Interview: Jean-Christophe Maillot, Artistic Director of LES BALLETS DE MONTE-CARLO, Brings the Company to New York City Center in 2016

By: Feb. 17, 2016
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Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo Celebrates it's 30th Anniversary with Jean-Christophe Maillot's CINDERELLA, February 18th to 20th, 2016, at New York City Center. Here he talks about his training, his performing career, and his choreography.

What led you to dance as a young person?

I was born into an artistic family. My father was a professor at Beaux Arts. As I was raised in this artistic atmosphere and as I was an active and eccentric child, I was enrolled in the conservatory of dance, at age 7, at the suggestion of a friend of my father, who taught dance at the conservatory. From the beginning, I very much enjoyed the experience of moving, expressing myself to music, the discipline, and discovery. These are not things that most young boys are drawn to, but this was right in line with my universe. Immediately, very young, I was involved in serious training, taking two or three classes per week. At the age of 10 or 11, I began performing at a nearly professional level.

Where did you first begin your dance training?

The National Conservatory of Tours is in Tours, a small town, 200 kilometers from Paris, in the middle of France, known for the Chateau and the wine. This was the #1 conservatory of dance since 1965, the 1st school in Europe to offer academic classes in the morning and artistic classes, including music, dance, theory, and art history in the afternoon. I was born in a provincial village, but it was very advanced in artistic education. I was very fortunate.

You studied at École supérieure de danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower. Tell me about her influence on your style and technique. How would you describe her as teacher?

Her influence on me was fundamental. She was one of the three most important women in my life, an extraordinary meeting. Surely, Rosella Hightower's school was one of the first in Europe to understand that dance offers many possibilities. The classical ballet classes were taught by Rosella, who was a great technician. We knew that when one was capable of doing the classes of Rosella Hightower, one could not fall out of pirouettes. Her classes were not particularly fun. Like all things that are worthwhile, the approach was hard work. Above all, we also had classes in Spanish dance, Martha Graham technique, jazz, theater, and piano. This woman understood that dance should be a memory of one's history, but should also be planted in the present. There was always the emotion of dance coupled with hard work. She had the capacity to unite opposites, as do I. She was a rare person in the dance, who appreciated both ballet and contemporary dance. Her school and her dancers were imbued with passion. She saw that even those who did not have the usual body esthetics for ballet could dance. She always asked philosophical questions of her dancers, " Do you truly want to dance?" If one answered, "Yes." She would reply, "Then, you will dance". That is to say that she had a very big, open spirit and a love for her school and for dance. She treated the children like adults, teaching the responsibility for the art of dance, something rare. She was a very great lady.

You were invited very early on in your career to join the Hamburg Ballet. How exactly did that come about?

I won the Prix de Lausanne competition in1977. After that I was able to do one more year at Rosella's school. I asked Rosella for her opinion as to which company I should choose, having the possible choices of the Paris Opera or the Ballet of the 20th Century of Maurice Bejart. Rosella was convinced that I should dance with the English. She told me to go to Hamburg (Germany), under the direction of John Neumeir. She said that it would be more difficult, but it would be more enriching for me. I did the audition at Hamburg at 17 years old. Neumeir took me. This was a beautiful adventure until the age of 23. At 21, I had a knee injury that ended my dancing career. It was only four years, but during that time I danced a lot, many different works.

What was your repertory at Hamburg? How would you describe your Hamburg tenure as an experience?

It was the company of Neumeir, with many of his works. I danced many roles, including Dame aux Camelias, Sleeping Beauty, Midsummer Night's Dream, and more... I also had the opportunity to dance Les Noces of Jerome Robbins, and a creation of Murray Louis, which was particularly important for me. Dancing the piece of Louis showed me that dance could be viewed from many different points of view. Apart from one's own perspective, there is no absolute truth in dance. Dance can be quite rigorous, as in the approach of the academy or it can also be rigorous in the direction of contemporary dance. It is only that the bodies are not the same; and the manner of approaching the work is not the same in a company of repertory as it is in a company of creation. It is not the same thing to interpret classic works as it is to interpret roles in the service of a choreographer. All of this diversity, as Rosella had already taught me, then I verified for myself. It was very important for me at the moment I had to stop my dancing career. Then I made the decision to turn toward choreography.

When did you begin to create choreographies?

I began to choreograph at 12 years old. I made many pieces when I was at the Conservatory of Tours. Then, when at Rosella Hightower's, I made a musical comedy when I was 16 or 17. At 20, in Hamburg, I made a first piece, as a young choreographer. So, it was always something that had fascinated me. I remember being rather curious about putting in place the structure of a production with dancers. For me, the world had always been show business. It was a continuation of that which had always been my life, surrounded by opera singers, choreographers, directors, dancers, writers, and my father was a painter. Choreography is different from the work of writers and painters, as they can work alone. A choreographer must work with the corps de ballet and share the creation with others. He is nothing alone, but comes to life only with the bodies of the dancers, the music, and the plastic arts. This is the only world I have known. It was genetic in me. It is great good fortune that I could continue in the universe in which I was born.

In 1983, you became the choreographer and director of the Ballet du Grand Théâtre in Tours. How did this come about?

It was a happy accident. There was a new director of the Ballet du Grand Theatre in Tours, where I was born. He called me, knowing that I was working in a large company, in Hamburg, to ask for my ideas about creating a dance production in this Municipal Theater, which is quite small. It was the era of President Francois Mitterand, in France. There was an explosion of contemporary dance and a rebellion against academic dance. When asked I said that I was not sure what could be done, but it interested me to come and take the direction of the company, as I could no longer dance. My father was furious because Tours was a very small town. I considered that I had no experience, however, and this was an enormous opportunity to develop a small company, 12 dancers, working in good conditions. We were not well paid, but we did many operas and operettas and it gave me the opportunity to create at the young age of 23. It permitted me to create an experience, to do everything there. I taught the classes. I choreographed and brought in 2 other choreographers, one English and one Chilean. This corresponded with my idea of a company of creation. I took care of the lights, the technique, and the communication. It was an extraordinary school because I could do everything necessary for a choreographic production. Three years later, it became a national choreographic center in France. That is to say that it was outside the structure of the theater, becoming an independent company, financed by the Minister of Culture. This was the beginning of a very beautiful adventure.

Describe your first dances that you choreographed. You must have found the process easy. How did your work evolve, at the time? Tell me about the works you choreographed at Ballet du Grand Théâtre. How did your work change over time?

I created about 30 ballets while at Tours. They have all disappeared. I was very slow to mature. For ten years, it was a laboratory for me. It was a strange situation because it was not really the work that I had wanted to do. I knew in my heart that I needed a larger company with dancers who had very good classical technique; but I did not have the means to do this work in Tours, as I'd wanted. It served me in the sense that I did in Monte Carlo in color, what I had done in Tours in black and white. Contemporary dance was very important, in France, at that time. I could not create ballets, with classical ballet technique and dancers on pointe, as I'd wanted to do in Tours. I had the impression that I did not have the right to do this kind of work. It was only when I arrived in Monte Carlo that I could finally choreograph as I wished. On the other hand, what the ten years in Tours had given me was to understand and to analyze the passion in contemporary choreography, to see via improvisation and the abstract, without narratives to the works. It was a marvelous school. I know that I would not do the work I do today had it not been for this marvelous story that came before. It was only when I arrived in Monte Carlo that I could finally choreograph as I wished.

Becoming artistic director Les Ballets de Monte Carlo was, and is, a challenge.

Yes, I had to think about it extensively. I hesitated with humility, by fear, concerned that I might not be capable. When one directs an established company, what counts is not what one thinks. What is important is whether one's thoughts are compatible with the existing establishment. One must take into consideration the particularities of the established structure in looking to discover if my vision of dance and productions is something that can function in this place. I quickly realized that this was the case, probably because the history of dance in Monaco corresponded well with my personal vision of a company. At the same time, it was perhaps the newest company, looking at dance history, at the beginning of the century. It became the matrix of all the companies in the world today because it was the first company to create an original repertoire of new choreographic ballets for a full evening, in a mixed program, bringing together scene designers, lighting designers, costume designers, composers, and choreographers, following the lead of Serge Diaghilev, to tour the world presenting only choreographed productions. Today, we realize that we still follow this model. Monaco is a very small country with a great capacity for human relations, which is rather rare. It is somewhat isolated. I knew that I would have the time to create something. The proof is that I have now been there twenty-three years. So, I really have had the time to create the company in the image of that which I wished to have, with the responsibility of director and choreographer.

You were, in Tours, and are now, in Monte Carlo, both director and choreographer. Explain the difference.

As I always say, the director is the one who defines the structure of the company and the function of this company, the artistic, technical, and administrative ways of a company. The choreographer is the one who gives the soul by choosing the dancers, and organizing it all. The director is the architect of the structure, laying the foundation and building the walls. The choreographer is the interior decorator, bringing it to life inside the building. For me, they are totally unsociable. As choreographer, I have the pleasure of receiving other choreographers, especially good ones, and sharing their gifts with others. This is what I've done for more than twenty years in Monaco. I now have the possibility to direct a school and to direct the Festival of Monaco, created in Monaco, which allows me to bring the entire world to us. We have created a unique facility, as I don't see other structures with the formation of the dancers with the school, the creation of the company with choreographies, and the diffusion of the creations with the invited choreographers and the co-productions all under the same roof. I think that the good luck that I have had is to have known this company, which was created in 1985, since the beginning. I did my first class for them in 1986. Finally, it is something that I could construct in collaboration with Princess Caroline, who has become a friend in the mean time. I believe I have an extraordinary situation. Today, I have an exceptional position. I am not only proud, but also very glad to have it. On top of that, there is the sun.

Tell me about a typical day.

I divide my time between my administrative and artistic duties. In the morning, 9:00 to 12:00, I do everything there may be to do to fix problems, deal with the dancers salaries, the promotions, the current productions, organize tours, and the decisions both political and administrative. At noon I take care of my work in the studio and enjoy the fundamentally good relationship I have with the dancers. In the end, it works very well because the 140 people I have working with me have all been chosen by me, of which 50 are dancers and 35 are in the school. For this too, I am Director. The spirit of all 140 have something in common, which is that they have all been personally chosen by me, so, in some way, they all resemble me. With this, we avoid most conflicts that arrive in other companies in which the duties are shared, bringing about a conflict of interests. This is normal for me, as I have always done this and functioned in this way. Those around me are competent; and they are all my responsibility. If ever there is something that is not working, it is no one's fault but my own. So, I am responsible and surrounded by good people.

What works have you choreographed at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo? You do the grand ballets, in an original manner.

I have created 45 or 46 ballets here. I began to become known as a choreographer only after coming to Monte Carlo. The first pieces were abstract, like Dove La Luna to music of Scriabin. The first ballet for which I became known and which brought recognition to the company was Romeo and Juliet, in 1987. Every two or three years, I create another major ballet of a story that is generally known. It is a great opportunity to give the dancers permission... I like narrative in ballets a lot, because I like very much the dimension of actor in the dancers. The theatrical dimension in the dance is something I find very interesting. This is surely very European. What I like, as I am a major fanatic of Balanchine, is the vital relationship with the music, which generates the movement of the choreography. It interests me, as well, to explore what the corps can tell me as I create a new Sleeping Beauty, a new Swan Lake, a new Romeo and Juliet, a new Cinderella, a new Midsummer Night's Dream, and many more. This is fascinating, as I like the intelligent fusion between the traditional and this openness of spirit, that is necessary if we want to represent the time in which we live. Recently, I calculated that with my ballets and all the ballets I have commissioned by other choreographers, we have 192 ballets. Some of the choreographers I have brought in are Lucinda Childs, William Forsythe, George Balanchine, Pierre Lacotte, along with reconstructions of The Ballets Russes, Firebird, Spectre de La Rose, L'Apre-Midi d'une Faun, contemporary works and classical. The repertoire of the company is gigantic. My situation is obviously unique, as I create large ballets only for my company, with the exception of the Bolshoi, for which I created Taming of the Shrew, two years ago. So, the only place one can see our repertoire is in Monte Carlo, with the exception of the companies on which I have remounted my ballets, like Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Swedish Ballet, or in Korea.

I am delighted you have brought Les Ballets de Monte Carlo to NYC. How do you feel about the New York engagement?

This is the fifth time we have come to New York. Of course, it is important. I love the American public. There is a freshness in the way they watch the performance, which is often missing in Europe. It lets me know if the way I express the stories translates to the public. They scream more and cry more. In the U.S., they are not afraid to demonstrate their emotions, much more than in Europe, which has become rather like a mass. I am always very curious and very happy to come here.

What can we expect from you in the future?

For those who don't like me, I will continue; and for those who like me, I will continue. I have a profound belief in what I do, with passion and with respect. I am conscious of the fact that I have an extraordinary opportunity, but I have done everything to deserve it. Every day I try to deliver that which has been given me with great pleasure and joy. I am an artist who cannot have fear of the future. I do it all as I feel it and as I believe. I am one of the freest and most independent choreographers. I do not depend on anyone or anything and I very much like the people

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