Just one month before his swan song "Around the World in Eighty Days" was set to premiere, a spokesperson for Bejart Ballet Lausanne announced that Maurice Bejart died in a Lausanne hospital Thursday, Nov. 22.
Widely regarded as one of the leading lights in contemporary ballet, Bejart had been hospitalized for the second time in a month last week to undergo cardiac and kidney treatment.
"Personally, I will miss him enormously," John Neumeier, artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, told dpa. "Bejart was incredibly important in redefining classical dance, because he took it in a revolutionary direction without destroying its classical roots."
Born on Jan. 1, 1927 in Marseilles, Maurice Bejart studied dance in London and Paris. He debuted as a dancer at the Marseille Opera in 1945, founded his own ensemble in 1954 and went on to make his name as an avant-garde choreographer at the Theatre de Paris in the 1950s.
However, determined as he was to regenerate the stultifying world of classical ballet, his work initially met with staunch resistance in traditional circles. His detractors objected to his rejection of traditional repertoires and his fondness for atonal scores by composers including Iannis Xenakis, Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
After his version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" was given a rapturous reception in Brussels in 1959 he moved to the Belgian capital and formed the Ballet du XXe Siecle a year later, which toured the world as the "Ballet of the 20th Century."
With this famously experimental ensemble, Bejart developed his concept of "Totaltheater" -- a fusion of language, music, dance and direction -- staging huge, spectacular productions, including Romeo and Juliet (1966), The Firebird (1970), Kabuki (1986), which features the suicide of 47 samurai in the finale. Other ballets include Bolero (1961), Notre Faust (1975), Ring Um Den Ring/The Ring of the Nibelung (1990), and M (1993).
In 1987, the jet-setting company of 35 young dancers from 16 different countries relocated to Lausanne, where Bejart believed both working conditions and funding were more favorable.
To mark his 80th birthday in 2006, he choreographed a characteristically eclectic retrospective of his life, featuring music by Richard Wagner, the Rolling Stones and electronic beats.
From pariah to star
In the course of his glittering career, Bejart directed many of the dance world's most talented performers, such as Sylvie Guillem and Mikhail Baryshnikov, and was honored by Japan's late emperor Hirohito and Belgium's King Baudouin.
This acclaim was in stark contrast to his early years as a choreographer, when he struggled to find an audience for his pioneering work.
"When we made 'Symphony for a Lonely Man,' I was told 'people will run away.' We were happy when we had 80 people in the hall," Bejart told AFP in an interview in 2004, to mark his 50 years as a choreographer.
Despite being elected into the prestigious Academie Francaise in 1994, Bejart never got over the frosty reception and lack of support he first received in his native France.
"I never received a cent from the French government," he said.
For its part, France has long forgotten its initial hostility.
"With Maurice Bejart, we have lost one of the great choreographers of our time, one of the most famous and one of the most admired," French Culture Minister Christine Albanel said in a statement Thursday.