As bewitching as the very first day, Maurice Béjart’s Boléro, is a most unusual “case”. The central role (the Melody) can be denced by either a man or a woman whilst a group of dancers interpret the Rhythm. First performed on January 10, 1961 at the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels, the ballet entered the Paris Opera’s repertoire in 1970. At the premiere performance, it was a ballerina (Duska Sifnios) who danced the principal role, surrounded by men. Since then, the versions have alternated. During his final visit to the Paris Opera in 2006 for a programme created in his honour, Maurice Béjart reflected on the emblematic ballet and its particular relationship with the Company.
Could we consider Boléro to be a timeless work?
Maurice Béjart: I’ve never really paid much attention to the
passage of time. It’s odd. I’ve never looked at people according to their age
and I never ask myself whether they are younger or older. When it comes to
dates, I can be off by twenty years. It’s a source of much amusement to the
people around me, but I’ve never been focused on the idea of time passing, nor
the passage of years. Celebrating January 1st or the new year seems
pointless to me. I know that I have created a significant number of ballets,
some better, some worse, but I forget from when they date and from which period
they correspond. That said, there is a strong bond with my performers. Even
those ike Boléro that have been
interpreted by many different dancers, for me remain a ballet for one person.
The dancer is paramount. I create for him or her, and not for myself. I think
that’s why dancers, from the most inexperienced to the most famous, have always
liked working work with me.
When you revisit a work from your repertoire, what is more important to you, the work itself or the way the new performers appropriate it?
A little bit of both. However, the overwhelming presence of the dancer who first performed it remains. It is he or she who embodies the steps, the movement. He/she is its soul. The ballet evolves because, for example, we’ve gone from Duska Sifnios to Jorge Donn—a change in gender and era—but at the same time, it’s exactly the same Boléro.
You’ve said that even your less-successful works, or those you no longer like, have never seemed pointless to you because, at the very least, they served as a sort of reservoir of ideas for you. Is that still true?
I’ve always had that kind of approach. There are works that I found
compelling to conceive but which were not that successful, but they are
milestones nonetheless. They are both failures yet goldmines from which I can
draw elements that can be of service to me elsewhere. Many composers work in the
same way. They may write a mediocre sonata, but at its core you’ll find ten
extraordinary bars. They reuse them elsewhere and give them a new lease on
life. We’re all a little like that. We need to rediscover certain things and
People often talk about what differentiates today’s dancers from those we saw twenty or thirty years ago. What do you think?
In general, they’re not so different. But my experience is specific to
me. In Brussels, I had the chance to train a company that did not correspond to
a specific country or school. It’s obvious that the Paris Opera today is not
the same as forty years ago. There are other ballet masters, other dancers,
another repertoire, but it still has a unity, an ancestral French tradition,
even if that has evolved. Forty years ago, I started with dancers from all
backgrounds. The dancer who created Juliette was Japanese. Then, there was an
Italian Romeo with Paolo Bortoluzzi, then Suzanne Farrell, an Étoile with
Balanchine came, and so on and so on. They all came from different backgrounds
and entered this melting pot that was the company. There was an internationa
frame of reference, not just because of the numerous nationalities, but because
we were constantly touring and scouring every country. Those contacts with the
dancers and the foreign audiences made the company unique in its genre. Then,
when I founded Mudra, that too was a very international school, as much because
of the students as the teachers who could just as easily have come from Russia
or from Martha Graham. It was the same in Lausanne. Perhaps, subconsciously,
I’ve always sought contact between every country. It’s why the changes of
style, technique or sensibility that may have occurred over time probably
struck me less than others because I had a never preconceived idea about a type
of school or dancer.
So you don’t acknowledge the existence of a Béjartian technique?
No. I was trained in the grand classical school with Russian teachers in Paris—Lyubov Yegorova, Olga Preobrajenska, Madame Roussanne—and then for a year in London with Nicolas Sergeyev, the last direct assistant of Petipa. It was a great opportunity! I saw the books that Petipa wrote by hand. And yet, with that ultra-traditional training, I created Symphonie pour un homme seul which was so different from everything else that was being done at the time and which must have seemed alien to the heritage that had been imparted on me.
How do you see your relationship with the Paris Opera? Hasn’t it been a little inconsistent?
Which ballets from your repertoire have you remained most attached too?
That changes all the time! My company constantly performs around a dozen ballets, but they are not necessarily the ones I prefer. As for the rest, my level of attachment is rather fickle!
Is your decision not to stage any more operas definitive?
It’s far too much work. Besides, I’ve directed most of the operas that appeal to me. In the years I have left, I prefer to devote myself to the dancers. I’m constantly discovering amazing new dancers among the young people who come to me, and it’s for them that I now want to work.
Your reading: A Master for the present