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Born into the theatre, choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot who also directs Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo has created a body of work distinctive in its clarity. Following in the tradition of the Ballet Russes, he believes creation comes from the collaboration of artists and a shared vision. He desires to locate the human in the dancer and the reality within the art, making it immediately accessible to the audience. He discussed his creative philosophy and artistic values with Dance ICONS, Inc.
ICONS: When did you first encounter dance?
Jean-Christophe Maillot: Since I can remember, I have always had the dust of the theatre in my nose. I was born into a family that was in the theatre. My father was a set designer for opera, ballet, and theatre and a teacher at the Beaux Arts. This was in a small city in France called Tours. My brother was a composer, and the people who came to the house were painters and opera singers; one was a choreographer at the theatre.
ICONS: So, you understood from a young age that dance could be a profession?
JCM: Absolutely. I was an energetic child, and this choreographer opened the first ballet class for boys (this was in 1967) and asked my father if I could join this class. Then I never stopped. I realize it’s been almost 60 years every morning, and I am listening to piano music and doing a ballet class!
The conservatoire where I studied dance was linked to the theatre with the same director. It was a small company, and he used the students in his productions, so I was performing from an early age. In a ballet school, I had the idea of what could be accomplished at the end of my study by seeing the professionals and dancing with them. The link was a kind of evidence. As a young kid, I already had a clear perspective of what I would be able to do as an adult.
ICONS: You were a dancer before you became a choreographer?
JCM: Yes, I danced professionally with John Neumeier between 1977 and 1983. I was a dancer in the company for five years before becoming a choreographer. But choreography was already there. I tried a little choreography at school when I was around thirteen or fourteen.
ICONS: You had an accident and stopped dancing in 1983. What made you decide to devote yourself to choreography?
JCM: For me, choreography is a bit special because I almost feel like telling you that I don’t feel like a choreographer. I feel like a man that imagines himself being surrounded by a company of individuals who share a common will to build a performance together. What is very specific to choreography is that it doesn’t exist by itself. What is a choreographer without a dancer? Without a set designer? Without music? Without a light designer? I am not a writer, and I am not a painter. I cannot be alone and face my work as a creative person with only whatever comes out of my brain.
I realize that to be able to be a choreographer, I will have to have a company first. I didn’t start by choreographing for different companies; when I was sure of myself as a choreographer, I decided to have a company. That’s why in 1983 when I broke my knee, I became a choreographer and director of the company in Tours, my hometown. It was a company doing operettas and maybe two or three ballet shows a year.
In a sense, even today, as a choreographer, I am more interested in who I am working with rather than the choreography itself. That is why I very rarely choreograph for other companies. I am incapable of coming to a company, doing two or three days of casting, and then making a creation because it will not be the creation I want to do. What is interesting is with whom am I going to do it. I don’t look like it, but I’m a pretty shy person. If I’m facing somebody I don’t know and am not comfortable with, then I’m not able to work. That is why I decided to have a company. I love the phrase of Mr. Balanchine; he said: ‘A school before a company, and for me, I say: ‘A company before choreography’ because I need that.
ICONS: When do you create the movement? Before you come to the studio? In the studio?
JCM: This is interesting. When I decide to do Romeo... or Cinderella or Faust or whatever, the essential for me is to find the music and create a score that will guide and drive me, timewise and in the structure. I need music that will enable me to communicate what I want to talk about. I have never been able to create a step without being motivated by the music never, never, never. I need music to inspire me when I face a group of dancers. I never, except once, did any sort of choreography at home. I cannot close my eyes and see a structure, a shape, or a choreography.
I have to be in the studio with my chosen dancers facing me, and even if I improvise, I do it with them at the moment. It’s like being in love. When you are with somebody and know the person is on your side, it opens your heart and brain, and the best of you comes out. Then I put the music on and put myself in the position of the role I am playing, be it a man, a woman, or whatever.
I always cherish so much the first day of rehearsal. That day, I will put the first stamp on the movement that will define the whole piece. The movement comes from nowhere, and I will not define it for days, but I can’t erase it because it is something of a miracle when suddenly a movement appears.
ICONS: What role do the dancers play in creating the choreography?
JCM: Well, the dancer is both the score and the instrument, which is a very complex situation. I don’t work through improvisation with the dancers. I have to do it myself, but some dancers have that talent to go so much further than you could imagine. They make me discover my own idea and magnify it. And they magnify it so much that it brings a new idea, and you end up pooling the ideas. So, in the end, you don’t really know who is responsible for what happened - and that is what I love.
I expect from the dancers to be with me in the moment. I love to work in a very joyful atmosphere. I can’t imagine doing a creation in a tense situation. I don’t believe for a second that a choreographer can pull something out from a dancer when that dancer doesn’t want to give. I can only create a positive atmosphere when the person I face feels so comfortable that they might even go beyond themselves. But the person can only do that by choice. It’s always a dialogue.
ICONS: Your ballets have a distinctive look. How do you choose the design elements?
JCM: I always take as a reference my Romeo and Juliet, designed by Jérôme Kaplan and Ernest Pignon-Ernest. It was a testimony to what I imagined possible; a way of reconsidering a classical story that everybody knows in a ballet that brings a contemporary vision of what it could be. In retrospect, I was surprised and pleased to find that the work is very ‘out of time’. I know I have never been in fashion, and I’ve never been the choreographer that everybody was talking about.
We took away everything that was too anecdotal. Okay, we know there is a balcony, but how can we suggest a balcony without imposing on the audience a picture they already have? How can we give the taste of the period? How can we take away the Veronese architecture and keep only what is essential to the structure? I’m resetting my Romeo and Juliet now in two other companies. I look at the aesthetic of the piece, and I have the feeling that it is still current to the time we are going through.
The people with whom I work must have two specific qualities. They must be very talented and take pleasure in sharing their point of view with a group of creative people. With Jérôme, there is never any problem with changing many times from the first idea, and he will never fight against our common view for his costumes if he feels it doesn’t perfectly fit the shared vision of all the people. So, I have to work with people that are humble and happy to do work in a sharing situation. And, I will add, they must be nice people. Talent alone will never be enough for me to spend time with somebody making a creation. Everybody that works in the company has to be like this. For me, this human dimension of exchange should be above the individual technique or artistic quality because my work depends on them. I can exist as an artist only because I work through them and because they will reveal what I am trying to do.
ICONS: What stays constant in your work?
JCM: The need for me to link the natural human being with the dancer. Especially in classical ballet, finding the link between the steps and seeing how an ordinary person will understand it so the step itself, although a technical feature, will give a sense of purpose as to why you are on stage at that moment.
In my Romeo and Juliet, the most difficult was to make the dancers run on stage naturally, to look at each other and decide to kiss. Making something that is not natural and demands a lot of technique seem realistic to an audience is difficult. It’s important the audience thinks: ‘I could be that person. I remember when I was eighteen, and I fell in love. He took my hand, and it gave me the same feeling’. There must be a way of giving a child or an adult the belief that what is on stage is true, even when it is an artistic creation.
ICONS: What advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?
JCM: I would tell him what I’ve tried to do all my life: ‘Look up and try to find the highest place you can go, but please don’t ever look to the side, to the right or left to compare yourself to the other ones. Also, this is the most difficult, as dancers in the studio try to ignore the fact that people are looking at them. This is a paradox because as the dancers love to be seen, this fear of the people watching them can limit their capacity if they cannot focus on themselves. If, after a performance, people compliment them, is that complement justified? For instance, if somebody says you did well, do you believe it? Being honest forces one to be honest with the people around. I have tried to do that all my life, and sometimes I suffer for it, but I think it is the most valuable; yes, it is something very important.
ICONS: You direct the Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and you’ve taken the legacy of the Ballet Russes and brought it into the modern age. Is this historical resonance a help or a hindrance?
JCM: Well, yes and no. Yes, because Ballet Russes was the matrix of every company of today. It was the first time that three ballets were presented in one evening with different music and different choreographers. We are creating the same today, but then it was a cooperation of genius. And no, it is too heavy a burden to carry. No, I didn’t find a new Stravinsky, but I feel in perfect harmony with that vision. I find it sad today that choreographers want to become the equivalent of writers or composers. Choreographers don’t need to have that kind of ego where the person becomes the center of the performance. Diaghilev's genius was putting the choreographer at the same level as the dancer. You have Fokine, you have Nijinsky, you have Matisse, you have Debussy. That tells us dance is the combination of art forms uniting to become something exceptional.
ICONS: You also founded a school, the Princess Grace Academy of Classical Dance, in Monaco. Is choreography on the curriculum?
JCM: Luca Masala, the director, has constructed a choreographic course connected with my repertoire, and the students also do a lot of improvisation. The ambition is not to make them choreographers but to present the possibility of being creative artists. It gives some very good results. I was both a dancer and a choreographer. I was amazed to see how I could perceive a situation at 12 o’clock as a dancer, then at 12:01, I became the choreographer, which is completely different. In an instant, one’s perceptions change. Instinctively, it’s the knowledge that helps one to understand better the relationship between the two roles.
ICONS: As a choreographer, when is your happiest time? In the studio, on the stage, watching the finished product, or in the early planning stages with co-creators?
JCM: I rarely sit in the audience. I think my favorite moment is the last day before we go on stage. We run through the ballet in the studio, and it’s for real. I’m facing the dancers who have progressed as far as they can. They are ready for the next stage with sets and costumes that will make the performance but will also steal a little bit from them. The truth is, I’m often disappointed with the first rehearsal on stage. First, I feel the design element takes away a little part of what was so essential; just the dancers and me. And I still feel that very often. I understand the need from the performance point of view, but I dream of the possibility of presenting my ballets with nothing but the dancers just to show how essential they are to work. Also, that last day is what I love the most because most of the time, I think: ‘Okay, the ballet is going where I want it to go. That’s great! Now let’s put on the hat, and we can begin!’
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More about Jean-Christophe Maillot and his biographical information:
In rehearsal of Cinderella, choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot:
Excerpt of Cindarella, choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot:
Photographer © Félix Dol Maillot, portrait of Jean-Christophe Maillot
Photographer © Alice Blangero, feature images from the flowing ballets: Cendrillon, Coppél-I.A, Core Meu, Dove La Luna, La Mégère apprivoisée, LAC, Roméo et Juliette, all choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot
Interviewer: Maggie Foyer
Executive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista
Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland
Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov
Dance ICONS, Inc., November 2022 © All rights reserved.