BALLET REVIEW Dennis Chang Mart Gala
TOKYO BALLET, TOURING
Last year's St Cecilia's Day saw the passing of Maurice Bejart, the creator of over 250 dance works, including ones inspired by the lives and words of St John of the Cross, St Anthony, St Sebastian and Mother Teresa. The last was the subject of a full-evening work during Bijart's company's visit to London in 2003, described by one of our most eminent critics as "a sanctimonious stinker... Another Teresa — of Avila — prayed to know something of the torments of the damned. This loathsome entertainment is a good place to start."
Few artists bridged the continental cultural divide as unsuccessfully as the Swiss-French choreographer. He was as hated by British and American critics as he was celebrated in Europe as one of the greatest icons of the 20th century. fn his heyday, Bejart famously packed out Paris's 13,000-seat Bercy Stadium for a week when state-funded companies worldwide struggled to get the punters in. The most powerful endorsement for Bejart came from some of the greatest dancers of the century — Maya Plisetskaya. Mikhail Baryshnikov, Fernando Bujones, Vladimir Vassiliev, Rudolf Nureyev and Suzanne Farrell, who shocked the dance world by leaving Balanchine to spend four years with Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century in Brussels. His all-embracing approach — the pantheism, the pedaling of "love" and "peace" messages and pop culture, the glamourising of the dancers, the grandeur (some would call bombast) of his conceptions, the hyper-theatricality — makes for an impressive spectacle and elicits extreme reactions. One doesn't need to be a balletomane to fall under Bejart's spell; indeed, those who love sylphs and swans will tend to find his taste disagreeable.
Despite his national treasure status in France, Bejart never ran the Paris Opera Ballet, a job many believe he would have loved. It was poignant, therefore, that three of the company's greatest dancers appeared together as guests in an all13ejart homage programme that the Tokyo Ballet has been touring in Europe this summer. In Songs of a Wayfarer, set to Mahler's eponymous score, Bejart charts a man's journey through the vicissitudes of life in the company of another, who first appears part friend, part adversary, only to be revealed at the end as destiny itself. Laurent Hilaire and Manuel Legris perfectly caught the fleeting moments of solitude, joy, anger, desolation and eventual resignation. At 45, Hilaire no longer jumped and pirouetted with the same brilliance that he once did, but his aristocratic bearing remained undiminished. The intensity and commitment, etched on his face, recalled those of his mentor Rudolf Nureyev, for whom Mart created the ballet in 1971. Shadowing Hilaire was Nureyev's greatest protege, Legris, who continues to be the epitome of a classical dancer, displaying perfect placement, soft knees, effortless virtuosity, and a sheen of elegance emanating from everything he does.
What sold out Lyon's 8,000-seat Roman amphitheatre three nights in a row was undoubtedly Sylvie Guillem's star turn. Always a staunch Bejartian, Guillem batted for him even after moving to the enemy territory of London. Even though Bejart most likely will never appeal to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility, her performance of his works made an indelible impression on fans and detractors alike. In Lyon there were only fans. We cheered her to the stars during her bump and grind on the iconic red table to Ravel's Bolero. Bolero's fire was the perfect foil to the ice of La Luna, a solo set to the slow movement of Bach's second violin concerto. Bejart reworked this piece for Guillem in 1988, and it is chock-full of soft leg kicks and long-held arabesques where she balances on one pointe. with the other leg either stretched behind her or raised past her ears in that patented six-o'clock position. An old film footage of Guillem in this ballet shows an ingenue in a bun wearing a pristine white unitard and pointe shoes tip-toeing through the steps, as if an inquisitive otherworldly spirit had descended on earth. Twenty years on in Lyon, where the white tights were replaced with billowy trousers, Guillem's moon goddess remained sensual but far more forthright. If her limbs once evoked silhouettes of moonlit branches, they now carve out space like a surgeon's scalpel.
The Tokyo Ballet gallantly opened the evening with Bejart's Rite of Spring, considered by many (Balanchine included) to be one of the choreographer's greatest achievements. Created in 1959, Bejart fills the stage with men and women who bring to life the primitivism, paganism, barbarism and the disturbing exhilaration of the music, by meticulously illustrating every tonal inflection with savage movements. There was no denying the quality of a company which has been Bejart's greatest champion in Asia in the past three decades, and for which he created two full-length ballets. Kabuki and M. based on the life of the writer Yukio Mishima. Neither work has been performed in Britain, and one longs to see them for a further glimpse of the freewheeling, uniquely Bejartian imagination.