DANCE / Introducing Sissi: crazy name, crazy Empress: Rudra Bejart Lausanne - Sadler's Wells

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The Independent Culture
WHEN asked in 1871 what she wanted for her birthday, Elizabeth, Empress of Austria, replied: 'A totally equipped lunatic asylum.' The anarchist empress, also called Sissi, was mad about the mad, driven to that condition herself by court life. Or was she simply a crazy woman deluding herself into believing she was a persecuted queen? Sylvie Guillem creates that duality for Maurice Bejart, who devised Sissi especially for her as part of the programme his company of 25 dancers, Rudra Bejart Lausanne, is presenting in its British debut.

Guillem stands centrestage in a bubbly Gianni Versace champagne ballgown. Eventually she flows forward to recite a snatch of Goethe. The ballerina speaks. No one moves from shock (or intoxication). But how is she going to dance in that thing? She doesn't. Two courtiers help her out of the gown and out of her mind, and in corset and petticoat she begins the rapid descent into madness.

She is old, burdened, melancholy, then young and easily frightened, flying on to a rocking chair for safety, insecure and inconsolable, but never extravagant. She mocks the detractors who believe she is too acrobatic by mounting a gymnast's horse, swinging like an Olympic athlete, allowing herself a small smile.

Guillem is a dancer of legendary ability, but with Sissi, Bejart challenges her to enter the mind of the raving while keeping her raving body in check. Guillem proves to be a dancer of great containment who is nevertheless able to hurl complex feelings across the footlights. This duality few expected.

Less successful is Mr C, a dance drama about Chaplin that straddles his life and art, references to which are lost on a British audience for whom Chaplin has largely fallen out of favour. The back of the stage is a wall of mirrors, which, with the randomness of the dance, reflect the anarchy of dreams. Chaplin's daughter Annie and his grandson Charlie Bubbles - who play themselves - are on a cruise, where they audition dancers to create a ballet about Mr C. A fey Russian ballerina, two absurd tango-ing footballers, a tart, two talented rollerskaters, a Frenchman try out for parts in a wonderful parody of dance styles. Then the voyage hits the rocks. The work unfolds in a series of self-indulgent and obscure tableaux. Allusions to Chaplin's life are wispy. His grandson seems only able to dredge up the memory of bringing friends to see the back of the old man's 'magical white head' as he watches television.

Unfortunately for Bejart, his gimmick of giving Chaplin's descendants starring roles founders on the fact that the Chaplins are not the Redgraves. Annie is embarrassing, and Charlie Bubbles undistinguished. The pair, together with Bejart, wrote the script, whose only achievement was to get in the way of fine and varied dancing.

Yolande Snaith also uses text in Diction, but sticks to Polish and a bizarre mathematical lexicon. Two umpires in towering chairs issue stern instructions in Polish to dancers on a large chess board. They must stick only to the black squares. Their manipulators urge them to go faster and faster until the dancers enter a frenzy of crashing, disturbing the neat demarcations of black squares and white paper shavings. They tackle and tumble; deliver electric shocks; a man turns a woman round a circle like a second-hand on a clock. It's chaos. What's chaos? Snaith is as enigmatic as ever, creating an upside-down world in which people compete to obey the diktats of unyielding, even unclear, Gods - money, success, happiness?

It's a mystery. Four dancers with big red cloaks whip the paper shaving into a snow storm like so many brain cells frantic for an answer. The paper settles to clear a space so the real competition can begin. Red and white poles are lines of communication for partners, who keep swapping. Finally each has a pole which they throw into the centre like a game of giant fiddlesticks. Two poles become snooker cues, scooping up people like atoms to mathematical chants. The two towering chairs are wheeled on and dancers use the poles to duel. Competition is fierce and only those who don't look down survive.

Snaith is dance's real risk-taker: dancers take running leaps at each other, balance on rungs of ladders, tip each other by the thigh. The movements are simple, but expand into choreography. With Diction Snaith takes dance through the looking-glass into the danger zone.

Rudra Bejart Lausanne, Sadler's Wells, 071-278 8916, tom to Sat.

(Photographs omitted)