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Ballet legend dies in hospital

Béjart celebrating his 80th birthday in Lausanne last year

(Keystone Archive)

French-born choreographer Maurice Béjart, founder of the Béjart Ballet Lausanne, has died in a Swiss hospital, his company said on Thursday.

Béjart, 80, famous for his innovative and sometimes controversial ballets, had been in and out of hospital in recent months, suffering from exhaustion as well as kidney and heart problems.

He died early Thursday morning at Lausanne's University Hospital, said Emmanuel de Bourgknecht, administrator of the Béjart Ballet.

"The master has disappeared physically but his work, school and company will survive him," said Yvette Jaggi, the former mayor of Lausanne, who helped bring Béjart to the Swiss lakeside city in 1987.

The Frenchman stunned critics with his avant-garde dance performances and set new standards for ballet in a career spanning five decades.

With his piercing blue eyes, square frame and pointed beard, Béjart, who converted to Islam in 1973, had a mystical air about him that impregnated his work.

"He is doubtless already making the stars dance," declared Patrick Dupond, a French dancer who worked with the master. "He will leave behind a light that cannot be extinguished."

Béjart's signature piece was Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", which in 1959 was his first production with Belgium's Monnaie Theatre.

In sleek, shiny tights, the dancers created an erotic aura with impulsive, natural movements that would become a standard for his interpretations.

His Ballet of the 20th Century, formed a year later, became hugely successful on the back of his provocative choreography, helping to raise annual attendance at the Brussels theatre from 40,000 to 250,000.

He later left for Lausanne in Switzerland after clashing with management at the Monnaie, whom he accused of concentrating on opera at the expense of ballet. The lakeside city offered better conditions and subsidies to the troupe, which he was still directing from his wheelchair shortly before his death.

Blurring the lines

A product of classical ballet, Béjart constantly blurred the lines between modern and classical in works such as Ravel's Bolero, Beethoven's Ode to Joy and Berlioz' Romeo and Juliet.

He made his New York debut in 1971. Even though critics were disappointed, he repeatedly returned for engagements before adoring audiences, and was seemingly willing to try anything.

In 1985, he opened the 20th Century's season in New York with a two-hour murder mystery dance, that was typical of his love for piecing together collages of classical dance with shards of humour and camp, changes of pace and direction, snippets of varied music and flashes of wit.

In a performance of Oscar Wilde's Salome - in which a female dancer is supposed to ask for the head of John the Baptist - Béjart gave the title role to a young man in a skirt.

A close friend of the late Gianni Versace, Béjart recently wrote and choreographed a two-part ballet "Thank you, Gianni, with love" that played in Milan on the tenth anniversary of the Italian fashion designer's murder.

The Béjart Ballet Lausanne's 35 dancers are currently in rehearsals for a new production called "Around the World in 80 Minutes", to be premiered on December 20 in Lausanne.

"We're all upset but the show will go on," troupe spokeswoman Roxanne Aybek said.

Gil Roman, who has been Béjart's deputy for several years, will assure the troupe's leadership.

One thing is sure, though. Death certainly did not scare Béjart.

"I believe that everyone always dies at the right time. Everyone's lifetime is different, but we always die at the right point in time," he said in an interview late last year.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

Born in Marseilles, France, in 1927, Béjart worked as a classical dancer before developing an interest in choreography. He founded his own ballet company, the Ballet de l'Etoile, in Paris in 1954.

He gradually built up a repertoire, but faced an initially sceptical public.

In 1960 the company moved to Brussels where it changed its name to the Ballet du XX siècle (Ballet of the 20th century). Béjart moved to Lausanne in 1987 and renamed the company the Béjart Ballet Lausanne.

Béjart was one of the first choreographers to use designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier and Gianni Versace. Many famous dancers have also made their name in his company, among them the late Jorge Donn and Gil Roman.

He has also staged plays and operas, directed films and published several books.

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Key facts

Béjart staged 230 different shows.
The most famous are 'Symphonie pour un homme seul' (1955), 'Le Sacre du Printemps' (1959), 'Boléro' (1960), 'L'Oiseau de feu' (1970), 'Notre Faust' (1975), 'Ring um den Ring' (1990) and 'Le Presbytère...!' (1997).

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