GENEVA (Reuters) - French choreographer Maurice Bejart, considered one of the great figures in contemporary dance, died on Thursday in a Swiss hospital at the age of 80, a spokeswoman for his Bejart Ballet Lausanne said.
Bejart, a former dancer who also directed operas and films, had been in and out of hospital in recent months, suffering from kidney and heart problems which left him exhausted.
“He was a hard worker who gave his whole life to dance up to the last moment. What interested him was being in a studio with his dancers, working and researching new steps and scenes. He was a man of genius to the end,” Emmanuel de Bourgknecht, general manager of the troupe, told Reuters Television.
In a statement, La Foundation BBL and the city of Lausanne paid tribute to its late director as having “profoundly revolutionized 20th century dance.”
“Many dancers have lost a father, a master and a source of inspiration. We have all lost a great friend, an exceptionally prolific creator and an artist of vision and humanity,” it said.
Bejart put legends including Rudolf Nureyev, Jorge Donn, Patrick Dupond, Suzanne Farrell and Sylvie Guillem through their paces in bold productions on world stages from the Paris Opera to the Bolshoi.
In 1987, he moved along with most of the dancers in his 20th Century Ballet to Lausanne after 27 years in Brussels, and its name was changed to Bejart Ballet Lausanne. The Swiss lakeside city offered it better conditions and hefty annual subsidies.
Its 35 dancers are 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,” Aybek said.
Bejart, born in the southern French city of Marseille, came to prominence with a celebrated production of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1959.
Other creations, some allegorical, included “Bolero,” “Songs of a Wayfarer,” “Firebird” and “Souvenir of Leningrad.” He also directed Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
“We have lost one of the great choreographers of our time, one of the most famous and one of the most admired,” French Culture Minister Christine Albanel said in a statement.
Bejart himself said in a speech upon entering the French Academy of Fine Arts in 1995 that a choreographer “is not the master of dance but its first servant.”
At celebrations ahead of his 70th birthday on January 1, 1997, the bearded and mustachioed Bejart hosted a gala in Lausanne, appearing on stage in his signature black t-shirt and trousers.
His latest creation was performed, “The Clergy House has lost none of its Charm, and the Garden none of its Lustre,” set to the song “Let me Live” by the rock group Queen. Costumes were by Italian designer Versace.
It is a tribute to Queen singer Freddie Mercury and Donn, an Argentine-born Bejart protege best remembered for his wild solo of “Bolero,” music by Maurice Ravel. Mercury, Donn and Nureyev all died of AIDS, a scourge that has decimated the dance world.
La Scala, Milan’s opera house, said it “shares the sorrow of the theatrical world as a big chapter in the history of dance comes to a close.”
A public memorial ceremony is to be held in Lausanne on Monday for Bejart, who converted to Islam and asked that his body be cremated, according to his spokeswoman Roxane Aybek.
Additional reporting by Vincent Fribault in Lausanne and James Mackenzie in Paris; editing by Jonathan Lynn and Paul Casciato