MAURICE Bejart is a choreographer who thinks in capital letters, so his 65-minute ballet Opera is not just about dancing to a string of Verdi highlights. It is (according to his programme note) about Art, Religion and Politics - and the Soul of Italy too.
Italy, for Bejart, also means the films of Pasolini. So alongside the various opera characters who fill the stage, there's a chorus of gritty urban types from early Pasolini movies, a few peasant disciples from The Gospel According to St Matthew plus, at various points, a gaggle of Popes and monks, some Renaissance ladies and a Salome who crops up fondling John the Baptist's head.
This ill-assorted crew racket around the stage in a very Italian manner - which means that they rant, fornicate, fight and pitch their encounters in high tragic mode. It's all very silly, grandiose and chaotic and it would even be pleasurable if the dancing was not so frustratingly mediocre. Bejart has some marvellous performers in his company and when you see them move a little, you want to see much more. Infuriatingly, he's so busy chasing after cosmic ideas, or straining after sensational effects that too much of the choreography trails weakly behind - emptily, repetitively rhetorical, skimpily conceived.
There's much that's also choreographically routine in Bejart's version of the Bartok ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. But the work also displays two strokes of genius - showing that Bejart's errant theatrical instincts can sometimes, brilliantly, hit the mark. Firstly he casts the Mandarin as a high-minded follower of Mao rather than a mysterious exotic - thus making the character seem peculiarly, even magically, alien among the ballet's cast of crooks. Secondly Bejart has the lead Girl played by a man (Koen Onzia) which means that the seamy viciousness of the character acquires extra violence and threat. It also sets up a profound sense of unease, for the girl is not just being manipulated by her pimp to rob her clients, she is queasy and equivocal in her role as a woman as well. Onzia shows us all these things in a performance of frightening, ugly virtuosity and for once Bejart's choreography does justice to his dancer. Images of imprisonment and flight, of tenderness and degradation, of revulsion and sex are graphically and disturbingly inscribed in his / her movement, giving us a glimpse of the genuine subversive that Bejart might be if only he could focus his sights.
After the blood, guts and bombast of Bejart's work, Laurie Booth's River Run seems the more chastely and the more rigorously lovely. As the title intimates, the dance goes on a kind of voyage - through a landscape provided by Anish Kapoor's simple but haunting set. Half a dozen pure white corrugated forms drift on the dark stage like the arctic palaces of a race of Snow Queens. Michael Kull's lighting casts a thin silvery light, deepening into black and crimson shadow. And Hans Peter Kuhn's masterly sound collage sets up a rich aural drama. In the background are the clanks and chugs of a boat travelling through night, overlaid by the sound of rushing winds, stray dogs barking, drifting voices and the melodious chanting of fragments from Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.
Booth and his four dancers travel through this landscape in 65 minutes of seamless dance. All the deep familiar pleasures of his movement are present - the resonant hieratic gestures, the spectacular flying and tumbling partnerwork. Yet there's a growing classicism at work, too, in the way the dancers' limbs angle into linear geometries and the way they cluster into measured symmetries that counterpoint the delicate sculptural masses of the set.
So strong is this new sense of composition that the other familiar aspect of Booth's dance - its semi-improvised basis - works less well. Parts of the piece are set, others are clearly off the cuff. When the latter succeed (duets between Booth and Jo Chandler, Booth and Ellen van Schuylenberch) you watch breathless as the movement simply invents itself. When they don't, the sense of missed opportunities and ragged forms jars against the clarity of the rest. You feel this most when the piece opens out in a final joyous dance of arrival and where the impromptu partnerwork looks hesitant against the surge of triumphal brass in the music. Despite this tailing away, however, River Run remains a ravishing work. Its only London dates, typically, have been two nights at the QEH - it should be on long-term exhibition at the Hayward Gallery next door.
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