The film I loved most of the four I saw at the Dance Camera West festival in June was Fabrice Herrault’s beautifully built documentary about his former ballet teacher, Claude Bessy, Les lignes d’une Vie (Traces of a Life).
Herrault, a dance professor at the Juilliard School and a respected private coach, made one prior film about Fernando Bujones. Claude Bessy is a tightly told, artful, hour-long treasure that recounts the rich career of the womanly French ballerina.
Bessy, a blonde vixen of a Palais Garnier ballerina, was blessed with voluptuous, resilient, and pliant technique. The protegee of Serge Lifar, she later became muse to Maurice Bejart.
Footage of a mature Bessy pulsating in Bejart’s “Bolero” simply must be seen, because they don’ t make ‘em like that anymore — neither boffo ballets like “Bolero,” nor sweating, sensual ballerinas.
A season spent dancing with American Ballet Theatre put Bessy onto the U.S. scene and in contact with Gene Kelly. Casting her in his “Invitation to the Dance,” the movie man, it is rumored, fell in love with his French partner. Later, in Paris, he set a ballet on her to Gershwin.
After Bessy retired, she gave back to the school she loved by training the entire next generation of exceptional Paris Opera Ballet classical dancers.
In one scene that says it all, both about French ballet and about the exigent standards of French culture, Bessy is on stage surrounded by perhaps 50 of her young charges and she’s giving them feedback. She’s all business, her blonde hair pulled in a tight, severe chignon. Other than her voice echoing around the theater, you can hear a pin drop. She’s merciless.
You! You’re too far in the front of the stage.
The lines you made! You are not paying attention very well.
You are not together, the boys not at all together. Are you sleeping?
I understand it is late in the evening, but you better wake up anyway.
I’m not happy at all. [Je ne suis pas contente de tout.]
You don’t pay attention.
Eh, Karen, the adagio the same thing. Your pirouettes are off, and when you do the sissone [the sideways scissor jumps] you don’t pay attention to the person who is ahead of you.
You are six on the stage, you see, one, two three. Alone you can manage, but there are six you must follow the others.
And much too much noise in the rosin [box]. You have fun in the rosin? Indeed, did you have a good laugh?
[A few children giggle nervously.]
Yes, you had a good laugh (she’s furious, but realizes she cannot grind them any more]
[All the kids catch the giggles now.]
On Monday, you’ll behave, and you won’t laugh again.
[She too cracks up. Laughing, she caresses one child on the head with her hand)
Okay? Okay, children [the torture is over], have a good rest on Sunday, prepare for Monday, don’t be too wild tomorrow. Okay, thank you.
[The children clap and noisily depart, chit-chatting, all in a day's work.]
Claude Bessy’s rigor, discipline, seriousness, her punitiveness and standards — followed by a big wink, a dose of love, affection, and caring — strikes me as very French.
And the results show in Laurent Hilaire, Patrick Dupond, Sylvie Guillem, Elisabeth Maurin, Manuel Legris, all her students who became grands étoiles, all on view, as adolescents, in the film’s homespun footage (Bessy’s personal collection of film clips, which were matched to music and smartly packaged by Herrault) .
Claude Bessy: Les Lignes d’une Vie | Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival | Saturday August 6, 4 pm
this post dedicated to martine
merci a eric boldron pour le photo
Like this? Read more:
- More French pedagogy on display here: Roland Petit est mort.