Bjart inspires Euro-scepticism at Sadler's Wells

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The Independent Culture
BRITAIN'S cultural entry into Europe suffered another setback this week when the dance community registered its distaste for a long- established superstar of European ballet - Maurice Bjart. In France and Italy his company, Bjart Ballet Lausanne, can reportedly bring a 12,000- seat arena to its feet. At the Sadler's Wells gala, critics were tempted to use theirs for a quick getaway at the first interval.

It was not simply a case of Bjart-vu. The French choreo-grapher created some seminal works in the 1960s and '70s, particularly in his erotically charged settings of Stravinsky, and it was right that a gala should recap those achievements. What we were not prepared for was l'artiste lui-mme, hogging the limelight to tell us how well-connected, well-read and generally legendary he was.

The sub-titles said it all: "Igor and I" (matey with Stravinsky, gosh), followed by "Charles and Richard" (Baudelaire and Wagner too?). The opening number took us into Kids from Fame territory with an arch mock-up of the company in rehearsal. Dancers milled about then fell into line to perform pert variations on themes from past Bjart successes - all reference and no substance. All the while Bjart, a Hemingway in matt black, sat up stage at a glass desk reciting cosily from his diaries. Later, an archive tape of Stravinsky taking an orchestral rehearsal was clearly meant to make us think that Mitre Bjart was there too, getting in on the creative act.

The company has polish, but the flashiness of the Bjart style allows for precious little evidence of interior life. The solemn use of spoken text, which Bjart pion- eered, only made this reviewer want to giggle, especially in the fruity declamations of Nietzsche by one dancer while the others writhed and jittered on the floor. And Bjart's treatment of the female in the pas de deux, now looks dated. Wide-spread thighs, aimed like a cross-bow at the au- dience, impress as gymnastics but strip the dancer of all mystery.

No amount of erotic gim- mickry, however, could efface the sulky mystery of Sylvie Guillem, making a guest appearance in Episodes, the most recent work in the programme. Bjart's tribute to Pasolini strings together roles from the films: Medea, Oedipus, Mary Magdalene and others. Guillem and her co-star, Laurent Hilaire, acted them beautifully - particularly the scene where Guillem used her abundant red tresses to wipe the feet of Hilaire's Christ - but their balletic talents were shamefully underused. Only Guillem's famous high extensions, where one leg appears to be at 200 degrees to the other, were exploited to the full. Overall, an air of decadent kitsch pervaded. Bjart's time has clearly come and gone.

By contrast, the rising culture of modern India, as expressed by the Shobana Jeyasingh Company, came as a breath of fresh air. Jeyasingh trained in Bharatha Natyam, the classical style of southern India, and has reshaped its elements to create a fluid new idiom, eloquent of Indian women's lives now. The clue to the dance lies in the music. Jeyasingh is one of those rare dance-makers whose musical intelligence fully matches her visual sense, and who commissions new scores that are thrilling in their own right.

Her latest work, Raid, is based on the Indian street-game kabbadi, a sophisticated form of tag which relies on agility, daring, low cunning and stamina. Dancers run furiously across the space, devise complex strategies and eventually capture their quarry. Glyn Perrin and Ilaiya-raaja's co- written score urges the pace with fast, loud drumming, virtuoso fiddle- playing, and a kind of high-speed Indian rap, spoken and sung. These exhilarating dancers are true Raiders of the Lost Art - the art of captivating an audience.

Shobana Jeyasingh Company: Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury, 0227 769075, Fri & Sat.