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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 8 July 2006 —One restaging, one 'Best of', and one 'Worst of' have been offered to the Paris public since mid-June by Maurice BĂ©jart, one of the most influential personalities of 20th century dance. While no one can deny his impact on the dance scene with his popular, highly theatrical spectaculars which drew in larger, younger audiences particularly in the seventies and eighties, many of these works, often pretentious and dated, have borne the brunt of time less well than he has. At 79, it is he himself who has become a classic.

This programme, (until 14 July at the Opéra Bastille), modestly entitled, Maurice Béjart, began with a performance of his 1992 work, Le Mandarin merveilleux, composed by Béla Bartok in 1924, but banned from the stage at the time because of its scandalous content!

Restaged for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 2003, it benefited not only from the superb decor of Stefano Pace and costumes by Olivier Bériot, but also from the participation of some of the world's finest dancers, then as now. This time round, Kader Belarbi, in the role of the Mandarin, who is by turn beaten up, stabbed, and hung, before dying in the arms of the prostitute, was outstanding. He brought lightness and charm to a work which otherwise might have lacked both. But both Wilfried Romoli as the pimp, and Alessio Carbone as the prostitute were remarkable, particularly as regards their contribution to the creation of atmosphere. The staging, at which Béjart is past master, was brilliant.

Maurice BĂ©jart: Le Mandarin merveilleux
Paris Opéra Ballet
Photo: ICARE

It's a sleazy, sorry little tale, where three ruffians oblige a young girl to seduce passers-by while they rob them. BĂ©jart, whose choreography invariably favours his male dancer, has livened things up by having the role of the girl interpreted by a man in drag while one of the victims, a young boy, is played by a girl with moustaches. The French male corps de ballet in suits ties and shirts are both virile and dynamic but when the women make their appearance, they arrive in their underwear, suspenders a-jangling. It's tiresome; weak, wan or whores are BĂ©jart's women.

There were no women at all in the version of BolĂ©ro, a great crowd pleaser even when under-danced, which it was with his own company, BĂ©jart Ballet Lausanne on last sighting. But interpreted by the Paris OpĂ©ra, spectators got their money's worth, with not only the heartfelt performance of Nicolas Le Riche, alone and triumphant on that round, red table, but also because of the magnificent male corps de ballet. And if memories of the unforgettable Jorge Donn,* BĂ©jart's long-time muse and companion were ever-present, Donn the angel with his mesmerising stage presence and blonde beauty, powerful, sensuous and undulating, immortalised by the Lelouch film, Les uns et les autres, then it only added to the poignancy of the moment. 

Maurice Béjart: Boléro
Paris Opéra Ballet
Photo: Laurent Philippe

 The first version of BolĂ©ro, premiered at the Paris OpĂ©ra back in 1928 and choreographed by Nijinska, had a gipsy dancing on a table in an auberge in Spain and BĂ©jart has kept this idea while using Ravel's music in a much more flamboyant, seductive way.

 Interpreted at its creation in 1960 by the Yugoslavian dancer, Duska Sifnios, it wasn't until 1979 that BĂ©jart decided to have the central role interpreted by Donn surrounded by women before introducing a third version, this time exclusively masculine. Nowadays, it is danced by both men and women, another casting in Paris programming charismatic Marie-Agnès Gillot in the main role. Whatever detractors might say, this work is a brilliant synthesis of movement, images, and symbols, highlighted by extraordinary lighting effects and together with his version of the Rite of Spring, is one of his greatest successes.

Maurice BĂ©jart: Variations pour une porte et un soupir
Paris Opéra Ballet
Photo: Laurent Philippe

The same cannot be said for Variations pour une porte et un soupir, a work created only four years after BolĂ©ro to Pierre Henry's musique concrète, a non traditional 'sound' score which BĂ©jart was one of the first choreographers to use. The culmination of the piece was when the seven interpreters all sat poker-faced on the backs of wooden chairs. Then they stood on one leg on their chairs whilst someone hopped on and off his. The thirty-five minutes of improvisation ended when one of them took off his shoes and socks and threw them into the audience before proceeding to remove the rest of his clothes. Far from being a new addition to the Paris repertoire, it would have been preferable to have left this work at the back of the cupboard where it belongs. 


* Jorge Donn, born in Argentina in 1947, died in Lausanne in 1992.


Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe and is the dance editor for

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