DANCE : Pretty boys and cavemen

Bjart, Ballet Lausanne Sadler's Wells, London

In 1960, Maurice Bjart brought his production of The Rite of Spring to Sadler's Wells. This week, on a return visit to the venue, the choreographer briefly refers to that performance as he wanders among the young dancers of his Bjart Ballet Lausanne in a more recent work, Journal: 1st Chapter. The link between Rite and the first, busy instalment of Journal is Stravinsky, a composer with whom Bjart has continually claimed some special affinity.

Journal may be dedicated to Stravinsky, but it's really about Bjart. He is clearly in awe of the composer, he sees no contradiction in adding the excruciatingly chummy subtitle "Igor and I" to the work, and reading from his own notes against the soundtrack, a collage of music, orchestration, wise words and droll humour from Stravinsky. Meanwhile, Bjart's troupe fills the stage with a deranged kaleidoscope of empty postures, gestures and mannerisms. Balanchinean neo-classicism is suggested in the practice clothes, crossed legs and stabbing pointes of some of the women; the Russian Imperial school is momentarily alluded to in a quote from the Bluebird variation. But this is a choreographic mind in which anything goes, but goes nowhere in particular. What saves Journal is the touch of self- criticism that Bjart allows to filter through: "I danced Bluebird in London. I was 21. I'm sure I was awful."

Of course, there are those who will regard Bjart's choreography, rather than his performances, as the greater crime. And you don't have to be a dance purist to feel overcome by morbid fascination as you witness Bjart's spell work its ludicrous magic on the audience. All those lithe, perfect bodies encased in sheer white body stockings. All the floor-show erotica of men and women slithering in and out of an endless assortment of amazingly indecorous positions. Bjart's world is one of gymnastics and semi-nudity, hairy-chested cavemen and winsomely pretty boys, ballerinas with hyper- extended backs and legs, melodrama one moment and disinterested physical drill the next - a world in which all the clichs of a dancer's daily routine are treated as supreme art.

In his Art of the Pas de Deux programme - some 15 duets embellished by various corps de ballet groupings and set to a "musical discourse" which includes pieces by Offenbach, Duke Ellington, Vivaldi and Wagner - Bjart even slots in an item based on one of his own texts, The Barre, The Mirror, The Floor, delivered as though it were the dancer's Holy Trinity. In Episodes, his homage to Pasolini created in 1992 for Sylvie Guillem and Laurent Hilaire, Bjart both wastes and indulges the talents of his star couple. Against a musical montage featuring everything from Tristan und Isolde to Ennio Morricone, they fight, embrace, smooch, go their separate ways and finally reunite. Guillem spends much of the time changing her clothes, adjusting her auburn tresses and either being petulant or falling worshipfully at Hilaire's feet. In trying to tell us something about the futility of human relationships, Bjart succeeds only in showing a man and woman struggling to get a grasp on non-existent choreography.

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