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Ballets de Monte Carlo: creating new legends; Jean-Christophe Maillot continues the Diaghilev tradition by bringing his Ballets de Monte Carlo to Manhattan in October.

When Nijinsky performed Fokine's Le Spectre de la Rose in April 1911 at Monte Carlo's opulent Garnier opera house, he overwhelmed the audience with his dazzling technique and distinctive theatricality. The great impresario Serge Diaghilev had brought him and other Russian emigre artists to fashionable Monte Carlo, hoping to attract enough wealthy backers to establish a company there. After only a few performances, he had his financing. An entirely new style of ballet then began to take root in European soil.

This fall, the Ballet Russe's descendant, Ballets de Monte Carlo, performs October 8-13 at City Center. It will present Fokine's Prince Igor to the Polovtsian Dances from the Borodin opera, Balanchine's Four Temperaments and Stravinsky Violin Concerto, and pieces by John Alleyne and Jean-Christophe Maillot, the company's choreographer and director.

Since Diaghilev, Monte Carlo has accommodated ten very different incarnations of dance companies as directors of the stature of Balanchine, Lifar, Fokine, and Massine discovered the advantages of the sumptuous principality's idyllic setting, high above the Mediterranean. Two years ago Princess Caroline decided to put Maillot in charge of the fifty-member company that her mother, Princess Grace, had established in 1985.

The thirty-six-year-old Maillot believes that Diaghilev's repertoire, with works such as Prince Igor, combines perfectly with pieces by Balanchine and more contemporary choreographers. "People tend to think of the Monte Carlo Ballet as something very classical," explains the exuberant director in almost flawless English. "In fact, it's just the opposite. The company built its reputation solely on new creations--through the music, dance, and aesthetics. So our priority is to keep moving forward--though it's just as important to remind the audience of our past achievements."

But being the cultural guardians of an avant-garde that's been absorbed into the tradition can sometimes be an enormous burden--Maillot's two predecessors, Jean-Yves Esquerre and Pierre Lacotte, did not last very long. Says Maillot, "I see their grave mistake as trying to reconstitute the historical company in the overpowering image of a troupe dancing classical repertoire, while the actual task here is . . . renewal, originality, the quest for new direction."

Maillot made his reputation in the dance world early. Born in Tours, he studied dance and piano at the National Conservatory in his hometown. After a brief stint in film, playing the title role in Michel Boisrond's Tom Thumb, he spent three years in Cannes at Rosella Hightower's ballet school. In 1977, he won the Prix de Lausanne and attracted the attention of John Neumeier, who invited him to be a soloist in his Hamburg Ballet. Maillot flourished until 1983, when an accident ended his career--an event he doesn't regret. That same year he became director of the Ballet of Tours, which officially became the National Choreographic Center in 1989. Maillot created twenty ballets for his hometown company as well as for Ballet du Nord, Rome Opera Ballet, and Jiri Kylian's Netherlands Dance Theater. He sat on the Lausanne jury for several years, and in 1993 he was appointed Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by Jack Lang, France's minister of culture at the time.

Although his new role in Monte Carlo meant a whole new set of challenges, Maillot welcomed the opportunity. Ballets de Monte Carlo dancers come from eighteen different countries and give ninety performances a year, about seventy of them on tour. Just last year the company visited Korea and Egypt. To make such a diverse group work well together and carry off the arduous schedule, he feels that he must insist on total commitment.

"Being a dancer is a matter of all or nothing," Maillot explains. "If someone sprains his or her foot and brings me a doctor's note saying she or he'll be off for eight days, I can't accept it. As soon as the foot will bear their weight again, they must dance. Anyone who can't go along with this, who hasn't got the iron will to push themselves, ought to give up. Dancing is too much for the human frame anyway. Myself, I've never regretted having to give up dancing. That's why I say today, whoever finds that they're not prepared to give their all should draw the inescapable conclusion from that and stop."

Unlike most dance companies, Ballets de Monte Carlo can't count on its own audience. Monaco, the principality to which the town belongs, has 30,000 inhabitants, only 5,000 of them Monegasgue. It would be too risky to depend on such a small public. For example, Maillot reports, "Our audience saw Giselle and didn't like it. To tickle these people's curiosity takes a lot of patience; it's all a matter of education and stamina. But consequently, we've made more fans overseas than at home."

Rarely in France have choreographers also acted as administrators. For the past twenty years government subsidies have given them that freedom. However, the level of support--one hundred percent--can no longer be sustained. Maillot sees this as a blessing: "I think the company of the future should be something like what we've built up in Monte Carlo; there's a principal choreographer who monitors developments and tends the choreographic heritage but who's also modest enough to invite selected outside choreographers to stimulate different kinds of creativity. A company ought to have the capacity as we do here, to dance [the work of] other choreographers as well as their own.

"We've always got five or six choreographers working with us at any one time," Maillot continues. "Where else can you find this? Choreography has been subject to so much mystification recently that a general attitude of entitlement to a living has developed, although the last ten years of subsidized dance haven't produced any more works than any earlier period. Kylian is the last one who's still prepared to share and to invite other choreographers to work with his company, but the available work is getting scarcer and has to be shared around."

Maillot must steal time to do his own choreography. His Vers un Pays Sage ("Toward a Wise Land"), to Fearful Symmetries by John Adams, will be presented in New York City this fall. Inspired by the death of his father, a painter, it shows a leap forward, a journey toward something new--"wholly in the spirit in which my father lived," the choreographer explains.

"I wanted to work purely formally, but after more than five minutes of pure form everything begins to go round in circles," Maillot continues. "This made me very twitchy, and I just had to hint at a little story line. In this I cite Umberto Eco, according to whom narration is a basic human need. From my dancers I expect their own commitment, creativity, and suggestions; passive dancers who just stand there waiting to be moved around are no use to me. We've done a tremendous amount of improvising, which has meant that the piece has taken a long time to develop."

In his choreography Maillot is after a balance between form and emotion. He doesn't believe that they are twin poles, irreconcilably opposed. "The human being needs the energy of narration as much as the freedom of abstraction," he explains. "The model for the future is, perhaps, a kind of abstract narration." For a long time Maillot just worked with emotions and ignored form. Now, rather than drawing his creative energy only from the music, he observes people more closely to understand the dynamics of the body. In his Dov'e la Luna, everything was based on doing violence to the body; all the movements went against the natural flow. In a milder form, this is also true of Vers un Pays Sage. "Movements that flatter the body quickly get boring," he says. "The more uncomfortable the movements are for the dancers, the better they are in choreographic terms."

While Maillot derives great gratification from choreographing, his deepest commitment has been to creating in Monte Carlo a Cite de la Danse, 40,000 square meters of rehearsal space, a permanent research group, and the 2,000-seat auditorium now under construction. Only if such facilities exist, he believes, will the art form flourish. "What's very special about Monte Carlo," he concludes,"is that I can work long-term, without pressures of time, pressure to succeed, with the complete trust and agreement of Princess Caroline. She is as dedicated to ballet as I am."
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Title Annotation:Serge Diaghilev
Author:Gladstone, Vera
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Oct 1, 1996
Words:1386
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