Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in Tel Aviv: Ballet for the 21st Century

Posted on 18 June 2009 by Deborah Friedes Galili


Video: Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Altro Canto

Dance history buff that I am, I was thrilled when I got to interview Jean-Christophe Maillot.  Why?  He directs Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, which in some ways carries on the legacy of the legendary Ballets Russes.  Yet even with these rich historical roots (or perhaps because of them), this top-notch company presents decidedly 21st-century work.  Read on to understand why!

This article was first published as “A Midsummer Dream” in the Jerusalem Post on June 14th, 2009.

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“Each time I go to a new country, I always go with a tremendous hope that what we will bring is completely different – because the environment is different, because the culture is different, because the history of the country is different,” explains Jean-Christophe Maillot, choreographer for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.

Since 1993, the French-born choreographer has led Monaco’s world-renowned dance company on tours around the globe.  Yet for Maillot and most of the troupe’s 46 dancers, the company’s performances at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center will mark their first visit to Israel – and Maillot is looking forward to it.

Maillot’s hope may well be fulfilled on this tour.  Firmly rooted in the classical ballet tradition while moving forward with a distinctly contemporary style of choreography, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo is indeed different from much of Israel’s dance scene.  This contrast should prove exciting not only for Maillot, but for Israeli audiences as well.

Though it may seem paradoxical, Les Ballets de Monte Carlo’s freshness stems from a rich history.  Monaco’s ballet tradition stretches back to the early decades of the 20th century, when Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev brought his famed Ballets Russes to Monte Carlo.  The ground-breaking company dissolved when Diaghilev died in 1929, but it was reconstituted three years later by Colonel de Basil and Rene Blum.  Conflicts between the directors led to a split, and under Blum’s leadership, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo continued to win praise with its cast of star dancers and inventive choreographers.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo closed, reopened, and shut its doors once again.  Yet Princess Grace of Monaco dreamed of returning a ballet company to her principality.  In 1985, her daughter, the Princess of Hanover, founded Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.  The company now boasts a diverse repertory and a roster of talented dancers from 21 countries.

Although Les Ballets de Monte Carlo is not the direct descendant of either Diaghilev or Blum’s troupe, it does bear some important resemblances to these legendary companies.  First, Maillot remains loyal to the Ballets Russes custom of pairing classical ballet technique with up-to-date and even innovative choreography.  He maintains that his company uses ballet technique “without being old-fashioned, without being boring, without being tacky. It’s not because we do use things that have been used for more than two centuries that we are out of our time.”

To bring the ballet tradition into the 21st century, Maillot and his company’s guest choreographers harness ideas from contemporary dance.  The result?  Artistically adventurous works performed by strong, flexible, virtuoso dancers who are at home in ballet slippers and pointe shoes.

Secondly, like several Ballets Russes choreographers before him, Maillot is interested in presenting divertissement – diversionary entertainment. “Divertissement is a word that everybody in the art form is very afraid to use because it seems when you use that, you don’t take yourself seriously enough,” Maillot notes.

But Maillot embraces this term and the idea behind it. “I love the idea to give to the audience a moment where there is a kind of reality onstage that has nothing to do with the reality in the world,” he declares.  Sets, costumes, lighting and music by renowned designers and composers combine with movement to create this alternative world.

Tel Aviv audiences will be exposed to Maillot’s brand of divertissement – and his fusion of the classical with the contemporary – in two programs performed by Les Ballets de Monte Carlo.  The first, Le Songe (“The Dream”), is an evening-length work inspired by William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  While choreographing this work in 2005, Maillot explored the body’s capacity to convey a story within a contemporary aesthetic.

Maillot also views Le Songe as an answer to the question of how to work with dancers ranging in age from 20 to 45 or older.  Dance is often viewed as the province of the young, but Maillot believes “that everybody [in the group] is necessary to each other, and that this knowledge of the 25-year difference between the youngest [dancer] and the oldest is a privilege.”

Maillot makes the most of what he calls “three generations of dancers” by relating each group to a set of characters in Shakespeare’s play.  The youngest dancers, with their vigorous energy and physical prowess, correspond to the youthful lovers of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Dancers from age 29 to approximately 36 – who have achieved a greater synthesis of mind and body – represent the fairy world.  And the oldest dancers, who may no longer perform the most technically difficult material but bring a deep maturity to their roles, portray Shakespeare’s often comedic players.

While Maillot focused on character and narrative in Le Songe, he deliberately turned away from these elements in Altro Canto I and Altro Canto II. Created in 2006 and 2008, respectively, this pair of abstract dances enabled Maillot to show that “the body can be enough and the dance form can be enough for itself to express something.”

These works were also opportunities for Maillot to experiment with contrasting methods of choreographing.  For Altro Canto I, he selected music by Baroque composer Claudio Monteverdi and sought to match that with a “visual revelation of what people can hear.”

Maillot abandoned this conventional academic approach in Altro Canto II.  Working in the studio with one musical score, he designed and manipulated movement phrases.  Yet the final product is performed instead to music composed by the choreographer’s brother, Bertrand Maillot.

Though Les Ballets de Monte Carlo’s two programs are quite different in nature, Jean-Christophe Maillot says that both will be performed with generosity and pleasure.  Calling this tour an exciting adventure, he looks forward to the possibility that his work “will be able to reach some hearts of the people that will discover it” in Tel Aviv.

More Information

Les Ballets de Monte Carlo performs Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Le Songe at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center from June 16-18 at 9 p.m.  The company performs Maillot’s Altro Canto I and Altro Canto II at TAPAC from June 20-21 at 9 p.m.  Tickets: (03) 692-7777.

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1 Comments For This Post

  1. Prima Says:

    Cool! I think more people in Israel would be shocked to find that they could actually enjoy ballet–modern or classic. There are a lot more ballet companies in Israel than even many Israeli dancers know–like my brand-new BALLET company, PrimaDivaTLV! There is another ballet company in Jerusalem, one in the north… it doesn’t have to be Israeli Ballet! ;)

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