Beauty and the Beast, but different

An interview with Thierry Malandain, by Astrid van Leeuwen

“The Beast dwells in all of us”, says Thierry Malandain about his international hit production La Belle et la Bête. “Practically everyone wants, just like the Beast, to transcend themselves.” The French master choreographer has however mainly been inspired by his dancers and his own situation. “As a dancer – and as a choreographer – your body and mind are in a constant struggle, to escape the ordinary, in the desire for pure beauty.”

It is certainly not in the least his fairy-like ballets which have contributed to his current fame as – according to Le Figaro – ‘France’s leading choreographer’. After producing his Casse-Noisette (The Nutcracker, 1997) Thierry Malandain was installed by the French Ministry of Culture as artistic director of the – by that time – still to be established Centre Choréographique National in Biarritz. His Cendrillon (Cinderella) from 2013, became an international hit and La Belle et la Bête (2016) now also conquers the world. Malandain (58) however has to confess he didn’t come up with the idea of ‘diving into the world of fairies and fairytales’ by himself. “It was Laurent Brunner, director of the Opéra Royal, part of the Palace of Versailles, who commissioned me for the last two productions. Because he wanted to reduce his subject choice to stories and productions of which the history goes back to the seventeenth and eighteenth century, considering the history of Versailles.”

Fantasy and reality

What Malandain found most difficult at the assignment of Beauty and the Beast was: “How can I distinguish myself in comparison with Cendrillon? Fairytales do have quite some similarities, you see: there is a father, two mean, selfish sisters, a mother who isn’t alive anymore. And I absolutely don’t want to repeat myself.” Therefore Malandain didn’t find his inspiration for Beauty and the Beast in the famous Disney animation, or the live-action success film which was released last year. He found inspiration in his fellow-countryman Jean Cocteau. In 1946 he wrote and directed a beautiful, surrealistic interpretation of the story, released in black and white, in which fantasy and reality can be barely distinguished. “I used several elements from this film, like the gloves imagined by the creative artist, the horse as a symbol for vitality and power, and the rose as a symbol for love and beauty. But what touches me the most, was that Cocteau, during the complex preparations for the film, compared himself to the Beast, in his search for that love and beauty.”

Body and soul

The idea to introduce three new characters – the artist, his body and his soul – Malandain also borrowed (for the greater part) from Cocteau. “When Cocteau recorded his film, he wrote a sort of diary in which he clarified the condition of the artist, especially because he himself, just after the war, had known lots of material problems and struggled with the accomplishment of the project. I’m inspired by the idea of an artist who has to finish his work in a proper way, and I wanted to incorporate this idea into my ballet.” The three characters – in which a male dancer interprets the body of the artist and a female dancer interprets his soul – have an important role in the choreography. As a fact: they open the performance and it’s after two third of the ballet we meet the Beast.” Anyway, the appearance of the Beast, because in fact the artist is an alter ego of the Beast. Or even, as Malandain admits: “Je suis la Bête. I can’t create without giving myself. Whatever the subject of my ballets is, I have to find acharacter or theme with which I can identify myself. I’m the Artist/the Beast, just as I was Cinderella at Cendrillon.” That the artist on stage stands between his body and spirit, he explains as follows: “In dancers the two are balanced, but not in a choreographer of my age. I’m demonstrating everything during rehearsals, but every movement hurts, takes its toll. If I was twenty years younger, it would be easier, but at the same time I couldn’t have made this production at that time.”

Psychological depth

Malandain is known for his special, often exceptionally beautiful combinations of classical and contemporary dance. “This time my work consists of more classical dance, because the story is from the seventeenth century.” However, in La Belle et la Bête – except for one female dancer, who symbolizes love – he didn’t use pointe technique and his choreography for 22 dancers has an contemporary, or better timeless, charisma. The beautiful, sovereign Belle in his ballet looks like she has escaped from a romantic poetry album, the Beast buffles with his majestic jumps and softens by his suffering, while the character of Belle’s father is distinguished by his enormous eye for detail and massive expressivity. Add the virtuoso, neoclassical dance of the corps de ballet and the inventiveness and psychological depth of the production as a whole, and you’ll understand why this ballet is treated with standing ovations worldwide.

That is definitely owed to the music chosen by Malandain: diverse compositions from Tsjaikovski, among which his masterpiece the Sixth Symphony, better known as the Pathétique. “It was difficult to find the right music”, says the French choreographer. “I chose for Tsjaikovski, because his music bears the same doubts and suffering as by which the Beast – and I as an artist – are tortured.”