Rotund but with characteristic goatee beard

Béjart Ballet Lausanne | Sadler's Wells, London
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The Independent Culture

More rotund but with characteristic goatee beard and piercing blue eyes intact, Maurice Béjart took a closing bow. He may not loom as large here as across the Channel, but the audience still roared. You can bet your best leotard, though, that most critics present did not: the Anglo-Saxon press and Béjart simply don't see eye to eye.

More rotund but with characteristic goatee beard and piercing blue eyes intact, Maurice Béjart took a closing bow. He may not loom as large here as across the Channel, but the audience still roared. You can bet your best leotard, though, that most critics present did not: the Anglo-Saxon press and Béjart simply don't see eye to eye.

Yet Béjart's impact over 40 years has been thunderous. He has tried to blow the cobwebs away from ballet, update it, enliven it, above all make it relevant and accessible to the masses. In the last he has achieved what no other classical choreographer has achieved, invading the consciousness of every continental European. It's just that maybe with time, maybe for more specialist ballet-goers familiar with Balanchine, or Ashton, Béjart's own modern ballet language tends to come across as thin and erratic.

This was no more evident than in the two first pieces of London's opening programme. Seven Greek Dances is a man-fest, a glorification (like much Béjart work) of the male body, the women all demure and knowing their place. Groups and smaller units alternate, bare-footed or ballet-shoed, to Mikis Theodorakis's folkloric music. Béjart, though, deliberately keeps Greek-dance quotes to a minimum, preferring his own fitful manner of academic steps jumbled with hyperextended shapes and tensely outflung arms. The disconnected movements are tacked to each other with no sense of overarching pattern. Domenico Levrÿ, for example, follows his spasmic sissonne jumps and entrechats with an incomprehensible spreadeagled splat on the ground.

Nor does the solo choreography of Adagietto make more sense, where the splendid Gil Roman shares the stage with a chair and part of Mahler's 5th Symphony. The mood is heartfelt. But the meaning of the splashy gestures can't be decoded, while somersaults and splits sprinkle themselves disruptively.

And yet, and yet. Seven Greek Dances sets its ensembles moving in graceful contrapuntal facets, as intricately perfect as the inner mechanism of a clock. The next piece Elton-Berg is a bold concept, rerunning the same (more or less) dance to different music, first Alban Berg, then Elton John, to show how much sound can affect the choreographic look. We'd all long known it could, but it took Béjart's inspired decision to demonstrate how much. So, where with Berg the action seemed drily scattered and baffling, with John it became sexier. And suddenly I could see a possible subtext of male rivalry for the single woman (Karline Marion) manipulated between two men, while Julien Favreau stands frustrated behind a door frame, hands pressing against invisible glass.

With Boléro it was back to a huge regiment of dancers and quintessential Béjartian spectacle. Elisabet Ros stood on the giant round table, a human stylus trapped in its groove, pounding out the same basic phrase to Ravel's own repetitions. The horde of men watching gradually close in, their arms reaching toward her like the teeth of a voracious mouth closing shut. It's outrageous and vulgar. Yet the theatrical charge is undeniable and it's what audiences come to Béjart for.

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