Bonnefoux: ‘Inspiration and passion’ transform life, art


Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of Chautauqua Dance, delivers Wednesday’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Emily Perper | Staff Writer

It’s hard to imagine a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux green in the face and shaking from nerves, but that’s what the Hall of Philosophy audience visualized when Bonnefoux transported them to his dance jury examination at the Paris Opera Ballet.

At age 21, Bonnefoux held the title reserved for the most distinguished of dancers in France. Bonnefoux has served as artistic director of Chautauqua Dance since 1983. He is also the artistic director and president of the North Carolina Dance Theatre. He has choreographed more than 60 ballets.

His lecture, “Inspiration and Passion,” was the third installment in the Week Four afternoon lecture series, “Art and Soul.”

Bonnefoux cited the book Spirituality of the Body, which addresses inspiration and passion.

“We experience transcendence every time we are moved by great passion or stilled by great experience. In both cases, the spirit becomes so charged that it overflows the boundaries of the self,” he quoted. “Two factors are needed to produce this transcendence: inspiration and passion. The inspiration for an artistic work always has some touch of the divine.”

He explained in his own words: “In the spirit, there is no more ego, so no more separation, no more ‘me’ as opposed to ‘them,’ ‘mine’ instead of ‘yours.’ … Where we can find inspiration is a state where we can share, listen, appreciate others, find the best of (ourselves), being in the heart instead of the head.”

Sacred texts, for example, inspire choreographers to express their spiritual beliefs and to demonstrate the scope of their talents, he said. He identified three important works that integrate strong examples of spiritual imagery performed today.

The first, “St. Matthew Passion” by John Neumeier, narrates the last days of Jesus Christ. The second, “Revelations” by Alvin Ailey, explores themes of African-American spirituality. Bonnefoux called the third piece, “Symphony of Psalms” by Jiří Kylián, “one of (his) favorite choreographies in the world.”

Faith also influenced one of Bonnefoux’s mentors, George Balanchine.

For Bonnefoux, inspiration can be a teacher, an artist, his students, the theater, a museum, a gallery or a concert hall.

From the age of 7, Bonnefoux knew he wanted to dance. He entered the Paris Opera Ballet when he was 10 years old. It was a taxing environment, he said, with a sense of competition among the young dancers. He recalled another dancer attempted to trip him moments before a performance.

Bonnefoux conjured the scene of a yearly dance exam at the Paris Opera Ballet in front of a jury and an audience of approximately 2,000 people. Each dancer performed two solos. Their performances determined their futures.

The time right before the performance was the hardest, he said, because it gave the dancers the opportunity to dwell on their doubts and insecurities. For Bonnefoux and many other dancers, these fears disappeared as soon as they reached the stage. After weeks of preparation, performing was joyous.

“It was like being a racing car, changing gears to accelerate,” he said. “I felt nothing could stop me.”

Out of 60 to 80 male dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet, Bonnefoux was discovered.

“When somebody else recognizes your talent, even if you have doubts, you can always go back to feeling that person could be right,” he said, marveling at his opportunity.

Throughout his life, Bonnefoux said, the good teachers respected tradition but weren’t afraid of progress or to make necessary changes. The bad teachers stuck to tradition out of a sense of duty.

One of his favorite teachers told him, “Tradition has to move to stay alive.”

He traveled to Spain with the Paris Opera Ballet and performed outside in the Generalife gardens.

“For a second, I forgot that it was not a theater,” Bonnefoux said. “So at one point … I look up, and there was the sky. It was not really the same (as) when you see the curtain or the drops that were going to be ready for the next scene. That moment was a beautiful moment for me, because I felt the power of nature and also the power of what was behind that nature.”

Like Tuesday’s lecturers, Chautauqua Theater artistic directors Ethan McSweeny and Vivienne Benesch, Bonnefoux said he believes there is a positive psychological reinforcement that comes with being the best. But overcoming the restrictions of ego is challenging.

“When you perform, you have a choice,” he said. “You can trust your thoughts, often negative, or you can trust your spirit. As you know, the spirit is … much kinder.”

Once he made the decision to leave France, Bonnefoux telephoned his old mentor Balanchine to ask for a season guest position. Balanchine gently refused his request, explaining it wouldn’t be fair to his regular dancers. The next day, Bonnefoux called again and asked to be taken on for two seasons. Balanchine recognized Bonnefoux’s dedication; Bonnefoux moved to New York City.

He had a difficult time adjusting to the new environment and thought he might eventually return to Paris. But he found inspiration in his new town, like the sculptures of Rodin. He found inspiration in people, too — dancers who genuinely loved to dance, who knew how to look at things and really see and who had presence.

Recently, an 11-year-old dancer at Chautauqua inspired Bonnefoux. The young dancers were given a questionnaire about their program and asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Whereas the majority of the boys qualified their answers — such as, “I want to be a dancer, but also a lawyer…” — this boy said, “I want to dance. I want to be a dancer. That’s it.”

“He knew already what was his role in life,” Bonnefoux said.

He described the rich history of support for the arts at the Institution.

“Why do you think magic happens in Chautauqua?” he said. “It’s because there is a special bond between artist and audience, a bond formed by trust, expectation of pleasure … of being surprised, amazed, inspired and the knowledge that it will enrich artist and audience.”

Bonnefoux considers Daniel Albright another “Chautauqua success.” Now one of the best ballet dancers in the United States, Albright spent several years at Chautauqua. In August, he will return to teach.

“He’s really here to inspire our dancers,” Bonnefoux said. “And so, at the beginning, we inspired him, and now he is inspiring us.”

Another source of inspiration for Bonnefoux is love.

“Falling in love can be an inspiration, like the first time I met (my wife, Patricia McBride),” Bonnefoux said. “In a second, I knew we were supposed to be together.

“I feel often that my life was preordained.”

He mentioned many of his co-workers and friends in Chautauqua Dance who inspire and sustain him.

“One of the joys of my life has been discovering talented students and teachers,” he said.

Among those he mentioned were choreographers Mark Diamond and Sasha Janes, the two pianists of 19 years, the costume designers, his administrator and “rock,” Janice, and his wife, McBride.

“(McBride) said one day, “When I danced, I use to receive. Now, I want to give back,’” Bonnefoux said. “That’s the way I feel.”