By Barbara Rowes
Updated March 26, 1979 12:00 PM

A bisexual Roman emperor plays Latin lover with a Vestal Virgin, then drowns himself onstage in a toilet bowl. At that climactic moment perhaps half the audience at Maurice Béjart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century wish they were back in the more restrained nineteenth. It’s not by accident that choreographer Béjart, 52, has been called everything from enfant terrible or eccentric genius (by the more polite critics) to charlatan. In fact, during his company’s current run in New York, the Times pronounced: “We do not have to wait for summer for the camp season. It is already upon us.”

Béjart was unperturbed. “If you let the booing stop you, then you are shit,” he says. Béjart thrives on creating emotion, tension and even revulsion in an audience. Lest there be any doubt, his preoccupation, his very medium, is sensuality, and that helps explain why he sells out the 5,000-seat Palais des Sports in Paris and rivals George Balanchine in popularity throughout Europe and South America. “Everything has a sexual quality to me—a chair, a lamp, a crack in the pavement,” he’s said. Pelvic grinds and thrusts, staged with outrageous humor, permeate his athletic choreography. Béjart’s love duos may include a man in drag. “There are too many women in ballet,” he contends. But Béjart realizes their box office appeal, showcasing guest artists like Judith Jamison and Maya Plisetskaya on his U.S. tour. Suzanne Farrell was his principal ballerina for five years until she returned to Balanchine in 1976.

It is a decade since the Marseilles-born Béjart performed regularly himself. He started his dance career late, at age 13. Maurice was the son of a philosopher, Gaston Berger, but adopted the surname of Molière’s sister. “I can’t remember why,” he says. “Call it the tempestuousness of youth.” Béjart was brought up by a stepmother after his mother died, and his childhood was colored by the Nazi invasion of France. Since the Germans were conscripting French boys, Berger took his son to live gypsy-style in the woods outside Marseilles. “Everybody keeps thinking it was terrifying, but it was really fun,” Maurice recalls. He also became emaciated, and a doctor advised Berger to get his son interested in athletics. “I did not like sports, only theater,” Béjart notes, “so the clever doctor made me work in ballet.”

After dancing with Roland Petit’s company in Paris and the International Ballet of London, Béjart began to experiment with choreography at Stockholm’s Royal Swedish Ballet. In 1953 he returned to Paris to start his own company. “We starved for seven years,” he says. “We performed one month, then worked as waiters.” But by 1959 Béjart had established his avant-garde reputation and was invited to create the official Belgian national company, which he christened the Ballet of the Twentieth Century. Today the troupe has 80 dancers from 12 countries (“I get bored working with one nationality”), and Béjart earns $50,000-plus annually.

He lives in a Brussels loft which he renovated into a triplex furnished with wall-to-wall cushions—and little else. He has no telephone but three stereos, including one in the bathroom. (Mick Jagger is his favorite.) Béjart allows himself an occasional dalliance, usually with a member of the company.

He has no other diversions. “Working is my life,” explains Béjart. “Ballet is a risk, but it does not matter whether you win or lose. The gamble is everything.”