Originally published in The Guardian
By Judith Mackrell
“It sounds like a stupid fairytale. It’s unreal, the situation I have here.” When I meet the artistic director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, one thing is very clear. Jean-Christophe Maillot is a man who knows his own luck. Back in 1993, when Maillot was first invited by Caroline, Princess of Hanover to run Monaco’s fledgling ballet company, he found himself negotiating dream terms for the post. As he tells me, in his excellent English: “I wanted to show the world that this company wasn’t the toy of a princess. I wanted a company that would have its own identity. And I wanted Monaco, so small and so specific, to experience the whole possibility of dance.”
Armed with an annual budget of €11m (£9m) Maillot went on to do exactly as he hoped. He built up a repertory of 70 new works for the company, created by himself and an eclectic range of guest choreographers. He founded a dance school, drawing students from around the world, and he launched the Monaco Dance Forum as international dance festival and a producer of new work.
One of the forum’s recent co-productions (with Sadler’s Wells) was In the Spirit of Diaghilev, a programme of Ballets Russes-inspired works that brought together Wayne McGregor, Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier de Frutos. Even now, it delights Maillot that de Frutos’s contribution, a scabrously comic satire on the Catholic church that the BBC deemed too “strong” to screen, played to full houses in Catholic Monaco.
None of this is what I expected when I first arrived to interview the 53-year-old director, bristling with preoccupations about a ballet institution that was funded by gambling, car racing and tax exiles. But Maillot, a big man of big, vehement ideas, says that even though he knows he’s in “the most luxurious situation”, he doesn’t feel any guilt. He’s far more interested in spreading his good fortune.
It matters to him, passionately, that his company and his foundation do not serve an elite public. Apart from a tiny block of obligatory VIP seats, top ticket prices at the Grimaldi Forum (the principality’s main theatre) are pegged at €35, and the cheapest are very cheap.
It matters, too, that other choreographers benefit. Recently Maillot gave key funding to a new work, Tragedie, by the avant-garde French choreographer Oliver Dubois. It’s not a piece that is scheduled to come to Monaco, and more startlingly it’s not even one that Maillot likes. “Its not to my taste at all, but Dubois is an artist of integrity. And what’s important is that if I hadn’t given that money to him this work wouldn’t exist.”
Monaco has a history of treating dance well. Back in 1911, Serge Diaghilev and Ballets Russes were invited to take up residence at the Salle Garnier, the principality’s exquisite rococo gem of a theatre, adjoining the famous casino. It was support that not only kept the company going during periods of financial crisis but also facilitated the creation of significant new works – Spectre de la Rose and Les Biches were created and premiered there.
“It’s the human scale. You deal with people here, not institutions. The ministry of culture is just one man; if I want to collaborate with the orchestra or with the art school here, it’s just one phone call.” He says it’s entirely typical of the place that when he asked Princess Caroline why she’d chosen him to run her ballet company, she answered, “I couldn’t imagine having a director that I didn’t want to have a drink with after a performance.” Maillot doesn’t have a totally free hand, even with the protection of the Princess, who is president of the company’s board. He has to justify his budget to the Monaco government and a few years back was threatened with a 20% funding cut by a hostile minister. Even so, he’s aware of how little fundraising and politicking he has to do in comparison with most of his peers, and how very free he’s been to focus on the work.
Certainly, there can be few ballet directors who, on starting their job, would dare to warn their board that their first programmes would probably play to an empty theatre.
Maillot came to the job from the French city of Tours, where his small company had been creating and performing a very modern style of ballet. His debut programme with Monte Carlo was a triple bill by William Forsythe, Nacho Duato and himself – works very different from the traditional repertory to which Monaco was accustomed. Just as Maillot predicted, the programme did not sell.
“Some shows we had only 20 people, some we had to cancel. But when you start out you shouldn’t think about the audience you’re going to lose, you should focus on the one you’re going to win. Now we sell out most of our shows.” He describes the style of his own choreography as occupying a “very tiny border between ballet and contemporary”.
“It’s not a bland centre ground,” he explains, “but a way of bringing a new energy, a new possibility to ballet. A way of melting the choreography so that it is more about storytelling than technique.”