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Futur(istic) Classic

The son of a painter and a set designer, director and choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot was, it seems, destined to have a life in the theater. Born and raised in Tours, in central France, in 1960, he studied dance and piano at the Conservatoire Nacional de Région de Tours before joining the Rosella Hightower International School of Dance in Cannes.

At 17, the youth won the prestigious Prix de Lausanne international dance competition before joining John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet. Dancing in various principal roles as a soloist for five years, Maillot suffered an injury that brought his performing career to an abrupt end. Undaunted, in 1983, he was appointed choreographer and director for the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Tours.

“Coppél-i.A.” by Jean-Christophe Maillot. Photograph by Alice Biangero

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It was there that he made 20 works for his hometown troupe, which later became a national choreographic center, and in 1985, Maillot founded the dance festival, “Le Chorégraphique." Several years later, he created “Le Mandarin Merveilleux,” for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and the rest, as they say is histoire! 

Seriously, because of that work, the Frenchman was appointed the troupe’s artistic advisor for the 1992-1993 season, and in September, 1993, Maillot, the lover of story ballets, found a real-life noblewoman in Caroline the Princess of Hanover, who tapped him to be artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. 

The first-born daughter of the late Princess Grace of Monaco—former American movie star Grace Kelly—founded the troupe in 1985 per her mother’s wishes: to carry on a balletic tradition that began in 1909, when the principality was home to Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The match proved ideal, with Maillot having furthered that balletic mission . . . and then some.  

In addition to raising the troupe’s international profile, Maillot has created more than 40 ballets for Les Ballets des Monte-Carlo, including putting his own stamp on a number of classic story ballets. In his 1996 “Romeo and Juliet,” Maillot’s postmodern heroine proved a gangly tomboy who, well, chased her guy.

Three year later, the choreographer’s “Cinderella” featured a cream-colored, frock-wearing damsel, sans glass slipper, her bare foot illuminated, instead, in glittery dust. Maillot’s 2011 “Lac” (“Swan Lake”), is a modern take on the ballet about birds, women, life, love, an angst-ridden prince and mortality that deals in opposites and attractions, childhood fears and nightmares, and the perfect idea of love, with death ultimately trumping all.

In addition to having premiered all of the above ballets in Monaco, Maillot brought them to Southern California’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, where his latest tale, “Coppél-i.A.”, an AI-infused reimagining of the 1870 comic ballet, “Coppélia,” will be presented March 7-10.

Fjord Review had a chance to catch up with the fiendishly busy Maillot by phone from France. The conversation included topics ranging from his studies with Hightower and his attraction to narrative ballets, to his futuristic “Coppél-i.A.” and where he sees himself in the next five to ten years.

Jean-Christophe Maillot. Photograph by Felix Dol Maillot

You were the son of a painter and a set designer. How did that influence your decision to be a dancer and choreographer?

Since I’ve been able to think, I have been around painters, writers, opera singers, ballet dancers. My father did more than 300 costume designs for theater, opera and dance. I was pretty energetic, [and] being in this environment, I did dance. I was seven and was in the first class for boys in my town—that conditioned my whole life. 

I became a choreographer, because it’s where all the art forms meet: music, stage design, light design, acting, dancing—this is the beauty of being a choreographer. I have ideas, I know what I want, but I want other brains working with me to make my life rich. Being a choreographer [means that] you share. I don’t exist without dancers. My voice has to go through them [and] it’s exactly the life I had since I was a child. That’s what I like about my job—and a company is most like a family.

Then there was Rosella Hightower. You joined her dance school when you were a teen. How much did she inform your career?

She’s a mentor for me. I’ve been raised by her artistically, because she had this amazing school at the time. She started it in the 60s, and I was there in the 70s. I had to learn Spanish dance, jazz, Graham, theater, mime, piano—even singing. Because her point of view was, “I’m not there to build dancers, I’m also here to build artists to have knowledge of everything you can propose with the body through the art form. 

It was such a great inspiration. In her school there were some very competent ballet dancers. In ballet, it’s what god has given you, a great body, a specificity, which is extremely elitist, [and] true. You cannot be a classical dancer if you don’t have the physical ability. But at the same time, when a dancer came to her which couldn’t be in this aesthetic, she would say, “If you want to dance, you’ll dance.” 

She’ll guide that performance according to capacity. It wasn’t which kind of dance you would do, but if you really want[ed] to do it, you can do it. You can be in love with “Swan Lake,” but also with Merce Cunningham or folklore [dance.] The spectrum is very large; there’s space for everybody. She taught me to never reject any form of dance, which I am actually myself concerned with. I think that should be taught in every school in the world.

Let’s talk about your “Coppél-i.A.”. With fabulous costumes and scenery by Aimée Moren, it’s a terpsichorean fusion of tradition and technology that not only explores the original, but also challenges the audience to rethink the way that AI shapes society today. What was the genesis of your version and why were you put off by the romanticism of the original ballet?

For me, the question arises with traditional big ballets [is that] everybody knows the story, everybody’s relating to it. If we do a new one, what’s the point of view we can have that makes it interesting? Simple: Imagine that the ballet, typical for a nineteenth-century vision of a fairy tale, at one point, [I ask] what’s the reality of an automat[on] in our days? 

Every “Coppélia” I’ve seen, this lady sitting on the balcony was the most uninteresting character of the ballet. We’re able now to imagine that we will be able to build an automat[on] that will almost seem more real. It’s the same as artificial intelligence. It brings us to the possibility to even go beyond our own capacity. I realize that if today I was this crazy [Dr.] Coppélius, that’s what I would try to do. 

It’s an interesting point of view in our days. It’s a very restrictive vision of this idea of building a doll that is supposed to be a kind of unsupportable idea of dominating the subject and creating a subject to your own ideal. It’s narcissistic. I realize that if it was just an automat[on], this wouldn’t be able to be answer[ed], but if it was a human being created with an automat[on], maybe he could be strong enough to destroy his creators. At the end, she’s killing the doctor to get her freedom.

“Coppél-i.A.” by Jean-Christophe Maillot. Photograph by Alice Biangero

Wow, very cool! I understand that your brother Bertrand has worked with you countless times in creating scores. What can you tell us about the music he created after Léo Delibes’ original score for “Coppélia”?

We took the idea of using [the] music of Delibes, which is interesting, and transform that music with AI and rewrite it. When you listen to it, you can recognize the music of Delibes, but it’s actually an illusion. It’s completely rewritten, completely original. Like the doll, we can somehow see the sense of “Coppélia.”

That’s fascinating, Jean-Christophe, but at its core, your “Coppél-i.A.” remains a story ballet. What is your attraction to narratives?

I am fascinated by the capacity of [the] acting of dancers. I used to be a dancer that used to love to act. I realized that when I ha[d] to stop dancing when I was 22, what I was missing the most, [was] not being able to act anymore. Story ballets give me this possibility to try to bring dance into the reality of a human being, using the capacity of dancers to illustrate steps without words—what a normal human being would try to do in a simple way. 

 I’m interested in human beings, the relations, how do we function through our basic feelings and emotions? I love when choreography is serving the story more than the story is serving the choreography. Stories, most of the time are really not important. What’s important is, it’s a pretext for dance to exist. I wanted to consider what’s interesting about a story; it relates to every single human being on earth. 

What can we feel in common with, for example, “Coppélia?” This young boy who has doubts about his marriage before it happens, who thinks he falls in love with the doll, but realizes it’s an illusion? In ballet we can express that and give a chance to amplify and magnify normal behavior of any human being on earth. When people see those ballets, people have the capacity to see that reality, but it’s a theatrical reality. 

That’s why I’m fascinated with narrative ballet, because they are talking about us. I’m more interested in relations between people than which steps they are doing. Steps are essential, because they give vocabulary a voice. If they are not carried by real emotion, the steps would not exist. It wouldn’t be possible for a dancer to hide himself through something technical or impressive if he’s not able to believe in what he’s doing onstage. 

Everybody is saying that you put your attention after you fix the steps. [For] me, it’s before, then the steps come out. Steps [are] the consequence of intention. First you have intention, and then you have the step. That makes for me an essential difference.

“Coppél-i.A.” by Jean-Christophe Maillot. Photograph by Alice Biangero

You have 50 dancers in your company. How often do you hold auditions and what do you look for in a dancer?

I don’t do auditions! I hate the situation where you put 50, 60, 100 people together; it’s like a fair for animals. I refuse to do that. I invite people to come for two to three days. I put them in a situation with the company [and] they’re a minority with a majority of dancers. 

I look at them in class, then I make them do extracts, then I watch them after they learned choreography. But more important, it allows me to see the dancer, spend a little time with them to talk. That affects my decision. What are their expectations, their knowledge about the company, why do they want to come, where are they coming from; how do they project themselves? 

It’s the most important [that] before I hire a dancer, I’m hiring a human being. I’d rather take a dancer that on paper might look a little less good, but has the right spirit. I’m amazed by the quality of a dancer and say, “Wow, that’s a good dancer.” Then I talk with them and perceive a person that is interested and will put a lot of attention in rehearsals. 

[As for] performance—it’s their story with the audience. My work is in the studio. If I cannot reach or connect with someone that is interesting in the studio, then for me, it’s not working. It’s a combination. But it’s impossible to describe the feeling of what I love for a dancer, and the way the person will expose herself to somehow make me feel how he or she can be. 

Where do you see yourself in the next five to ten years? Are you beginning to think about the ‘R’ word—retirement?

I never in my life thought more than a year in advance. A year for me is a life, because each year I have new dancers, new tours, new ballets, new horizons. At the end of each year, I’m dying; a season is finished. A ballet that we have created might also disappear. We have to reinvent every year something new. 

I never plan a program, my ballets, or even the choreography for more than a year in advance. I hate the idea that [I’ll] know what’s going to happen in 2025 or 2026. I’m an instructor; I can be very reactive to the situation. If you ask me where I’ll be in 10 years, that puts me in fear that I will be 73 years old. That’s pretty heavy, but I don’t know how I will be at 73. If you ask me if I’m ready to retire in the next years, it’s no[t] one reason.

I very often think about this: It’s time for me to stop. But the problem is, I don’t know how to live without that. Sometimes I feel fed up with it, but can you imagine [that] I’ve been professionally dancing since I was 17? Since then, I have always been under contract, meaning all those years, more than 45 years, I have been listening to the piano in the class. 

I’ve been listening every day to rehearsals. I have calculated the other day [that] I’m here [almost] 50 years. I have been working with 768 dancers, who were with me for a year. I signed 768 contracts until now of dancers for a year in that company. And I’m not counting 40 choreographers that I invited to make creations. 

When you swallow that your professional life is giving up, maybe I can hope like Molière [that] a heart attack will surprise me, to not have people sick of me, and [that] it’s not late enough to enjoy a little bit more.

We’re so glad you’re still here, Jean-Christophe. And since you are—what advice do you have for aspiring dancers and/or choreographers?

Please be creative with the specificity of those classically trained dancers. Fill the dancers with something that is connected to the contemporary world now. Don’t be afraid of classical dancers. They are very specific, interesting human beings. They are not common. They are from another planet. They are not breathing the same way, thinking the same way. They are very hungry. Please give new food to these people to feed them and make them grow.  

Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning, Los Angeles-based international arts journalist who covers music and dance festivals around the world. Among the many publications she has contributed to are the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, Dance Magazine and KCET’s Artbound. In addition, she taught dance history at USC and Santa Monica College. Looseleaf’s novella-in-verse, Isn't It Rich? is available from Amazon, and and her latest book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet with illustrations by JT Steiny, was recently published by Red Sky Presents. Looseleaf can be reached through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In, as well as at her online arts magazine ArtNowLA.



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