Older but bolder

DANCE Bejart Ballet de Lausanne Chaillot, Paris Petit Ballet de Marseille Garnier, Paris
Maurice Bejart and Roland Petit have dominated ballet in France and enjoyed international fame for half a century; coincidence brought their companies to overlapping Paris seasons. Tempting as it is to call them the grand old men of French dance, that would give a false impression since they show no signs of slowing down. Bejart has celebrated his 70th birthday by creating his best new ballet for years; while, at 73, Petit cast himself for the lead in his highly individual treatment of Coppelia.

Bejart's new work, Le Presbytere (the much longer full title is deliberately meaningless), is inspired by the deaths, both at 45, of singer Freddie Mercury and dancer Jorge Donn. Recordings by Mercury with Queen make up most of the score, interspersed with some Mozart (who died 10 years younger); oddly, the mixture works for Bejart's eclectic dances.

He insists that the ballet is not "about" Aids, and it does encompass many aspects of life, love and death: an episode that must symbolise the arrival of HIV, for instance, is followed at once by an idyllic love scene. The ballet begins and almost ends with reminders that we carry our own shrouds with us, but the general tone is optimistic and the finale asserts in music and dance that the "show must go on".

Influenced by music videos, individual sequences are short (two dozen in 105 minutes) and varied. Gil Roman becomes a leading figure, expressing everyone's anxieties in his solo to Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music, but is often funny, too. Gregor Metzger, shaven-headed and lasciviously smiling, has more sinister interventions. Among others brought into prominence, Kathryn Bradney's virtuoso solo is passionately vivid. A video-montage of Donn in Nijinsky, Clown of God proves unbearably poignant.

The dancers of Bejart's Ballet Lausanne look marvellous in Gianni Versace's mostly figure-hugging, stylishly inventive white and black costumes, with occasional dashes of colour and glamour. At the opening gala, Elton John and Queen joined them on stage to accompany the finale and received decorations from France's Minister of Culture.

Besides his idiosyncratic Coppelia, Petit brought a recent creation and some new stars to the Palais Garnier with his Ballet National de Marseille. As beautifully as Maryinsky ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova danced Swanilda, I thought her not ideally suited to the artificial flirtations of the first half, but entirely charming later. Luigi Bonino, replacing the injured Petit the night I went, brings not quite the same authority to this extremely lithe, suave Coppelius (a cross between Astaire and Chevalier) but has wit, humour and style.

Petit's other offering was The Leopard, an adaptation of Tomasi di Lampedusa's great novel. Inevitably, much detail gets lost, but the main characters hold their fascination and the historical background is sufficiently sketched in. Orchestral music by seven Italian opera composers (plus a harsh Sicilian chorus) makes an apt score, expressively played by the Orchestre Colonne under David Garforth.

A prologue shows Don Fabrice first in his emblematic character as the leopard, with soft but commanding gestures that become a motif at crucial points. Konstantin Zaklinsky, another dancer from the Maryinsky, fills this role with power, dignity and passion. Asylmuratova embodies three aspects of his ideal woman: the prostitute fulfilling his physical needs, the icy star who visits his dream, and finally Death bringing him peace. Luisa Spinatelli's handsome designs let the action move quickly from scene to scene, and Petit's choreography is as adroitly inventive as ever.

John Percival

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