Claude Bessy, Lignes d’Une Vie (Traces of a Life)
Source: IONCINEMA.com Festival Coverage
This year marked the 39th anniversary of the Dance on Camera Film Festival, held in New York City's The Film Society of Lincoln Center with events spread out a little bit everywhere in the city.
Claude Bessy is considered one of France’s greatest ballerinas of the 20th century. With Bardot-like features and impossibly long legs, she brought a combination of sensuality and womanliness to the often strict world of classical ballet. But what made her an innovative artist was that she did not rest on her laurels with the Paris Opera Ballet, and expanded her repertoire, performing jazz pieces with Gene Kelly and experimenting in modern dance. She knew that versatility was of the utmost importance to a dancer, and in Claude Bessy, Lignes d’Une Vie (Traces of a Life), directed by dancer and choreographer Fabrice Herrault, her remarkable life from training as a child in ballet schools to mentoring future artists as director of the school is captured in beautiful archival footage.
Bessy, during the tumultuous years of WWII, studied diligently in the Paris Opera Ballet’s school, pushing her body and focus to one day became a danseuse etoile (prima ballerina). Ballet was all about perfection and repetition, yet she wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. Bessy got her wish in 1956, when she was promoted to danseuse etoile after years in the company in the corps de ballet. She carried within herself a vibrant sensual grace, not so much a cold removed quality that can be found with many a ballerina. Besides her central work with the Paris Opera Ballet, she danced with the American Ballet Company as a guest performer, and developed a friendship with Gene Kelly, who was eager to introduce his Hollywood audience to the greatest ballet dancers around, featuring her in his 1956 film Invitation to a Dance. Their jazz duets were smolderingly cool, just hinting at a deep intimacy (albeit platonic) between the two artists.
Even when Bessy was sidelined by a serious car accident that fractured her leg, she was able to heal miraculously and return to the stage in eight months in a triumphant return in Ravel’s Bolero, dancing opposite her partner Maurice Bejart.
Bessy danced with the ballet until 1972, before she became ballet master and head of the Paris Opera Ballet School, nurturing such ballet stars of tomorrow as Sylvia Guillem and Laurent Hilaire. Her teaching was strict with the children, to prepare them for adult careers, yet encouraged them to pursue jazz and modern dance, to expand their repertoire and become versatile artists. Bessy retired from the school in 2004.
The film is a gorgeous celebration of a truly one-of-a-kind artist, and Bessy, interviewed amongst her old haunts in the studio and theater, lovingly reminisces about the joys she had being a dancer. As an elderly woman, she still shines with a beautiful youthful glow and a delightful sense of humor.
Included with the screening of Claude Bessy, Lignes d’Une Vie at the Dance on Camera film festival is an excerpt of a film by Nicholas Ribowski entitled Les reflets de la danse (Reflections of the Dance) from 1979, where students in the Paris Opera Ballet School, including Guillem, Hilaire, and Elisabeth Maurin, practice with militaristic-like repetition at the barre, moving in perfect unison. The film is all in French with no subtitles, but it is not necessary, as the majority of the French is ballet instructions, with voiceovers from the children expressing their dreams for a future in ballet. It is the kind of hard work that children go through in order to be the best in their craft, and is truly admirable to watch.