Maurice Bejart, 80; influential French choreographer

Times Staff Writer

Maurice Bejart, for four decades an extraordinarily innovative and influential choreographer and company leader in Europe who often received critical scorn in the English-speaking world, has died. He was 80.

Hospitalized last week with heart and kidney trouble, Bejart died early Thursday at Lausanne’s University Hospital in Switzerland, Emmanuel de Bourgknecht, administrator of the Bejart Ballet Lausanne, told the Associated Press.

No further details were given.

In response to Bejart’s death, French Culture Minister Christine Albanel called him “one of the greatest choreographers of our time.”

He “played an essential role in making a large number of people love contemporary dance, without ever ceding to the easy way out or renouncing his deep demands as an artist,” she said. “He never stopped surprising us, until the end.”

Although he began his ballet career dancing the 19th century classics in pristine versions staged from the choreography notebooks of what is now the Kirov Ballet, Bejart eventually developed a complex style of contemporary ballet. It incorporated movement influences from a number of cultures, along with a flamboyant theatricality very much in the neo-Expressionist tradition of Western Europe but foreign to classical dancing.


A key element of that new style was its refusal to accept conventional notions of what kind of dancing, roles and prominence “belonged” to males versus females.

Contrary to their original versions, Bejart cast a man in the title role of his “Firebird” and in “Bolero” created a sexually indeterminate ballet: It is danced with 40 men and one woman, 40 women and one man or with an all-male cast.

“I and a few others have fought for men’s liberation in ballet -- true equality,” he said in a 1985 Times interview, “though, of course, it is normal when you fight for equality that it looks like you are too much on the other side.”

Above all, his approach to ballet was personal and intuitive, insisting, as he said, that “dance is a tool for expressing myself totally, for being, breathing, living, becoming myself.”

He was born Maurice Jean Berger on Jan. 1, 1927, in Marseilles, France, the son of self-taught philosopher Gaston Berger. His mother, Germaine Capellieres, died when he was 7. From age 14, he trained at the school of the Marseilles Opera Ballet where, he told The Times, he remembered being the only boy in a class of 25 to 30 girls.

“It was not right,” he said. “Life is a balance between men and women. If I push the boys [as a choreographer], it is because there still needs to be a reaction against the prejudice that it is not good for men to dance.”

After earning academic degrees in Marseilles and in Aix en Provence, Bejart continued his dance studies in Paris and London with a number of major ballet teachers, including Vera Volkova. He made his debut as a dancer in 1945, adopting the surname of the playwright Moliere’s wife.

His performing experience included stints with the Marseilles Opera Ballet, the International Ballet in London, the Cullberg Ballet and the Royal Swedish Ballet, where he choreographed for the first time in 1950.

In 1953, after serving in the French Army, he co-founded the Ballets de l’Etoile in Paris, which he also co-directed.

In 1955, his ballet “Symphonie pour un homme seul” attracted enormous attention as the first classical choreography set to musique concrete, music put together from a number of electronic and other noninstrumental sources.

Two years later, the company changed its name to the Ballet Theatre de Paris de Maurice Bejart.

But during this period he also worked with other institutions, including Belgian television and the Opera in Brussels, where he created an enormously popular version of “The Rite of Spring” in 1959. It became his signature work.

Its acclaim led Bejart to move to Brussels in 1960, where he founded the Ballet du XXieme Siecle based at the city’s opera house, the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie. After his arrival, attendance at the Monnaie shot up from 40,000 a year to 250,000, and Bejart’s success at home was matched abroad.

However, critics often disapproved of works that were long on philosophical and dramatic content but short on pure dance -- particularly ballets that emphasized sensual and often openly homoerotic male dancing.

In hindsight, many of the attacks seem to be barely veiled homophobia, but Bejart took them in stride. “A creator who does not shock is useless,” he said at the time. “People need reactions. Progress is only achieved by jostling.”

He also created arena spectacles on the grandest scale, in particular his celebrated stagings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1964 and Berlioz’s “Romeo and Juliet” for Brussels’ Royal Circus in 1966. His “Messe pour le Temps Present” premiered at the Papal Palace in Avignon, France, in 1967, and the following year he choreographed “Ni Fleurs, Ni Couronnes” for the Olympic Festival in Grenoble.

He expressed his interest in the music of Wagner not only through choreography for his own company, but also for others, most notably the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, and the Berlin Opera. Virtually every company on the European continent wanted him or someone with the same unorthodox approach to classical dance.

“Ballet is part of the theater,” he told the New York Times in 1983. “I want my dancers to be on stage like human people . . . who give emotion to the audience.”

In 1970, he established the Mudra Center, a groundbreaking international performance academy in Brussels. In 1978, Mudra Afrique opened in Senegal.

But friction with the Monnaie management caused him to move to Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1987 and found Bejart Ballet Lausanne.

“I want to question, renew myself again,” he said to explain the move, downplaying any conflicts. “I want a new start toward the future, to create something new.”

In 1992, he founded a school in Lausanne similar to the Mudra Center and began a series of collaborations with international ballet stars, designers and musicians. And his success in Switzerland sustained his reputation as one of the greatest creative artists in all of Europe.

At the beginning of this century, Bejart transformed “The Nutcracker” into an autobiographical fantasy about a young, motherless boy -- and ultimately the ballet became what he called “a kind of hymn to the ideal mother that he does not know of.”

Eventually, that boy met a woman who might be, in Bejart’s words, “the mother and maybe Terpsichore,” goddess of dance.

Bejart was a close friend of the late fashion designer Gianni Versace and recently, for the 10th anniversary of Versace’s 1997 murder, he choreographed a two-part ballet, “Thank you, Gianni, With Love,” in Milan.

His many awards include the Hammarskjold Prize (1973), the Erasmus prize (1974) and the Prize of the Society of Dramatic Authors (1980).

His writings include a number of essays and several books, including a 1963 novel, “Mathilde ou le temps perdu,” and two theater pieces: “La Reine vert” (1963) and “La Tentation de Saint-Antoine” (1967).

“I tried to write a few books, but I don’t think they are so good,” he said seven years ago in a television interview. “But I try to explain myself in every ballet.”

He amplified that statement in an interview the same year with the London Independent: “All my ballets are, above all, encounters, with a piece of music, with life, with death, with love,” he said, “with beings whose past and work reincarnate themselves in me, just as the dancer who I no longer am is reborn every time in interpreters who surpass him.”

Bejart is survived by a sister. His longtime companion, Argentine dancer Jorge Donn, died of AIDS in 1992.

A memorial service will take place Monday in Lausanne’s Theatre du Metropole.