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Maurice Béjart Returns to Paris


By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 8 September 2003

At the Palais des Congrès

Earlier this season, Maurice Béjart brought Ballet Béjart Lausanne to the Palais des Congrès with his version of The Magic Flute, created for the Ballet du XX Century, one of the world's most important companies, in 1981. Twenty years ago, the company included such luminaries as Jorge Donn, Shonach Mirk, Yann Le Gac, and Michel Gascard, to name but a few, and the work was a great success.

Sadly, Ballet Béjart Lausanne is a shadow of that great company. Lacking any dancers with strong personalities of their own, excepting Christine Blanc, who wasn't in it, their appearance in Paris was a disaster.

At the Opéra Bastille

In May and June, fifteen performances of four Béjart ballets were given here.

The programme began with The Firebird, created for the French company in 1970, when it was superbly danced by Michael Denard. As in many of Béjart's ballets, the choreography centres on the male dancer, in this case, the Firebird. Although admirably interpreted on this occasion by premier danseur, Benjamin Pech, the work, inspired by the political events which took place in France in 1968, belonged to that period in time. Nine dancers in nondescript blue grey overalls, obviously members of some resistance group are alternatively searching for something, or fighting an invisible enemy. Suddenly one of them discards his grey apparel and appears in red. He's the chosen one, the Firebird. He transmits his soul and strength to the partisans, and as he dies he is reborn again, and ten more Firebirds arrive, all dressed in red. New and exciting when created, the framework of the ballet has lost the significance it had over thirty years ago.

Karl Paquette in Firebird at the Paris Opera Ballet
Karl Paquette in L'Oiseau de feu
© Photo: Icare

On the other hand, Webern, opus V, a purely classical pas de deux created two years earlier hasn't a wrinkle. A timeless work, it was created at the request of two Opéra dancers, Jean-Pierre Bonnefous and Jacqueline Rayet, who returned at Béjart's request to direct the rehearsals. Agnès Letestu and José Martinez performed it brilliantly, conveying all the emotion of the almost minimalist choreography with each of their gestures.

Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in Bejart's Webern, opus V
Agnès Letestu and José Martinez in Webern, opus V
© Photo: Icare

Desire is the subject of Le Mandarin Merveilleux, created for the Béjart Ballet Lausanne in 1992, a ballet many companies would be pleased to have in their repertoire. Set to a score by Bela Bartok, it is well crafted with a touch of his past mastery in the crowd scenes; each step has a meaning. Three ruffians force a young girl, premier danseur Alessio Carbone in drag, to seduce and then rob the passers by. Then along comes a wealthy Chinese, Laurent Hilaire, who falls for her/him, but is beaten up and left for dead for his pains. Staggering back to life, he is then stabbed and hung, but the girl/ boy pleads for him, and he is cut free to die in her/his arms.

In this work, Béjart has created a very nasty and disturbing atmosphere. It is also scenically impressive with new sets of a rough working-class suburb designed by the Paris Opéra workshops. Led by étoile Laurent Hilaire, the cast, perfectly adequate, worked with Gil Roman, the dancer who created the work in Lausanne.

Alessio Carbone and Laurent Hilaire in Le Manadarin Merveilleux
Alessio Carbone and Laurent Hilaire: Le Mandarin Merveilleux
© Photo: Icare

I did not like the ballet when it was first performed ten years ago, and it did not improve on a second viewing. It leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth.

The creation, Phrases de Quatuor, set to an original score by Pierre Henry, is a solo work created for danseur étoile, Manuel Legris. Would that Jerome Robbins had created "A suite of dances", for him instead! This splendid dancer deserves better. Choreographically speaking it was devoid of interest from the moment he arrived on stage, stood upright on a barre, went into an arabesque, and jumped off with a Tarzan-style yell.

Four pretty dancers arrive, all dressed in black, and sit in a circle with their knitting. While the knitters knit their red knitting first sitting down, then standing up, Legris does his own thing in the centre of the stage. He takes a chair, and the knitters look at him for the first time. One of them who still has a chair stands on it, another runs around the stage, while a third stands on the barre and continues her handiwork. As Legris throws the chair he has taken off-stage, the four knitters take up uncomfortable positions on the barre ignoring the hero who returns with some dizzying spins and high jumps to show the perplexed audience what he can do.

Manuel Legris in Phrases de Quatuor
Manuel Legris in Phrases de Quatuor
© Photo: Icare

As a canon fires, and a thunderstorm breaks out, our hero is shielded from the elements by a large white sheet, but, like us, he's had enough and he covers the long-suffering knitters with the sheet, throwing their knitting on top.

At some point, all the lights in the theatre go on, and then off, and we listen to Manuel Legris telling us how he learnt to dance while watching his grandmother make Pistou soup, and by watching his cats.

The piece ends after he has tipped the long-suffering knitters off their chairs, where they carry on knitting upside down and on all fours. I heartily wished that seventy-six year-old Mr. Béjart had stayed at home with those cats.

It was probably unfortunate that this programme had to be shown at the vast Bastille Opéra. These works, three of which had small casts, would probably have been seen to greater advantage at the more intimate Palais Garnier. All in all, it made up to a rather sad evening.

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

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