A Master for the present

Maurice Béjart and the Paris Opera

By Gérard Mannoni 25 January 2018

© Colette Masson / Roger-Viollet

A Master for the present

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.

Duska Sifnios, lors de la création de Boléro en mai 1961, Théâtre des Nations
Duska Sifnios, lors de la création de Boléro en mai 1961, Théâtre des Nations © Boris Lipnitzki / Roger-Viollet

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 rework them.

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.

Maurice Béjart
Maurice Béjart © Francette Levieux

How do you see your relationship with the Paris Opera? Hasn’t it been a little inconsistent?

It’s true. When I arrived in Paris at the age of twenty, I wasn’t the best dancer but I was a good partner and there weren’t many of them at the Opera. So when they wanted to stage a gala they called on me. As a result, I danced with Lycette Darsonval, Solange Schwarz, and Yvette Chauviré. That was my first contact with the theatre as an ultra-classic dancer. Then, oddly, my first official commission was for an opera production. I started out at the Paris Opera with La Damnation de Faust! It was a success and it was also a moment when I had the most contact with the dancers. They were highly motivated because they wanted to hold their own against the singers and the chorus. They were incredible. In particular, there was Atanassoff, a genius of dance. The following year, they asked me to stage The Rite of Spring in a programme conducted by Boulez which also featured Noces and Renard. After that, there was an endless succession of directors and a whole slew of problems. The theatre was a bit of a mess! When things stabilised, I returned regularly to create new works or stage ballets from my repertoire.

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.

Interview conducted in May 2006 for the Opera’s journal Ligne 8, N° 10

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