What happens when word gets out

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

Word clearly got out about Ballet for Life, the Béjart Ballet Lausanne's 1997 spectacle dedicated to those who have died of Aids or other premature causes. Half of London seemed to be there, for warming by the music of Queen and stirring by Maurice Béjart's declamatory imagery. Say what you will about the posturing choreography, where arms are forever flung, fingers splayed, and each movement smacks into your face as if made for a stadium. It is the equivalent of a massive rock-show, strident lighting effects and all, yet it is not inappropriate given that one subject is Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, who died of Aids.

Word clearly got out about Ballet for Life, the Béjart Ballet Lausanne's 1997 spectacle dedicated to those who have died of Aids or other premature causes. Half of London seemed to be there, for warming by the music of Queen and stirring by Maurice Béjart's declamatory imagery. Say what you will about the posturing choreography, where arms are forever flung, fingers splayed, and each movement smacks into your face as if made for a stadium. It is the equivalent of a massive rock-show, strident lighting effects and all, yet it is not inappropriate given that one subject is Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, who died of Aids.

Béjart works like a poster artist expressing concepts in attention-grabbing pictures. He presents a series of episodes, linked - often with witty visual references - to the Queen songs. It opens with an all-white tableau of dancers laid out under shrouds that become bed-sheets for awakening sleepers when the chords of "It's a Beautiful Day" break out, the lyrics breezing with a go-getting appetite for life. The same tableau closes the evening, and in between we enter a limbo-land, where the wind whistles and Mozart - another who died young - sometimes plays. It is populated by exciting massed lines of dancers or desultory incarnations wandering on and off like characters who have lost the play they belong to. Gil Roman is an overseeing Fate figure who dances solos to Mozart, bringing charisma to his splashy tacked-together poses.

Julien Favreau is an echo of Freddie Mercury, arriving in an assortment of rock-star outfits. A winged angel appears, a demure veiled bride, a collection of bathing belles and beaux. The costumes are by Gianni Versace whose own life was to be cut short soon after.

The gurneys wheeled round by morgue attendants and Romeo and Juliet dancing on them have a rasping grotesqueness which only Béjart can achieve. But there are also gently beautiful ingredients, such as the globes carried by the dancers to "You Take My Breath Away" as if they were bubbles of air. Inevitably the most moving section is a projected film, to "I Want to Break Free", of Jorge Donn, Béjart's friend and star-dancer who also died of Aids, seen in various close-ups, particularly in his role of Béjart's Nijinsky, Clown of God.

"You told us to make love, not war" says Roman into a mike. Yet the ballet has a celebratory verve and it declares faith in life. Best of all is the choreographed curtain call to "The Show Must Go On". That old magician Béjart stands in a solitary spotlight to embrace each returning dancer and leads them en masse in a slow advance to the front of the stage.

The double entendre with the song is blatant, the image of indomitable human spirit unsubtle. But how theatrical, how potent, how irresistible. No wonder the whole audience, clapping in rhythm, leapt ecstatically to their feet.

Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, 020-7863 8000, to 30 Sept

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