How Monte Carlo danced to fame with ballet

Just the name, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, evokes memories of la belle époque in Monaco, when the crowned heads of Europe, American millionaires and great personalities of the day gathered there for the winter season; when champagne flowed and fortunes were lost at the Casino and the suites of the Hôtel de Paris were home to the wealthy of the world; when legendary stars of the opera and Les Ballets Russes gathered for midnight suppers at the Café de Paris … Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Danilova, Karsavina, Chaliapine.

Ballets de Monte-Carlo, "La Belle"La Belle prima ballerina Bernice Coppieters
Photo © Marie-Laure Briane

The beauty of Russian music and dancers brought to Paris by émigrés of the Russian revolution swept across Europe and brought Serge Diaghilev, Nijinksky, Fokine, Balanchine and Massine to Monte Carlo to weave their magic spells on the stage of the exquisite Salle Garnier as they merged music and dance to create the great classical ballets which continue to delight audiences today.

According to Arnold Haskell, a writer and friend of Diaghilev, “… Diaghilev created through others. He prided himself on being a ‘collector of geniuses’. He relied on his flair in the first place but… the artists must meet, talk, produce ideas … the composer and the choreographer, with the aid of the piano, had to learn to speak the same language. Every season artists flocked to Monte Carlo, often as his guests. It was Versailles.” He alleged that Diaghilev once remarked that “if the theatre burned down tonight, a large part of the world’s creative artists would be wiped out”.

The magic of Les Ballets Russes became a legend; Nijinsky’s L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune brought tears of rapture to the eyes of princesses and politicians alike. Danilova’s dancing, the mysticism of Fokine’s Firebird, and Stravinsky’s strange, wild music fired the souls of poets. Though the legendary Pavlova never danced in Monaco, the elite of the artistic world gathered in the Principality in those carefree days before the war, which exiled the émigrés once again, this time to America.

In the United States, one company of Les Ballets Russes, renamed Le Ballet Russe de Monte-Carlo, continued to prosper with prima ballerina Alexandra Danilova, Maria Tallchief, Frederic Franklin and Igor Youskevitch. It was there that Agnes de Mille created Rodeo and Balanchine his famous La Somnambule. This company never returned to Europe.

The other company, known as L’Original Ballet Russe, crisscrossed Latin America through Brazil, Argentina and Mexico, acquiring a patron, the Marquis de Cuevas. They performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1946 with dancers Alicia Markova and Rosella Hightower. Diaghilev had left the company in 1938 and they were directed by Colonel de Basil. He dreamed of returning to Europe, of performing in Paris and London, and took the company to Spain, but he died there in 1951 and his company with him.

In 1942, Marcel Sablon, then theatre director in Monaco, founded Les Nouveaux Ballets de Monte-Carlo with ballet master Nicolas Zverev and young dancers Ludmilla Tcherina and Serge Golovine, but it did not survive in those troubled times. At the end of the war, Prince Louis II of Monaco asked Eugene Grunberg to try again. Le Nouveau Ballet de Monte-Carlo, with Serge Lifar as artistic director, dancers Yvette Chauviré, Janine Charrat, Renée (Zizi) Jeanmaire, Wladimir Skouratoff and Boris Trailine, created Dramma per Musica and Chota Roustaveli.

In 1974, Serge Lifar joined the Paris Opera and the Marquis de Cuevas took charge of the troupe – again renamed, now the Grand Ballet de Monte-Carlo – but three years later it became the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas and Monaco was without its own ballet company until HSH Princess Caroline of Monaco founded the present company in 1985, in memory of her mother, Princess Grace. Pierre Lacotte was artistic director for the first three memorable years but left to become artistic director of the Ballet National de Nancy et de Lorraine. The second ballet director, Jean-Yves Esquerre, took over, but left after two and a half years. Pierre Lacotte returned to direct a brilliant L’Après-midi d’un Faune and The Firebird in the 1992 Christmas season, but Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo was left without a ballet director.

In 1993, Jean-Christophe Maillot, a student of Rosella Hightower’s International Dance Academy in Cannes, who had won the Prix de Lausanne in 1977 and become soloist in the Hamburg Ballet, then choreographer in the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Tours, came to Monaco as the new director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. Since his arrival, he has created 30 new ballets, initiated the Monaco International Dance Forum and taken the Princess Grace Dance Academy under his wing. Maillot introduced new, innovative choreography in his own particular style of dance, working with composers and giving his dancers new challenges, with exciting, new productions every year. The company has performed his Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella and La Belle around the world to great acclaim.

Every year, young dancers come to Monte Carlo for the magic … to dance in the footsteps of the great. Entranced by the history, the romance, the heartbeat of the world of dance, they find its soul amid the whispers and memories and tradition of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. For it was here that the seeds of Russian ballet came to fruition; here that the fairy godmothers of dance wove their magic spells and bestowed on the infant dance their own particular gift of talent, of expressionism, of inspiration. This child of dance grew and prospered and became the magical creature it is today… such stuff as dreams are made of.

Each dancer has his or her reasons for joining the Corps de Ballet. They stay for varying periods of time … some for a lifetime. Others move on to further their career, to experience other disciplines, to stimulate their talents. If they wish to travel, there is no need to look further, for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo is a travelling company. With its tons of costumes, scenery, props and vast entourage, this great company of 50 dancers of 18 different nationalities dances around the world each year. Unfortunately the talent scouts are waiting and many dancers are lured away to other companies. This makes it difficult to sustain a confident, efficient Corps de Ballet, experienced in dancing together, but each year a long list of professional dancers, as well as younger ones, apply for a place (over 1000 applications a year).

In December 2013, Maillot celebrated 20 years as director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo by re-inventing the Nutcracker ballet for the Christmas Season. Casse-Noisette Compagnie, a colourful and lively medley of all his productions was an instant success. 2014 will truly be a memorable year, for in April, the company will tour in China, the United States, Spain and France and perform Lac, Maillot’s tempestuous version of Swan Lake, at London’s Coliseum. Jean-Christophe Maillot will also travel to Russia, where he has been invited to create a new ballet for the Bolshoi … to be premiered next June. Under the patronage of HRH Princess Caroline of Hanover, and with the support of many enthusiastic patrons and friends, the future is brighter for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo than for many dance companies, who struggle to survive. We, who can only marvel at the magic and beauty of dance, can breathe a sigh of happiness that the Principality of Monaco has kept alive the love of dance.
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