Articles from Ballet2000

Close-up : Maurice Béjart

by Roger Salas

The dates attached to our memories sometimes make us giddy, they remind us of how fast time passes. I met Maurice Béjart in 1968, which was early on for me: I was studying the piano at the National Art School in Havana and that same year we had been given the fleeting illusion in Cuba that the country was opening up intellectually and artistically – though this turned out to be in dire contrast with the grim things that were actually occurring at the same time. Havana was a flourishing hub of personalities in all branches of the arts. As everyone knows, ballet on that small Caribbean island was already booming, largely thanks to the personalities of ballerina Alicia Alonso and founder and ballet master Fernando Alonso.
It so happened that the Salon de Mai de Paris, with its paintings by Picasso, Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Eduardo Arroyo, Antonio Saura, Dorothea Tanning, Vasarely, Magritte, Man Ray, Wilfredo Lam, Alechinsky etc. came to Havana in July 1967...  It was a feast of modern and avant-garde art, a real revelation that made us aware of what was going on. A few months later, in 1968, outside the regular programme of the theatre season, Maurice Béjart landed in Havana with his entire Ballet du XXe Siècle which was then, I would venture to say, in its heyday of brilliance and splendour.
The shows were hardly publicised at all. However, we were all enraptured by Jorge Donn’s mass of blond curls and the self-assured figures of the dancers who were so different from the strictly academic ones to which we were accustomed. We were even a bit bewildered and astonished. I remember that for the first performance (there were two, plus a rehearsal open to the public), they opened the side doors of the Opera House (the Gran Teatro García Lorca, as it was then called) and the foyer filled up in the space of a few minutes.
We all wanted to see that phenomenon: it was ballet, of course, but very different. The girls were wearing pointe shoes, but their movements and poses were unlike anything we were used to. It was something different, but terribly captivating. We couldn’t tear ourselves away from it; “we” were a group of music, dance and art students, restless young people who did everything they could to get to see classes and rehearsals in the studios of the Cuban National Ballet located inside the theatre itself.
One day, during a break, we were in the square in front of the theatre and Béjart and Jorge Donn passed by. One of us, the most daring in our group, shouted out to them: “Señor Béjart, Merci, merci: gracias por venir a Cuba!” The two smiled and came up to us. To our amazement, Béjart spoke very good Spanish and Donn was Argentinean, so it was easy to have a short conversation. The choreographer simply asked us what we were doing, etc., and we all had our say; he insisted that we return to the theatre the next day so as not to miss the second performance in which he himself would be performing La nuit obscure, with the great Spanish actress Maria Casares reciting texts by St John of the Cross and flamenco bailaor Antonio Cano “tapping” away in his shiny boots.
I’ll never forget that evening: the virtuosity of Ni fleurs ni couronnes performed in rehearsal leotards, the complex modernity of Bhakti, the sensation of Sacre du printemps, the enfolding seduction of Boléro.
The years went by and I left Cuba. After spending a few years in Italy, I settled in Madrid and became a journalist for El País newspaper, which in the summer of 1987 sent me to Brussels, where Béjart’s company was based. There I met my good Cuban friend Alfonso Catá, who happened to be passing through, and was then the director the Ballet du Nord in Roubaix, France. (There was nothing to suggest that we were going to lose him forever shortly afterwards). That evening, in the Grand Place in Brussels, Béjart’s company gave a performance and when it ended Catá and I approached Maurice who seemed very worried: “All this is over”, he told us gravely, “next time we’ll be meeting somewhere else.” Indeed, the unscrupulous war unleashed against him by Gérard Mortier, then the director of the Théâtre de la Monnaie, ended in an almost brutal way that still needs to be clarified to this day. The fact remains that it was first and foremost Mortier who was responsible for the destruction of the Ballet du XXe Siècle and the departure of Maurice Béjart. The latter, who still reeling from the old, yet never heeled pain of when France had turned her back on him, found himself once again wandering and searching for a place to settle and work.
The following day the three of us had lunch together, and it was a sad lunch. Béjart told us about Lausanne and how Philippe Braunschweig and his wife, former dancer Elvira Kremis, were intent on welcoming them to the Swiss city. Years later, the Braunschweigs told me in detail about the whole travel saga and of all the petitions to politicians and friends
When lunch was over, Béjart said to me: “Come to Lausanne and I’ll be able to tell you more.”
So I did. My colleague Agustí Fancelli from El País’s Barcelona office was with me in Lausanne. We were among the first journalists to see the company and choreographer’s headquarters – they had recently been accommodated in some makeshift rooms in a gymnasium and an indoor basketball court. The roof was leaking and buckets had been placed here and there to collect the water. Béjart said to me: “Who knows if these buckets and the dripping from the roof will end up in one of my ballets...” He was trying to see the funny side of a dramatic situation. Once again he was generous with his time and words in the interview. He was obsessed with the idea of opening a school (which he did, and it become Rudra).
Fancelli also got his interview and returned to Barcelona. Mine was then published in the Spanish weekly El Globo (the same publishers as El País), but I stayed on an extra two days in Lausanne trying to experience the daily rhythm of what was to be called the Béjart Ballet Lausanne. I spent one day entirely with Maurice at the headquarters, attending rehearsals. I remember well a piece of choreography that he was passionately creating for Catalan dancer Elisabeth Ros. And I immediately realised that he was the benign spirit whose task was to motivate the demoralised and somewhat despondent dancers...
I returned to Lausanne again in 1992, but this time my appointment was with Mikhail Baryshnikov. He and I were sitting at the café near the studio and I had just turned on my tape recorder for the interview when Béjart’s assistant came up to us: “Sorry, Maurice interrupted the rehearsals when he heard you were out here and he wants you in there with him right away.” Misha shrugged his shoulders and smiled: “That’s Maurice for you. See you later.”
After that, I met Béjart again many other times, in Seville, in Paris, once more in Lausanne for a few “premieres”; always, to my amazement, he would show great willingness to tell me all; the numerous things he told me in confidence would be enough to write a book... We talked a lot about Cuba, of course, about the fate of émigré dancers, about the future of ballet. The last time I went back to Lausanne, a remarkable Cuban dancer, Julio Arozarena, was already there: he became for me the last living, human connection with Béjart and my memory of him – which is not quiet and cold, but thriving and ever-present.

Roger Salas - BALLET2000 n° 286 - April 2021