A broad, enticing smile is Serge Bennathan’s default expression. I beam back when we meet at a Broadway intersection in Vancouver. Bennathan, best known as a choreographer, has more than dance on his mind these days.
For the last several years, this jack of all arts has been turning out beautiful, intriguing and alluring watercolour paintings and showing them on his website.
It all began, says Bennathan, at the time when he was artistic director of Dancemakers. He got into the habit of writing, in a poetic way, and sketching when creating new dance works. He took his talent public for the first time in 1999, with a little book featuring an amusing cartoon character, The Other Moon of Mr. Figlio.
Becoming a full-time visual artist, Bennathan says in his delicious French accent, was an organic process. Nothing in a long career in the performing arts – he is still active in his choreographic work for the world’s major opera companies – was pre-planned.
Born in the village of L’Aigle in Normandy in 1957, Bennathan first saw an occupation for himself when his parents took him to see an operetta. Encouraged to learn dancing, he took his first ballet lesson in 1966, the only boy in his class. Bennathan’s father was in the military and the family moved frequently, but talented teachers were available in locations as disparate as Perpignan and Paris. Young Serge was curious enough to seize an opportunity whenever he saw one.
One day in 1975 in Paris, after being publicly admonished by his ballet teacher for arriving late prior to the end-of-year recital, Bennathan happened to notice a sign saying Roland Petit was auditioning new dancers for the Ballet National de Marseille. Only three dancers would be chosen from a field of 200 applicants. Serge was confident he’d make the cut. He didn’t. Shocked, he waited behind after all the other dancers had left the rehearsal hall. “Roland looked at me and said, ‘come, I’ll take you.’ ” To this day, Bennathan doesn’t know why. “I had a bad technique but I could jump really high. Roland would come close to me and say ‘Saute, saute’ and I would jump, with my hair flying.”
Bennathan’s first visit to Canada was on a tour with Ballet Marseille. Karen Kain was one of the guest artists they employed in the cities they visited. Petit encouraged Bennathan to be a choreographer, but when a dance he created did not get budgeted to include his preferred, Bennathan decided to leave. Invited by Rosella Hightower to take up a creative residence in Cannes, he settled there and later started his own company. After money troubles closed the company, Bennathan chose to immigrate to Canada. He arrived in Montreal in 1985 with a suitcase and a thousand dollars.
Luck and sharpened instincts took him like the wind from Montreal to Ottawa, where he had a very fruitful time with La Groupe de la Place Royale, to Vancouver and to Toronto to head up Dancemakers, where he served as artistic director from 1990 to 2006. When it was time to leave, he returned to Vancouver, creating dances as an independent choreographer under the name Les Productions Figlio.
Serge’s Vancouver bedroom serves as his painting studio. He has a drawing board near the window and his pictures are stacked on shelves in the corner. He can paint anywhere, which is important for a peripatetic man like him. “When I was 13 years old I wanted to be a monk, to have this space of silence. Now I’m there,” he says.
Bennathan explains the origins of the pictures he is pulling out. “I am attracted to this right now,” he says of a painting with mountains and a night sky. The constellations and the stars are only visible to people who live outside cities, as he does when he returns to a little house he owns in Normandy.
Then there’s the Courageous Villages series of paintings, beautiful renditions of fortified towns that have lasted for centuries. He shows an unsold one of St. Paul de Vence, the place in the south of France that has always attracted artists, most famously Picasso, Chagall and Alexander Calder. These pictures, rich in a thickly laid watercolour paint, are dazzling in their colours, particularly red. (Full disclosure: I bought one of Bennathan’s paintings, Dance is My Freedom.)
A pandemic series called Giants feature huge figures on bare landscapes. A newish picture, “Zone Libre,” has an element of the giants, in the form of a huge seated figure draped in the Ukrainian flag.
Bennathan calls his art Paintings for the Soul, because he thinks maybe the pictures might help viewers in a gently healing way. He finds he needs to be of service somehow. “Painting is what I can give to people.” It’s obvious, in any case, that the inspiration for these watercolour pictures comes from some place deep within him.
Facebook: Serge Bennathan
From top left, clockwise: Zone Libre, Quand Calder et Chagall Illuminaent St. Paul de Vence, Serge Bennathan, Creating the Music of Our Lives