“Ballet must be accessible,” the French choreographer and artistic director of The Ballet of Monte Carlo, Jean-Christophe Maillot, believes — and the upcoming Japan premiere of “LAC,” his most ambitious reconfiguration of a classic to date, promises to attract both fans of Tchaikovsky’s famed 1876 “Swan Lake” with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and also those looking for a narrative with contemporary resonance.
As with much of Maillot’s work, though, leave your specialized sense of ballet at the door if you want to fully appreciate “LAC.” It opens, for instance, with a dream-like black-and-white film of the hero, Prince Siegfried, as a child enjoying a picnic with his (masked) parents and falling for a girl who’s swept away by monstrous flying creatures as the house lights are killed.
In the ballet that follows, with its storyline by Maillot and acclaimed French author Jean Rouaud, the White Swan (Odette) and Black Swan (Odile) roles generally taken by the same person are instead portrayed by two dancers, giving the women a chance to face off on stage.
However, the dramatic action is led by the mothers, with the traditional villain, Von Rothbart, replaced here by the Black Swan’s mother, Her Majesty of Night, who is pitched against Prince Siegfried’s mother, The Queen — while the newly created role of his father ups the tension and adds to the murky possibilities.
Maillot, 54, has been exploring the innovation possible within tradition for decades — at least since his daughter Juliette was 6 and he took her to see a standard staging of “Romeo and Juliet.”
As he told The Japan Times, “It looked ridiculous to her to see the dancers in tights fighting with no conviction, and she laughed a lot with Juliet dying at the end in pointe shoes — she just could not believe in what she was seeing.”
Ever since, Maillot said, he’s been searching for the “credible” in dance — starting appropriately with “Romeo and Juliette,” his 1996 reworking of Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet from 1935.
In reconsidering the classics, Maillot said he first considers his company, “Which forced me in a beautiful way to rethink ‘Swan Lake’ because the dancers are from more than 25 countries, and the harmony of ‘Swan Lake’ is based on a similarity of dancers, whereas our dancers have different kinds of bodies, different proportions, different schools or ways of understanding dance.”
Maillot mentions the second act, which demands synchronized precision from the corps de ballet for its famous “Dances of the Swans” sequence: “With a company that is completely mixed, you do not reach the result that is supposed to be there — the unity in the form and the spirit. The only solution I had was to create a new one.”
With this being the troupe’s seventh tour of Japan — where the Japanese dancers Kaori Tajima, Mimoza Koike and Mikio Kato will take the stage in Tokyo — Maillot is looking forward to an audience that understands his work, saying, “I love going to Japan because of that sense of tradition melded with a curiosity about innovation.”
Though his own dancing career was ended by injury while he was a soloist at the Hamburg Ballet in 1983, Maillot has now enjoyed 22 years of success in the beautiful principality of Monaco, where he also hosts The Monte Carlo Forum, a popular biennial dance festival he started that exemplifies his love of both ballet and contemporary dance.
As he put it, “I am equally fascinated by Petipa or (U.S. modern dance icon) Merce Cunningham (1919- 2009). I am ready to open my eyes all the time. Cunningham created dance by looking at the sky, looking at the universe — but people like me create dance by just looking at people on Earth. And we need both; every day we have to face both.”
“LAC” is being staged Feb. 27-March 1 at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. For details in Japanese or English, visit www.nbs.or.jp.