A visit from Jean Babilée, or encountering the essence of grace

If one has met Jean Babilée, one doesn’t forget it. One keeps it as a precious gift, a moment of grace in one’s life to be cherished, to remind us both what excellence is, but also what it means to be intensely human. And generous and kind. And to be reminded that excellence need not diminish one’s humanity, generosity or kindness.

One day in rehearsal, I referred to Jean Babilée while making some point or other to Vincent. He promptly got out his phone, called his theater, asked for Mr. Babilée’s number, and dialed it. When Mr. Babilée answered the phone, Vincent explained that they had met one evening in Annecy some time before, though since then he, Vincent, had had a rather serious mishap, having spent three months in a coma, awakening as a tetraplegic with seriously diminished eyesight, but that in spite of this he was taking advantage of the opportunity to begin a new career as a dancer. True to his character, Vincent extended an invitation to Mr. Babilée to attend the open studio showing of our duet, Not for Unsteady Souls, at the Centre national de la danse in Paris. To which Mr. Babilée replied that he would be delighted to come.

There were two showings of our dance, several months apart. At the first one, Mr. Babilée was unfortunately delayed by a ceremony being held downstairs in honor of Maurice Béjart, recently deceased. He sent his regrets nevertheless. For the second showing, he arrived a little late, and the forty or so people in the audience were offered a most beautiful sight, that of watching Jean Babilée walk across the dance space, in his leather motorcycle jacket and with his inimitable gate.

When we had finished our presentation, Mr. Babilée called Vincent and I over to him, and everyone else, though physically present, disappeared from our view. He paid no mind to them either. Smiling warmly to us, he complimented us on the work, the dance, and then offered some suggestions. He talked to us about rhythm, one section a bit shorter, another we could stretch out, take our time, dig in further, here maybe linger on the connection between the two of us, here spend more time apart… elements we took into consideration later in rehearsals. He was touched by my dancing (his words being a high point in my career) and its relationship to Vincent’s presence. For a good twenty minutes, Jean Babilée gave us his wisdom, his sensitivity, his insights in dance, honed over his more than sixty years of dancing. And as Vincent remarked, this elegant man, so learned in dance, spoke to us as one colleague to another, to Vincent as well as to myself, even though Vincent’s dancing career began, and ended, with this duet, and in a wheelchair.

We wrote to him to thank him:

Jean Babilée,
27 september, 2008

“Dear Sir,
…We wish to associate you with the memory of this work, the more so as your encounter, and the suggestions that you gave us were present in our minds. In addition, your observations were offered to us not as a master addressing his students, but as a protective colleague toward his fellow colleagues. This encounter was for us a delicious moment, and we thank you once more.”
Priscilla Newell and Vincent Fritschi

As if sharing our dance were not enough, Vincent and I were also offered this gift, one of those unforgettable moments where one encounters the essence of grace.

Paris, Spring 2013