Witty and imaginative or flatulent and awful?

French choreographer Maurice Béjart is revered abroad but reviled by the British. Jenny Gilbert investigates a cultural divide
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The Independent Culture

'I never read reviews," says your typical star actor, dancer, director or choreographer. And do we believe them? Do we hell. One might have to make a grudging exception, in the case of Maurice Béjart, the 72-year-old ballet mogul whose company, Béjart Ballet Lausanne, comes to London this week for the first time since 1995. Were he to take to heart all the things written about his work in the course of 42 years, he would be a severely disoriented man. And it's largely a question of geography. No creative artist alive today highlights more vividly the chasms of international taste.

'I never read reviews," says your typical star actor, dancer, director or choreographer. And do we believe them? Do we hell. One might have to make a grudging exception, in the case of Maurice Béjart, the 72-year-old ballet mogul whose company, Béjart Ballet Lausanne, comes to London this week for the first time since 1995. Were he to take to heart all the things written about his work in the course of 42 years, he would be a severely disoriented man. And it's largely a question of geography. No creative artist alive today highlights more vividly the chasms of international taste.

Consider the verdict on Mr C, the dance tribute to Charlie Chaplin he premiered in 1993: "Imaginative, witty, moving ... it was hard to hold back the tears," said Le Figaro in Paris. "Flatulent ... heart-sinkingly awful," said London's Financial Times, and the other British broadsheets concurred.

It is as if they had seen different shows. But Béjart takes people that way. And the issues that divide the press of different nations don't just hinge on whether or not he makes interesting dance steps (empty and flash, say those agin him; virtuosic and flamboyant say the fans). They extend into cultural, even moral, debate.

Those who regard Béjart as the messiah of modern ballet - and here we're talking all continental Europeans, the Russians and the Japanese - claim he takes dance into a sphere of epic profundity, dealing with Life, Death and Art in capital letters. They admire the sheer scale of his ambition: the technically state-of-the-art shows he puts on; the way he ropes in glitzy design talent from Versace and the like; the strength and beauty of his company dancers; and the grand, all-embracing statements he considers dance fit to make about philosophy, mysticism, Hollywood, Wagner, revolutionary politics, the cosmos ... you get the idea.

The anti's - who principally comprise critics in Britain and America - say he's a poseur who trashes the values of classical music and dance for the sake of cheap theatrical thrills. Could this be a case of uptight cultural envy? Or even a conspiracy at work? Neither, I would say. It's simply that Anglo-Saxon sensibilities are repelled by the some of the very features that attract the Latin mind.

For a start, the British and to a lesser extent the Americans have a marked allergy to anything that smacks of pretension. To introduce oneself at any level of French society as philosopher, artist or poet is cause for congratulation. In Britain, instant suspicion. And Maurice Béjart styles himself as all three - his father was the French philosopher Gaston Berger and Berger/Béjart Jnr has naturally gravitated to the Left Bank cogitator persona in black rollneck and goatee. It is this image that regularly dominates posters advertising his shows on the Continent, in preference to pictures of his stunningly good-looking dancers.

He is also a very vocal student of world religion, choosing to give his dance school the name Rudra, the Hindi term for hand gestures. And he is not averse to exposing his broad philosophy in programme notes, either. On his last visit to Britain he opined at length about the significance of the pas de deux as "the search for unity through duality, the power which pushes us with that sumptuous and insatiable force to become the other, body, flesh and soul, etc etc." One British wit responded with the quip: " L' aprÿs-midi d'un phoney".

Unabashed self-regard is another foible guaranteed to raise Anglo-Saxon hackles. And Maurice Béjart does love to make his mark on a piece on stage, in person. On his last visit to Sadler's Wells he brought a work called Journal: 1st Chapter, which was ostensibly about Stravinsky but was really about Béjart. However much in awe of the composer he clearly was, he saw no contradiction in adding the excruciatingly chummy subtitle "Igor and I", and reading from his own diary against a soundtrack collage of music and wise words from the composer.

It's not just the suspicion that he thinks he is the equal of Stravinsky, Callas, Shakespeare, Chaplin, Freud and all the other household names that pepper the credits of his works (and watch out for the tribute to Freddie Mercury he's bringing to Sadler's Wells). He clearly adores them all. But it's the way he butchers their art to his own ends that gets critics hopping mad: a snatch of Mozart here, a sob from Callas there, a Bach chorale that segues into a tango and a few lines from Romeo and Juliet for no good reason at all.

But ... and of course there's a big but. At his best, it has to be said that Béjart can make the hairs on your neck prickle with the boldness of his invention on stage. And for sheer visceral magnificence, his company dancers are some of the most striking you'll see anywhere. Never mind the jibe that the men are extensions of Béjart's own homoerotic preference, the women supermodel ciphers. They all look fabulous, and they can do anything.

What's more, over the years the Béjart brand has seduced some of the world's finest soloists. In the 1980s, the celebrated Suzanne Farrell left New York City Ballet to work with him. More recently Sylvie Guillem, his current muse and the world's most intelligent ballerina, has turned to him repeatedly for roles that extend her acting as well as gymnastic skills. Guillem, who dances two performances at Sadler's Wells in Béjart's overtly sexy setting of Ravel's Bolero (hotfoot from the Sydney Olympics festival), refuses to be drawn on why she rates the man. "Sylvie's body understands what my mind wants," is what Béjart says of her.

In the end, there will always be people who care not a jot what critics think. Tickets for Béjart Ballet Lausanne sell almost as fast in Britain and the US where critics pour their bile on the choreographer as in France and Germany where he has them drooling. Sadler's Wells reports that the two Sylvie Guillem performances are already sold out, and that tickets for the three Ballet for Life performances - dedicated to the memory of Freddie Mercury and set to the music of Queen - are scarce. Clearly Béjart does have a following in this country, despite his infrequent appearances, and some of those fans, dare I suggest it, may well be introverted, uptight Anglo-Saxon types who just happen to like watching someone else go OTT.

Béjart Ballet Lausanne: Sadler's Wells, EC1 (020 7863 8000), Prog I: Wednesday to Saturday; Prog II in aid of Ballet For Life, 28-30 September

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