Director's Notes: The Maverick in Monaco

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo is Jean-Christophe Maillot’s personal playground.

Box-office pressure doesn’t seem to be part of the vocabulary at Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. For the past two decades, this maverick company devoted to the sleek neoclassical work of choreographer-director Jean-Christophe Maillot has been steadily supported by the micro-state of Monaco. Ballet after ballet, the 50-strong ensemble collectively makes Maillot’s vision come alive.

Yet even Les Ballets couldn’t escape the financial crisis. In 2011, Monaco’s previously ample dance funding was in trouble. Maillot took the opportunity to suggest a radical pooling of dance resources across the city. “The country is so tiny that you can’t have competing institutions,” he explains. The company merged with the Académie Princesse Grace and the international festival Monaco Dance Forum to create a comprehensive platform for training, creation and production that would absorb a 25 percent overall cut. The effort saved enough money that the principality has since spared dance in further rounds of austerity measures.

Once a creative hub for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Monaco went back to its ballet roots in 1985 by launching Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, spearheaded by Her Royal Highness Caroline, the Princess of Hanover. The company initially struggled to find its niche, however, and in 1992, found itself director-less for nearly six months. When Maillot was in town to create a new ballet, Monaco’s head of culture asked for his advice on what to do next. The conversation reached the ears of Princess Caroline. A few days later, she offered him the directorship.

Maillot was then at the head of a national choreographic center in Tours, France, following a dancing career with the Hamburg Ballet. He was initially ambivalent about the offer: “I asked them to take me on as artistic advisor for a year, to see how it would go.” He went back and forth between Tours and Monaco for a season but soon realized Monaco was the place for him. “Contemporary dance was experiencing a boom in France at the time. Ballet was considered passé, and I felt pressure there to move away from my roots,” he explains. “But Monaco wanted a neoclassical company, and I realized it was what I needed, too.”

His first task was to define the creative identity of Les Ballets, and the distinctive look the company has polished over two decades owes much to Maillot’s own work. With over 35 new creations in 20 years at the helm, he has developed a style geared toward chic visual effects and a contemporary theatricality. Although international critics haven’t been unanimously kind to his work, dancers are drawn to his relentless focus on the intention behind each movement: His spare, prop-less Roméo et Juliette tells the story solely through choreography that is at once classical and modern, while Altro Canto and other short ballets showcase his trademark elegance and flair for metaphorical motifs.

Maillot has also steered the company’s repertoire in unexpected directions during its seasons at the small, ornate Salle Garnier, nestled inside the famous Monte-Carlo Casino, or at the modern Grimaldi Forum. The Ballets Russes and Balanchine repertoire was an important component in the 1990s, but in recent years guest choreographers have run the gamut from Marie Chouinard to Alexander Ekman, Alonzo King and Marco Goecke. Les Ballets mostly tours with Maillot’s in-demand story ballets, however. (The company will bring his LAC to Costa Mesa and New York City in March.) He says the main purpose of guest creations is not to cater to audiences, but to feed the company creatively. “I follow my instinct,” Maillot says. “I would never hire someone who doesn’t bring something to the dancers as people.”

In many ways, Les Ballets is a true dancer haven. The beautifully airy headquarters offer state-of-the-art facilities, including a hot tub and a cafeteria. There are few rules within the company, and the dancers earn a comfortable salary with a permanent contract. But it is a trade-off: In return, Maillot expects his dancers to be self-sufficient and ready to expose themselves in the creative process.

This relaxed yet intense environment has attracted mature dancers who often join from other companies to further their creative connection with Maillot. The epitome of his style remains his longtime muse, the tall, androgynous and marvelously fluid Bernice Coppieters, who now assists with revivals.

Meanwhile, Monaco’s government continues to invest in the company. For them, Les Ballets is an opportunity to show Monaco in a new light, far removed from the coverage in tabloids around the world. The Princess of Hanover remains the company’s biggest supporter as well as a close friend of Maillot’s, a situation he admits is exceptional in that it comes with no strings attached. “I’m completely free. There is no judgment, no comment on anything I program.” He also relishes the pace and flexible structure the financial backing affords the company, with no more than 80 performances a year and extended periods devoted to creation.

Until recently, Maillot refused most requests to stage his works on other companies in order to preserve the specificity of Les Ballets. He has agreed, however, to create a new Taming of the Shrew for the Bolshoi in 2014, and recently choreographed a work for Diana Vishneva, which she will perform in Monaco this December when the city celebrates Maillot’s 20th anniversary at the helm. “I can do it now because the company’s identity is firmly established,” he explains. “Neoclassical companies look so alike nowadays. What we do can be criticized, but isn’t it wonderful to be unlike anyone else?”

At A Glance

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo

Number of dancers: 50

Length of contract: Permanent

Starting salary: 2,500 euros per month

Performances per year: Around 20 in Monaco, 40 to 50 on tour

Website: balletsdemontecarlo.com

Audition Advice

Maillot doesn’t hold open auditions; dancers can submit a video year-round. Promising applicants spend a few days in Monte Carlo to see how they fit with the company. “It’s a personalized process,” Maillot explains. “I may work with them on excerpts from the repertoire. I pay special attention to the upper body, but above all, I need to know what kind of person the dancer is.”

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