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Remembering Maurice Bejart

by Colleen Neary

March 2008

When I first met Maurice Bejart, I knew he was considered a great genius of the 20th century.  Having worked with George Balanchine, I recognized that Bejart had a similar, immense impact on the people around him, but the nature of Bejart’s genius was a mystery.  I also knew I wanted to dance for him, but I had no idea the enormous influence he would have on my career and my life.   And then I met him.

It was 1984. Taking a break from a wonderful dancing career at New York City Ballet, I had become ballet mistress for the Zurich Ballet where my sister Patricia Neary was Artistic Director. As that break extended toward five years, ballet class was not enough.  My soul loved to dance and I began “guesting”, performing as a guest artist, at small galas around Europe. At one performance, a dancer from Germany urged me to audition for Maurice Bejart and Les Ballets de Vingtieme Siecle. Based in Belgium, but known throughout Europe and the world, I certainly had heard about Bejart and his incredible company. I had even met Jorge Donn, Bejart’s star dancer, during his guest appearances with NYCB.  But none of that information prepared me for the incredible visceral sensation when I walked through the wooden doors of Mudra, Bejart’s school and company home in Brussels.  I could feel in the atmosphere, the energy, and creativity flowing in the hallways and the studios.  Then there were those extraordinary creatures of his company: women and, especially, the men, each distinctively beautiful and exuding such sensuality.

I was taking all this in when Jorge Donn spotted me and asked what I was doing there. I told him I wanted to audition for Bejart, but I was a bit taken aback when he exclaimed and ran off.  I was relieved when he quickly returned, and with him was Maurice Bejart.

In person, Bejart was a rather small, round man with very dark hair, a very dark beard and incredibly, intense blue eyes. He approached me and said simply,. “Let us go into this studio and you can show me what you can do.” I had expected to take a company class, but instead, here I was in a room with Bejart and Donn.  There they sat, waiting to see what I could do. I showed Bejart a solo from Balanchine’s Agon, and since I had no music, they clapped the rhythm, just as the dancers do in the ballet. “Can you hop on pointe?” he asked. “Now, turn.” I did everything he asked.  Bejart and Donn stepped aside and spoke together. Bejart returned, “I like you very much and I will see what I can do.” Then he left.

About a week later, back in Zurich, I received the call.  Bejart wanted me to perform with his company in Paris, dancing the role of La Reine De La Nuit (Queen of the Night) in his La Flute Enchantee (The Magic Flute), but first, he wanted me to come to Brussels for rehearsals. I was overwhelmed by this much so quickly and even more overwhelmed once I arrived in Brussels and became part of those amazing rehearsals.  Bejart’s Queen of the Night called for a very strong technician, and was also very dramatic, very juicy. I loved it!  Bejart’s ballet used the entire score of Mozart’s opera and at one point Bejart asked me if I knew the Aria. When I confessed I did not, he announced, “Well, you must learn it, to be the REAL Queen of the Night!” I did, immediately.

When he offered me the chance to join his company as a permanent guest artist and also as a teacher, I moved to Brussels.  That was the start of my two and a half years dancing for Bejart.

During those years, I grew to love this man for many things, especially because he brought me back to performing and propelled me into a second career as a dancer in dramatic and earthy roles, which I had always yearned to do. Bejart’s Sacre de Printemps and Bolero are such masterpieces, definitely not for the shy, and I was constantly amazed watching him rehearse these works. He sometimes conducted rehearsals sitting cross-legged on the floor, with the straight-backed posture of a Yoga-master.  Yet his words exuded knowledge to the dancers and when needed, he would demonstrate with masterful clarity.

Teaching for Bejart presented unusual challenges.  As different as they were, Bejart loved Balanchine.  Bejart wanted to give his dancers some of my knowledge of Balanchine and had me teach quite often.  Bejart’s dancers were disciplined but in an unusual and unkempt way, especially the men who had separate classes. When I taught the men’s class, I would walk in to find the men stretching, meditating or doing yoga which was not unusual, except it continued as I gave the plie combination to start the class. About half would stay on the floor and those who did stand up executed their own rendition of the combination, which often only vaguely resembled ballet. If I gave fast tendus, some would do slow tendus, but, when I gave slow movement, many would do it fast.  And in the center, the men would turn the combinations into their own bizarre weird steps. Jorge Donn was the marvelous exception to this improvisational approach.

At one point when I complained to Bejart that the men were not disciplined in my class and did only what they wanted, he replied that his men were “wonderful and would never do that’.  So, I invited him to see for himself.  No one knew Bejart was coming, and the men were their usual inventive selves, but as if a warning light went off, suddenly they metamorphosed into angels, doing my steps correctly and just at that moment, Bejart entered the room.  After watching class for a few moments, Bejart smiled like proud father, “See Colleen, they are wonderful” and I watched him exit only to turn around and see the class had resumed their yoga poses.

I became very close personally to Bejart and Donn, but perhaps the most memorable social occasion was the first invitation to dinner at their home. I was still very New York in my ways and I arrived in a very dressy, very tight black dress and wearing very high heels. At the door, I was met by Bejart’s assistant and friend Agee, who looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked where I was going. Just then Donn appeared wearing a flowing kimono followed by Bejart who was also in an elaborate kimono. Bejart’s home had no chairs except a small one at his desk.  Everyone else settled down on pillows arrayed around the room and Bejart invited me to some pillows on the floor. Despite my tight dress and high heels, I somehow managed to maneuver down onto the pillows.  I hope with some modicum of grace.  I also learned that evening that Bejart preferred everyone’s head to be lower than his, sort of like a scene from “The King and I”.  Despite that awkward start, it turned into a great evening and the first of many memorable times, but from then on I dressed in slacks and casual shoes.

As a choreographer, Bejart created for the specific person and I was honored that he created a role for me although it cost him a broken arm. The ballet Le Concours is a Hitchcock-like version of a murder at a ballet competition and a masterpiece that captures the essence of Bejart’s genius at work. Since the company included dancers from Japan, France, Russia, you name it, Bejart had ready casting complete with appropriate accents for the judges at the ballet competition. I was the American judge. He created solos and dances for the judges during the competition part of the ballet which he intermixed with the “thriller” sections and flashbacks. I was ecstatic when he asked us to make up our own introduction speeches and to develop our own character. I borrowed a little of my flamboyant sister Pat and mixed it with some American excessive enthusiasm, but couldn’t find the right costume until just before the Paris premiere, when I found a shocking pink dress, had it fitted to me like a glove, and topped it with a hat on which I sewed quantities of flowers. Bejart wanted us all to speak and with a microphone. Bejart selected lines for me like “I want to see the boys, now!” and after the dancer’s murder, I announced “The Show Must Go On!”.  One day in rehearsal, he handed me the microphone and instructed me to say a ROSE IS A ROSE for 3 minutes and make every “rose” different….A ROZE is a rose is rose is a ROOOOSE is a ROZZZZZZZE and so on, which was very amusing since the dancers were dancing behind me as I spoke while walking across the stage.  After the dress rehearsal, Bejart was not satisfied.  He took the mike and started saying “A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE” etc. while walking backwards, but misjudged the distance and tumbled off the edge of the stage into the orchestra pit.  Fortunately, the pit was fairly shallow, but he did break his arm and spent the day before the premiere in a Paris hospital. At the premiere, he took his bow with his arm in a cast and a sling. During the bows, he smiled at me and said, “Well Colleen, I broke my arm, but you finally got it right!”  I still feel guilty about that broken arm.

Of the many dramatic roles I danced for Bejart, “Sonate à Trois”, based on the Sartre play Huit Clos was one of my favorites, and I danced it with three of Bejart’s great dancers Jorge Donn, Shonah Mirk, and Grazia Gallante,. I was the woman who was in love with the man, who was in love with the other woman, who was in love with me. Dancing it was a delight; working on it with Bejart was a revelation. He had us put a dialogue to our steps to increase the intensity of the piece, and in rehearsals we had to speak the dialogue aloud, “I hate you”, “I love you” and “why are you doing this to me”, all while we were dancing.

When I arrived in 1984, I only knew that I wanted to dance again and for Bejart. I did not know that he would expand my focus and knowledge of the power possible on stage.  I certainly did not know that after dancing for him for two and a half years, he would give me a second career by telling me I needed to return to classical ballet. “Do all that classical stuff and get it out of your system,” he told me, adding “and show them what I have taught you!

A dancer is lucky to cross paths with one such genius during a career.  I am one of the few blessed to work with two.  My time with George Balanchine was incredible and an inspiration.  Yet I also always will cherish my time with Maurice Bejart, the chance to dance for him and with his marvelous dancers, and the life lessons he taught me about how to move on without regret, as he has done now.

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