LES BALLETS DE MONTE-CARLO- 20th anniversary season – Winter 2005

LES BALLETS DE MONTE-CARLO – 20th Anniversary Season

Ballet and Monte-Carlo have been associated for a long time. In 1879, four years after the opening of his more illustrious Paris Opera House, Charles Gamier completed the construction of the Salle Gamier adjoining the Casino in Monte-Carlo. The first Ballets de Monte-Carlo would have been performing in the operas especially created for the theatre, by composers such as Berlioz, Massenet and Saint-Saens. But it was in 1911, when Serge Diaghilev left Russia for good and decided to base his Ballets Russes in Monte-Carlo in the hope of attracting royal patronage that it became an important centre for dance. Each year the company would gather in the exclusive Riviera principality to rehearse for the new season, Diaghilev being joined by an ever increasing number of collaborators, his ‘committee of friends’, many of them Europe’s leading composers, artists, designers and writers. Starting at 9 am with Maestro Ceccheti’s daily ballet class, rehearsals continued until well after midnight, with Fokine and later Nijinsky, Nijinska, Balanchine, Massine and Lifar creating a seemingly endless string of ballets, many destined to become 20th century classics. Demanding as the work was, there are plenty of photographs to be found of the dancers enjoying themselves in the sea and in the sunshine, and doubtless Diaghilev was shrewd enough to encourage his glamorous, exotic troupe to associate with the wealthy and aristocratic residents and visitors always present on the Cote-d’Azur.

In 1932, three years after Diaghilev’s death and the disbandment of the company, a new Ballets Russes was formed in Monte-Carlo directed by Colonel de Basil and Rene Blum. Many of Diaghilev’s dancers were retained in the new company, with Balanchine, and later Leonide Massine, as principal choreographer. Undergoing multiple changes of name and direction, but always retaining the magical ‘Monte-Carlo’ in the title, the company continued its existence, even splitting into two, the European wing becoming the Grands Ballets du Marquis de Cuevas in 1953 and the American based company, still flaunting the Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo title, finally disbanding in 1963.

In 1985, Princess Caroline of Monaco, now Princess of Hanover, fulfilled her mother’s wishes and brought about the creation of a new Ballets de Monte-Carlo, funded by the Princess Grace Foundation and the local government. The French choreographer, Pierre Lacotte, and his ballerina wife, Ghislaine Thesmar, were appointed directors and works from the Ballets Russes repertoire by Fokine and Massine were revived as well as 19th century classics, and a number of new works by contemporary choreographers. In 1989 Jean Yves Esquerre took over as director, the repertoire reflecting his background as a dancer with Béjart, Neumeier and Kylian. The company’s achievements and reputation grew with international tours but its style and repertoire were almost identical to half a dozen other ballet companies scattered around Europe at the time.

It was only with the arrival of Jean-Christophe Maillot in 1993 that the company found a true identity. A prolific choreographer, Maillot also brought to Monte-Carlo a vision and the exceptional energy needed to move the company forward. Maillot trained with Rosella Hightower at the Centre International de Danse in Cannes, won a prize at Lausanne and was engaged by John Neumeier for the Hamburg Ballet in Germany. An injury brought about an early end to his dancing career and returning to his home town, Tours, he was engaged as ballet director for the local Opera-Ballet where he soon attracted attention, and Tours became the first National Choreographic Centre in France. With his appointment as director of the Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Maillot’s most pressing problem was to find a new home for the company and ‘The Atelier’ was created in 1997, a conversion from a huge factory in Beausoleil on the outskirts of Monaco. Here the larger of the two studios can be transformed in a studio theatre or divided to create an extra rehearsal space; costumes and scenery are made and stored on the premises and technical and administrative staff work in large and airy offices. The dancers enjoy a huge glass-roofed foyer area with a cafeteria and have the use of a sauna, Jacuzzi, spa and gym on the top floor. In return for what appear to be perfect working conditions Jean-Christophe Maillot demands total commitment from his dancers, a sense of responsibility for their own work and for the company’s success: “to be a dancer is a question of all or nothing… I expect a sense of creativity from them. I want them to contribute, suggest, and not just to wait.” The dancers are engaged and paid to take part in classes and rehearsals, with casting for performances paid separately and not decided upon until the day beforehand. Maillot enjoys working with a sense of urgency, instilling in his dancers the will to take part and to work as a team. The 45 strong company is made up of 15 different nationalities and are an interesting mix of physiques, age and race. The only British dancer is Leanne Codrington who has joined this season and comes via the Royal Ballet School, ENB and Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Against all the current trends in France, Maillot has stood up for the need to preserve classical ballet and to create new works using all the diversity and technical challenges offered by both classical and contemporary dance. His Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and Beauty show his company at its strongest and these ballets have been performed throughout the world on their many tours. The company gives about 20 performances a year in their home town, performing since 2000 in the super-modern Grimaldi Forum, a 1700-seater waterfront auditorium which undoubtedly suits the company better than the lush and ornate surroundings of the Opera House. They spend approximately six months of the year on tour, as virtual roving ambassadors for Monaco, and during the current season will visit Japan, Korea, Russia (St Petersburg), Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and France. For this 20th anniversary season, the company is giving four short seasons in Monte-Carlo, and opened in December with Maillot’s new full-length production, The Dream, and a Triple Bill of Balanchine’s Four Temperaments, Kylian’s Sinfionetta and Bejart’s Bolero. With this mixed programme, Maillot wished to pay homage to those choreographers who have been of greatest importance to him and in so doing has presented his company with three landmark works of extremely differing styles. All three works were respectfully performed with some outstanding contributions from the soloists. However, the main interest of the season was definitely The Dream. As with all Maillot’s works, stage design plays a major part and here Ernest Pignon-Ernest has created a stunningly effective set of gleaming white pillars and a ceiling of white, silky clouds. Maillot has used the Mendelssohn score as well as commissioning new music from two composers in contrasting styles; Daniel Teruggi creating an atmospheric background of otherworldly electronics and Betrand Maillot a suitably earthy accompaniment for the ‘rude mechanicals’ with bells and percussion. Company ballerina, Bernice Coppetiers, is a slinky, glistening Titania and Maillot uses her extraordinarily expressive and flexible body to its full advantage. Jerome Marchand is a wickedly erotic Oberon and Gaetan Morlotti almost steals the show as Bottom, both as a dim-witted artisan and as a bewitched playmate for Titania. The company’s greatest strength is probably the way a group of very individual artists blend to form a truly homogenous ensemble and they performed this very contemporary but highly enjoyable Dream impressively. Jean-Christophe Maillot has given his company the best possible birthday present with this highly successful new production.

The company returned to Monte-Carlo in April as part of the Monaco Spring Arts Festival to present new works by Maillot and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui whose connection with the company started in 2002 when he was awarded a ‘Nijinski’ prize for choreography, by Maillot, at the Monaco Dance Forum. Best known in the UK for his successful collaboration with Akram Khan, he is one of today’s rising stars and a prolific choreographer. If the programme, entitled ‘Chasse-Croise’, did not live up to its promise of exchanges and interactions between the two choreographers, they did share the use of music by 17th century composers and designs by Karl Lagerfeld, a long-term friend of the company. Unfortunately, these produced hideously unflattering costumes for Maillot’s ballet and conventional ultra-chic ones for Cherkaoui. Maillot’s ‘Altro Canto’ was an eloquent and inventive abstract ballet to music by Monteverdi, while Cherkaoui’s extremely ambitious and interesting work, ‘Mea Culpa’ was danced mainly to music by Heinrich Schultz and was only partially successful in addressing problems as vast as globalization, exploitation and imperialism. Both works showed the dancers in peak form responding to the huge challenges set by both choreographers both technically and interpretatively. Exceptional performances were given by the men, Asier Uriagereka, Rodolphe Lucas, Jerome Marchand, Ramon Gomes Reis and ballerina, Bernice Coppieters.

The company return to Monte-Carlo for the final performances of the season at a special open-air venue in the gardens of the Casino in August. In the glossy superficiality of Monte-Carlo today, where high-rise apartments, fast cars and luxury yachts dominate, the Ballets de Monte-Carlo are to be congratulated in continuing to create artistically successful and challenging dance performances and in attracting a large and faithful following. In this 20th anniversary season, one must wish them many happy returns.