The Show Must Go OnLAUSANNE, Switzerland － For starters, there is something surprising about his size. Standing several inches shorter than most of the female dancers in his troupe, clad in loose Nike sweatpants and an orange tennis shirt that stretches over his chubby midsection, Maurice Bejart, at 74, an icon of modern ballet, looks more like an ex-boxer than an active choreographer. But then he begins to speak about his late father, Gaston Berger, a French philosopher who Bejart explains had a particular fondness for Eastern literature, and you feel the natural intensity of his presence. You observe the way he sits with his back rigidly upright and smiles in an awkward way; but mostly, you note the way he gives off a trace of melancholy when he looks at a stranger.
But those looks betray the words that come out of his mouth, for Bejart publicly describes himself as "an incurable optimist." He says, "Life is hard, but the show must go on."
That also despite several tragedies he endured recently, such as the deaths of many close friends. One was Gianni Versace, the Italian fashion designer who was shot dead by a serial killer in Miami in 1997. "Gianni was a genius who had things very few people had," Bejart says recalling a friend who designed costumes for Bejart's performances. Another was Jorge Donn, Bejart's partner, muse and a principal dancer in his ballet company, who died of AIDS at age 45. To commemorate their early deaths, Bejart choreographed "Ballet for Life," a nontraditional dance piece that incorporates music by Freddie Mercury and Mozart, musicians who died at about the same age as Versace and Donn. Starting this Saturday, Bejart's troupe will perform "Ballet for Life" at Seoul's Sejong Center for the Performing Arts, followed by shows in Shanghai, Beijing and Taipei.
Bejart, however, is hesitant to associate his works with his personal life, even though he admits that links between the two are inescapable. He prefers to avoid emphasizing artists' personal concerns in their works and instead seeks to appeal to the audiences' senses without intellectual concerns. "It interferes with the work's evolution." he says. "I want my ballet to become a humanity issue."
Maybe he is being oversensitive to stands on his work taken by critics, who tend to read hidden content in Bejart's choreography rather than appreciating it as an innocent expression of art. Or maybe he is just loath to speak to the press. Indeed, a staffer on his promotional team says Bejart harbors a visceral reluctance to respond to American journalists who ask probing questions about his private life. At any rate, Bejart's "Ballet For Life" has gained enormous success worldwide since it was first staged in Paris in 1997 at the Theatre de Chaillot. Among the big names in the audience for that premiere performance were Elton John, the three surviving members of Mercury's band Queen, and Bernadette Chirac, the wife of the French president.
The ballet master is standing in the dining room of his Bejart Ballet of Lausanne building. Svelte dancers who've evidently skipped meals duck in between rehearsals for free plates of baked salmon and steamed vegetables. The dining room seems curiously small for the troupe's 35 dancers and the 50 students attending Rudra Bejart Lausanne － Bejart's dance academy.
"He is a strict man. But he always has reasons for it," says the director of the school, Michel Gascard, in describing his boss of 13 years. But when reading his production notes or talking to him face-to-face, Bejart seems more of a poet than a novelist; He has published books on various subjects and written screenplays for films and operas. When Bejart speaks, he often halts in the middle of a sentence, falls silent for a moment, then utters something profound or cryptic like "dance is my sleep, my nonsleep and my nightmare" or, to describe the talents of Donn, "he was like an interpreter."
Bejart frequently plays with language. For the French title of "Ballet For Life," he borrowed a phrase from a novel by Gaston Leroux written in the 1920s. It went: "Le Presbytere N'a Rien Perdu De Son Charme, Ni Le Jardin De Son Eclat" or "he has never lost his charm, or the garden of his brightness." The phrase, which was used as a secret code by a detective in the story, later became a cult expression among the Surrealists. Though audiences try to divine a connection between the idea and the theme of the ballet, Bejart did not mean to suggest anything by it. Rien. "It gives nothing away, and I happen to like it," he says. But considering that "Le Presbytere" is also the name of the quiet street on the hill Bejart's ballet facility is located, it seems evident that Bejart is playing with the crossover of fiction and reality.
Bejart will often say that death, after all, is not so tragic. Perhaps it isn't, especially to people who bade farewell to their loved ones but still live with the departed's art, as Bejart does with the music of Mercury and the inspiration of Donn in "Ballet For Life." The performance begins with video of Donn dancing followed by the Queen song "I Want to Break Free." And like many of Bejart's previous works, such as "Merry Widow" and "Symphony of a Lonely Man," the subject of loss in "Ballet For Life" is treated with similar optimism and hope. "I am sure Freddie Mercury will sing with Mozart if we all meet again in no-man's- land," he says with a sigh.
Later, at a traditional fondue restaurant nearby, Bejart, now clad in a purple velvet scarf and long leather jacket, looks exhausted. Perhaps exhaustion has been a familar word for this artist. He gulps down a glass of water.
"It's happened many times. It happens all the time," he says referring to moments he often feels drained as a choreographer. "But I just continue to work."
Maurice Bejart and his Bejart Ballet of Lausanne will perform in Korea on Saturday through Monday at the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Seoul. For more information call 02-399-1700 (English available).
by Park Soo-mee