ARTS : The united colours of Bjart

His ballets are a melting pot of ideas and styles, writes Sophie Constanti, but are they art or pretentious kitsch?
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The Independent Culture
Maurice Bjart is sitting in the rehearsal studio at his Lausanne headquarters, watching two dancers figure out a complicated shoulder lift. From his chair, the 68-year-old choreographer dispenses shorthand corrections and twists his plump fingers into incongruously filigree patterns. His voice is gentle, but stern, like that of a kindly old uncle. Yet there's a touch of the ogre in his Roman emperor's face, with its neat, goatee beard and vitreous blue eyes.

Bjart's empire - a company of 28 dancers and the in-house school known as Rudra - is much smaller now, but his audience has stayed loyal. In 1987, after falling out with the director at Brussels's Thtre Royal de la Monnaie, he moved to Switzerland.

Bjart and his 60-strong Ballet of the Twentieth Century had been in residence at the Monnaie for 25 years, shaping the dance aesthetic in Belgium, Europe and beyond. In Russia, Bjart is still a byword for progressive modern ballet; in Japan, he is much admired and the Tokyo Ballet fills its repertoire with his work.

To many Belgians, Bjart was a national treasure. After he left, his supporters seemed determined to ensure that his successor - the American choreographer Mark Morris - would never be accepted. A climate of hatred prevailed throughout Morris's three-year stay. While Le Soir pined for "King Bjart", Morris grew recklessly undiplomatic about his predecessor, calling him "Belgium's most important export, next to endive".

Bjart's visits to Britain and the US in the Seventies and Eighties may have been commercially successful, but many critics have remained solidly hostile to what they perceive as dance built on philosophical pretensions and misguided eclecticism.

In her 1971 essay "Folies Bjart", Arlene Croce describes Bjart's work as "solemnised kitsch", dealing in "polyglot techniques" drawn from a storehouse which includes "a little Western classical baggage, some scraps of central European expressionism, a few Asian trinkets". Bjart disagrees: "I'm interested in unity. That's why I've made a ballet based on a Japanese story (the life of Mishima), a Jewish ballet (The Dybbuk), another on Indian traditions (bhakti)." But 30 years on, his pick 'n' mix approach to multiculturalism still seems rooted in those fantasies of global, spiritual and sexual harmony which belonged to the hippie trails and denim revolutions of the Sixties. And unity means throwing titbits of Buddism, Hollywood, Shakespeare into a melting pot where ballet meets modern dance meets jazz meets a dancer's own quirks. For Bjart, any theme or movement has theatrical potential. Any music too: rock, African, Chinese melodies interspersed with the sounds of an alpenhorn, scores by Bach, Wagner, Stockhausen, and Boulez, even Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

This taste for variety is exhibited in Bjart's company - a united nations ensemble made up of dancers from 13 countries. "I need to have many colours to make my ballets," he says. "My dancers are all different." He believes good dancers are formed but not bound by their training, and should be able to adapt to other styles and techniques. But he is convinced ballet is the only launching-pad from which to explore other styles. "I think dancers are more stupid than other artists. Because when they want to do contemporary dance, they think Swan Lake is nothing to do with them. They think pointe work is awful; they think the fifth position is stupid. It's all wrong. You can only have freedom when you know what discipline is."

Bjart's brand of freedom has seduced some of the world's finest dancers into working with him: in the Eighties, Suzanne Farrell left New York City Ballet for Bjart, more recently Sylvie Guillem, his current muse, has turned to him for roles which exploit her acting as well as physical skills. "Dance is not prt--porter," says Bjart. "It's made to fit one dancer only."

Being thrashed by the critics has never stopped Bjart filling stadia, city squares and opera houses with his dance spectacles and epics, and now with shorter, if no less ambitious, works. Mass appeal is what really matters to him: "I hate balletomanes," he declares. "That's why I've worked to take ballet out of the ghetto. I don't pretend to teach, I don't pretend to say something in my ballets, but I have integrity. If you are a liar, it shows in your art."

n Bjart Ballet Lausanne is at Sadler's Wells, from tomorrow to 4 Mar (0171-713 6000)