, Bejart succeeded, "more often than not," in his calculated breaches of tradition and accepted taste, such as his mixing of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde with the Wesendonck Lieder and his bending of some of Richard Strauss's songs "into passionate convolutions." "Perhaps the musical melange is, by the book, tasteless, but it works, it fascinates, and it creates some new unity on its own."

Walter Terry, who went to Brussels to write a two-installment article on Bejart and his company for the Saturday Review (December 19 and 26, 1970), described Bejart's newest work, Firebird (Stravinsky): "This Firebird is truly a remarkable creation. Its principal figure is not a ballerina but a male dancer; it is not staged as a Russian ballet but, rather, as an abstract work…. Here…is a Firebird who breathes life into man's consciousness, who flashes brilliantly across the spectrum, but who must die. But as he dies, he is replaced by the phoenix…and there is hope for tomorrow."

Terry watched Bejart rehearse his recently recruited star, Suzanne Farrell, the protegee of George Balanchine who had defected from the New York City Ballet. "One could see Bejart adapt the previously composed choreography to Farrell's high leg extensions and spinal flexibilities; but, more, as he guided her and her cavalier, one saw the presence of shrewdly calculated choreographic patterns (his discipline) combined with his desire to release the animal in the human (his drive). Perhaps this is the secret of the man-discipline and drive."

In the decade following its formation, the Ballet of the Twentieth Century toured Japan, Canada, most of Europe, and much of Latin America, gathering legions of ardent supporters, and a few detractors, as it went. The company made its United States debut in a two-week engagement at the Brooklyn (New York) Academy of Music beginning on January 25, 1971. The program on opening night in Brooklyn comprised Erotica (Tadeusz Baird), a pas de deux, and Bhakti, based on a Hindu theme and set to Indian music, and the world premiere of Choreographic Offering (J. S. Bach), a tour de force devised by the dancers of the company themselves. The offerings on the following days included Bach Sonata, Nomos Alpha, and Le Sacre du printemps.

The reception accorded the Bejart troupe by New York newspaper critics was disappointing. The opening night review by Clive Barnes in the New York Times and another Times review by Anna Kisselgoff two days later seemed as much concerned with debunking Bejart's reputation as an innovator as with the company's performances. Miss Kisselgoff argued that Bejart's experimentalism was old-fashioned in terms of the American ballet of the past thirty years. "If you had never seen Balanchine…Cunningham…Graham…Sokolow…Robbins…, Bejart's supposedly 'with it' ballets might have seemed hip." She also accused Bejart of pandering to the tastes of a youthful audience. "Bejart is out to epater les petits bourgeois. There is a hint of demagogic appeal here that has no place in art." Hubert Saal of Newsweek (February 8, 1971) judged his choreographic vocabulary "anemic" and his ideas "obscure" but thought that he succeeded in his unconventional way in Bhakti and, above all, in Messe pour le temps present, in which he worked through "the ordinary, the simplistic, and the mystic" to evoke, finally, "an irresistible, shattering apocalyptic vision of mankind."

The roster of the Ballet of the Twentieth Century now numbers more than sixty dancers, from all parts of the world. Among the company's powerful male principal dancers are Antonio Cano, Paolo Bortoluzzi, and Jorge Donn. The leading ballerinas include Miss Farrell, Menia Martinez, Maina Gielgud, Duska Sifnius, and Tania Bari. The company's school, called the Mudra (a Hindu word meaning gesture), has eight teachers. Early in 1971 Bejart was planning to write a pas de deux for two men-Paolo Bortoluzzi of his own company and Rudolf Nureyev-and a ballet inspired by Antonin Artaud's "very pure and very decadent" novel Heliogable.

Maurice Bejart is five feet four inches tall, weighs 143 pounds, and has dark chestnut hair, heavy brows, a pointed beard, and piercing, luminous eyes that have been variously described as "hypnotic" and "disconcertingly wide-open." Elenore Lester, interviewing him for the New York Times (January 24, 1971), saw in his profile "a Satanic cast" and in his "white-toothed" smile a "determined" affability, and she described him as "a man of driven and driving energies." According to Miss Lester, he speaks English "well but somewhat hesitantly." Walter Terry noted that at rehearsals Bejart illustrates his instructions "with physical facility and enormous intensity." The intense Bejart confesses to one passionate recreation, motion pictures. "I love Von Stroheim, Godard, Fellini…. I'm not put here to relax, but to create. When I come out of the movies I am ready to work. I can see things with clear eyes. I am full of energy." The director-choreographer has written a novel, Mathilde, ou le temps perdu (R. Julliard, 1963).

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