Retour coups de coeur

Béjart en sa compagnie

Béjart en ses ballets

Donn de Lumière par France Ferran


Entretien paru dans "Dance Magazine"

(Janvier 1984)

By Richard Philip



- There are those rare, breathtaking occasions when the physical and psychological aspects of a dancer's persona transcend our expectations. It happens seldom, and not to all dancers, but the moments when it does happen are unmistakable. During Bejart's Ballet of the Twentieth Century's three-week season at City Center this past fall, the company's premier danseur, Jorge Donn, often performed at this extraordinary peak. Bejart has created his greatest ballets on Donn, who has been with the company for twenty years.

The foremost champion of Bejart's style and aesthetic philosophy, Donn gave us an uncommonly rare glimpse of the mature artist in full command of his powers - something we seldom have the privilege to see.

How does this happen ? What combination of circumstances makes the magical event take place ?

Midway through the season, Donn tentatively suggest that it might be his having gone through a rough time recently - overwork - burnout, serious physical illness - and the only direction left to go was up, as high as possible. Although he could "feel" the New York performances were good and he was evidently pleased people liked what he was doing, he didn't want to be complimented, fearing this knowledge would have an adverse effect on his dancing.

"Every morning when I think about the evening I get nervous; it's natural. I have to go on stage each evening as if for the first and the last time."

Does this create constant tension that takes its toll in available energy, affecting the head and stomach ?

"No. The only limits you have are where you put them. If you do not put limits on your body and your living and your work and your life, then you can go on and on and on. You have to be new every day, open to everything, open to change."

Donn embraces a holistic view of life - a life in which the various elements must be integrated in a delicate balance. Upset that balance and both the performer and performance are affected. The reason for Donn's recent "bad period" was

"... I had many problems with my body, but an even bigger trouble with dance training. More and more people ask dancers to do what is impossible, without respect for the body. I am very fortunate that I have a guru and friend in Bejart, who choreographs very beautiful steps and beautiful ballets; but Bejart is not my dance teacher. The emphasis today on technique and nothing but technique pervades dance and destroys. Many teachers don't ask their dancers to understand or think about dancing."

Twenty years ago Donn first saw the Bejart company in Buenos Aires, where he had studied dance since he was seven. The sixteen-year-old ballet student at the Teatro Colon saw, as he puts it, "men dancing", and recognized in himself the need to do just that. He took a company class with The Ballet of the Twentieth Century, and asked Bejart if he could dance with the company. Bejart told him no, he was too young, too inexperienced. With the blessing of an understanding mother ("If you want to go, then go."), Donn followed Bejart and his company halfway round the world.

Suitcase in hand, with no prospects other than determination and talent, Donn showed up on Bejart's doorstep in Brussels and announced,

"I am here. Do you have a place for me ?"

Bejart didn't, and said so. Shortly afterwards, when one of the company men didn't show, Donn was in. This ignited one of those great creative combinations so exceptional in the history of any art. Diaghilev had his Nijinski, Balanchine had Farrell, Bejart Donn.

The long list of important ballets created by Bejart on Donn includes Ninth Symphony (1964), Romeo and Juliet (1966), Mass for the Present Time (1967), Serait-ce la mort ? (1970), Nijinsky, Clown of God (1971), What Love Tells Me (1974), Notre Faust (1975), as well as dancing roles on television and in film. Bejart's is one of the most important bodies of creative work to emerge, in its own time, during twentieth century dance. The bond between the two artists -choreographer and dancer- is so strong, their professional identities so closely linked, that it is difficult to imagine one operating successfully without the other. Although their relationship has shifted in recent years, Donn insists that he and Bejart have reached a depth of understanding in which they go for months, working closely every day, without speaking at all.

Once in Brussels, Donn did not see his mother for the next twelve years. His twin sister is now married and the mother of a "beautiful baby" (Donn is very proud of his sister), there are four brothers, still in Argentina; his father died seven years ago. But when Donn talks about his "family", he refers to his fellow dancers in Bejart's company.

"I make guest appearences sometimes with other companies because I need the money, but I am used to working with my family, I like to be with family. It's possible now for me to go dance with any big ballet company I want, but to dance What ? I could guest and do a Bejart ballet, yes, to show people that this is the way I work best, but I wouldn't do Swan Lake or Don Quixote. I could, but I wouldn't."

Would he work for another choreographer ? In 1977 Donn danced for six weeks with the New York City Ballet. Grappling through another dark period in his life, Donn called Suzanne Farrell from Brussels. Farrell, a close friend and Donn's partner during the years she danced in Europe with Bejart's company, encouraged him to hop on a plane for New York. The evening of his arrival, he went to see City Ballet's Gala preview of Balanchine's newest ballet. During that performance, principal dancer Jean-Pierre Bonnefous fell. Afterwards, backstage, Balanchine came up and asked Donn to dance Bonnefous's role the next day in the premiere of the new ballet, Vienna Waltzes. Donn accepted this startling challenge, learned the role the next morning, and partnered Farrell later that day in the premiere. With a little help from Farrell - "Go here, get over there, do this, then...," all whispered sotto voce behind her smile of ethereal splendor - Donn "got through it okay". In fact, he danced splendidly considering the famous Balanchine style was almost wholly foreign to him. Did Balanchine like it ?

"Yes. I think. He said, "No bad. No bad", which is great praise from him. After that, he put me in five more ballets. We had two weeks in New York, four weeks in Saratoga.

I had many beautiful evenings with Suzanne and Mr. B. when we would discuss dancing. He asked me to come with his company, but I knew that he believed "ballet is woman". For Bejart, ballet is men, and I knew I had to go back, back to my family".

The all-important "family" to which Donn refers makes possible the interpersonal concerns and commitments so important for good partnering and mutually supportive ensemble work. When a dancer guests too much, a distance develops between him the other performers. Although the audience may not be able to define the problem, there is definitely something wrong on stage when this condition becomes chronic. Donn admires Nureyev, who guests with many companies around the world, but he also recalls dancing a Bejart pas de deux with Nureyev several years ago.

"To dance with Nureyev was for me, not very exciting because he would dance alone -even though it's a pas de deux, you know ?"

For Donn, a dancer's personal and professional lives are fused, constantly feeding and nurturing one another. The "family" makes this possible.

A familiar debate in dance circles is the length of a performer's career. Now in his middle thirties, Donn is nearing that age when many professionals consider retiring from the stage. (In 1980 he became the co-artistic director of Bejart's company, one might suppose as a hehge against eventual retirement). But Donn insists,

"If you stop at age thirty-five or forty, it is because your training is not good. A man should be able to go on dancing until he is sixty-five. It is a question of roles, of dancing the right things. You do not dance the prince in Swan Lake or Romeo when you are fifty-five; it is ludicrous. Change can be very difficult to accept , but you must open to it".

Donn cites the famous Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso whom he respects as a former partner, as a legendary dancer, and as a great woman, but he is sad to see her dancing roles that not appropriate either to her age or her altered technique.

"Jose Limon, at seventy, was incredible ! Brilliant ! But he didn't dance Romeo; he danced the things he did best, like flamenco".

Donn feels he is particularly fortunate because Bejart is creating roles "for my age now".

Over the years, Donn has partnered many of the world's great ballerinas, but partenering

"...means something different. Partner is the skin, is the smell, is the way you move".

Only three, maybe four, ballerinas, have filled the almost mystical needs of a good partnership (taking of granted, of course, that the dancer will process supremely accomplished technique). Suzanne Farrell was one

"the kind of person who gives and gives when she dances".

Another more recently is Marcia Haydee :

"I love Marcia because she thinks in the same way I think, she moves in the same way, she understands ballets as I do".

One of Donn's most fascinating performance qualities is occasionally described as androgynous. In Donn, this is not a confusion of sexual roles, nor is it nonsexual. Rather, it is an expression of sexuality on a plane above individual differences, something like a universal sexuality, which casts a potent spell on both the men and the women in the audience. Using this in a theatrically effective way, as Donn does, takes courage. Although Donn is aware of this power, he is also hesitant to define it :

"The human being is like that", he says. "Everybody has it, but it can be dangerous to use on stage. It was far more common in ancient cultures - not so much today".

The cultures he refers to have been the subject of his and Bejart's interest for years : Greece, India, the East. He feels our self-awareness was diminished when we lost our sexual influence, which was due in large part, he feels, to the Roman Catholic Church on modern man.

When Donn was growing up in Argentina, he could not decide for a while whether to become an actor or a dancer. He is reputed to have been quite good on stage in Shakespeare. And he can be seen in the States in a recently released major film by Claude Lelouch, Bolero (which runs under different names), in which he plays the part of a Russian defector, modeled loosely on Nureyev. There can be no doubt that the trained actor in Donn has contributed power and discipline - a daring, controlled abandon - that greatly enrich the dancing.

Offstage, when comfortable, Donn can common a warm verbal wit (he is quite conversant in English, French, and Spanish), but also expresses his humor through spontaneously mimed movement - shrugs, delicately expressive fingers, mobile facial reactions. There are warmth and vulnerability, too, although these are more guarded than they once were. Now a vegetarian as the result of illness, Donn says he learned to take matters of personal and professional discipline to heart in an effort to use wisely the glorious instrument of performance. He feels he does not have time to waste, and activities and associations that tend to burn the energy otherwise reserved for dance are carefully weighed against the consequences. Personally and professionally he has reached a hard-earned maturity, and he is determined that the years ahead are going to be the richest possible expression of many extraordinary gifts. This is exactly that we experienced at the City Center this past season.

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Donn de Lumière ou les ailes du lion par France Ferran


Béjart en sa compagnie

Malraux ou la métamorphose des dieux  

1789 et Nous


 Le Presbytère n'a rien perdu de son charme ni le jardin de son éclat  

Lumière (nouvelle création )

 Le monde de Béjart

Retour coups de coeur

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Photo Nina Bencic (1988)