Monte Carlo ballet company steps up
Jean-Christophe Maillot has lifted Monte Carlo's ballet company into contemporary times, writes Judith Mackrell
Jean-Christophe Maillot, the artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, knows his own luck: "It sounds like a stupid fairy tale. It's unreal, the situation I have here."
Back in 1993, when Maillot was invited by Caroline, Princess of Hanover, to run Monaco's fledgling ballet company, he found himself negotiating dream terms for the post. "I wanted to show the world that this company wasn't the toy of a princess. I wanted a company that would have its own identity. And I wanted Monaco, so small and so specific, to experience the whole possibility of dance."
Armed with an annual budget of €11 million (HK$117.8 million) Maillot went on to do exactly as he hoped. He built up a repertoire of 70 new works for the company, created by himself and guest choreographers. He founded a dance school, drawing students from around the world and, in 2000, he launched the Monaco Dance Forum as an international dance festival and a producer of new work.
One of the forum's recent co-productions (with central London's Sadler's Wells) was In the Spirit of Diaghilev, a programme of Ballets Russes-inspired works that brought together Wayne McGregor, Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier de Frutos. Even now, it delights Maillot that de Frutos' contribution, a scabrously comic satire on the Catholic Church that the BBC deemed too "strong" to screen, played to full houses in Catholic Monaco.
The 53-year-old Maillot - bristling with preoccupations about a ballet institution that's funded by gambling, car racing and tax exiles - says that even though he knows he's in "the most luxurious situation", he doesn't feel any guilt. He's far more interested in spreading his good fortune. It matters to him, passionately, that his company and his foundation do not serve an elite public. It matters, too, that other choreographers benefit.
Recently Maillot gave key funding to a new work, Tragedie, by avant-garde French choreographer Oliver Dubois. It's not a piece that is scheduled to come to Monaco, and more startlingly it's not even one that Maillot likes.
"It's not to my taste at all, but Dubois is an artist of integrity. And what's important is that if I hadn't given that money to him, this work wouldn't exist."
Maillot doesn't have a totally free hand, even with the protection of the princess, who is president of the company's board. He has to justify his budget to the government: a few years ago he was threatened with a 20 per cent funding cut by a hostile minister.
Even so, he's aware of how little fundraising and politicking he has to do compared with most of his peers, and how very free he's been to focus on the work.
Certainly, there can be few ballet directors who, on starting their job, would dare to warn their board that their first programmes would probably play to an empty theatre.
Maillot came to the job from the French city of Tours, where his small company had been creating and performing a modern style of ballet.
His debut programme with Monte Carlo was a triple bill by William Forsythe, Nacho Duato and himself - works very different from the traditional repertory to which the principality was accustomed.
And just as the artistic director predicted, the programme did not sell. "Some shows we had only 20 people, some we had to cancel. But when you start out you shouldn't think about the audience you're going to lose, you should focus on the one you're going to win. Now we sell out most of our shows," he says.
He describes his own choreography as occupying a "very tiny border between ballet and contemporary". It's a way, he says, "of bringing a new energy, a new possibility to ballet. A way of melting the choreography so that it is more about storytelling than technique."
It's a style typified by the full-length work, Lac (After Swan Lake). While it's based on the original Swan Lake, Maillot has used an edited version of the Tchaikovsky score, and collaborated with writer Jean Rouaud to develop a story that filters the ballet's themes of love and betrayal, reality and illusion through a modern, erotic slant.
Many of the company's new works are by choreographers from contemporary dance backgrounds, such as Shen Wei, Cherkaoui, Chris Haring and Emio Greco. Maillot believes he's offering them an exceptional opportunity for play.
More importantly, Maillot says he's offering his dancers a range of choreography. "The dancers may not like all the work they do, but I want them to develop a perspective, a capacity to analyse," he says. "This profession demands a dedication that can infantilise dancers. I want them to be adult, to have their eyes wide open to what is interesting, to be able to criticise, and to see that even if they don't like dancing one work, it will still make them richer in what they do next."
"We used to have 18 Balanchine ballets in the rep, and we used to dance them pretty nicely. But now we can't do them so well. We have got used to a different way of being on stage and of using music. If I have Emio Greco saying these dancers are fantastic, then they are not going to suit Balanchine's style so well. I don't believe in companies that think they can dance everything."
It's very refreshing to hear a ballet director talk with such candour and conviction. Maillot's personal drive, in tandem with the princess' support, has made Monaco an exceptional home for dancers, as well as a destination for audiences, who come from as far as Marseilles and Milan.
Maillot has no idea how long this situation will continue, but he's proud of the legacy that he has already created.
During his time in Monaco he's overseen the building of a purpose-built base for the company (the dancers were working in one cramped studio with two showers between them when he arrived).
He's also been key to the princess' mission to establish a "living culture" in the principality. Maillot counts himself lucky that he has had 20 years with Les Ballets de Monte Carlo "working on the education, creation and diffusion of dance".
And if it comes to an end? He shrugs with a particular Gallic mixture of pragmatism and charm. "Caroline and I say that we can always open a restaurant."
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