The vigour and athleticism of Béjart’s choreography impresses in Paris

FranceFrance Maurice Béjart – Firebird, The Song of the Wayfarer, Bolero: Dancers of the Ballet de L’Opéra, Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Patrick Lange (conductor). Opéra Bastille, Paris, 21.4.2023. (JO’D)

The Song of the Wayfarer: Germain Louvet and Hugo Marchand © Yonathan Kellerman

With its vast auditorium and exceptionally tall proscenium arch, the egalitarian Opéra Bastille makes an appropriate setting for work by French choreographer Maurice Béjart, one of whose aims in the middle of the twentieth century was to ‘democratise dance’. Work in which, according to the programme note by Ariane Dollfus, ‘overall effects’ often take precedence over the choreography. Choreography which manages to stand out, even so, for its ‘vigour and athleticism’, and for the ‘imposing masculine presence’ it contains.

It may have been the overall effects of Firebird (1970), the first ballet on this triple bill, that whetted the audience’s appetite for Maurice Béjart. And those of Bolero (1961), the third, that brought it to a standing ovation. But The Song of the Wayfarer (1971) in between, a ballet with no more in the way of effects than the two male dancers who perform it, made its own deep impression through a sense of intimacy, anxiety and unease. All the music (Stravinsky, Mahler and Ravel) was characterfully played by the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris under Patrick Lange.

Premiered at the Palais des Sports in Paris, to a suite for orchestra Stravinsky composed in 1945, Firebird presents two groups of dancers: the Partisans and the Birds. The former wear uniforms of drab blue-grey; the latter, who appear as the music begins its ascent to a climax, resemble überathletes in cut-away unitards of bright red. Within the groups are the Firebird (Mathieu Ganio, an imposing masculine presence in himself) and the Phoenix (an athlete-like Florimond Lorieux). The ballet ends in a complex configuration that brings the two groups, and the two men, together.

Bolero: Amandine Albisson © Laurent Philippe

The standing ovation for Bolero came after Amandine Albisson performed an intense, sixteen-minute-long solo, on a circular table surrounded by forty bare-chested male dancers. Starting with the soloist’s hand revealed out of darkness in a sliver of light, the piece follows the rhythmic progression of Ravel’s music from contained gesture to ecstatic frenzy. There are similarities to Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring (as there were in Firebird), a version of which Béjart choreographed himself in 1959. In this case, however, it is not clear if the climax is one of death or sex. If sex (whether the piece is performed with female or male soloist), it can’t be anything but rape.

Bolero may have been one of the ballets that caused Maurice Béjart to be described as ‘meretricious’ and ‘a controversial figure among more discriminating ballet-goers’. There is nothing meretricious or controversial about the The Song of the Wayfarer. To Mahler sung by an offstage baritone (Sean Michael Plumb) two men interact, as lovers it sometimes seems, but also perhaps as contrasting forces, contrasting selves.

Hugo Marchand, in a bodysuit of mauve, presents a taller, bigger-built figure than Germain Louvet, in pale blue. Why does Louvet’s body seem to crumple or buckle, three times, as he stands face to face with his partner? Why does he kiss his hand and wave into the distance as at some person, or state, that cannot be reached? Is Marchand, leading him away upstage at the end, also the father who was, according to Ariane Dollfus, for Maurice Béjart ‘une référence absolue’?

John O’Dwyer

Choreography – Maurice Béjart
Music – Igor Stravinsky, Suite for Orchestra
Dancers – Mathieu Ganio, Florimond Lorieux

The Song of the Wayfarer
Choreography – Maurice Béjart
Music – Gustav Mahler, Songs of the Wayfarer
Baritone – Sean Michael Plumb
Dancers – Germain Louvet, Hugo Marchand

Choreography, Set and Costumes – Maurice Béjart
Music – Maurice Ravel
Dancers – Amandine Albisson, Florent Melac, Florimond Lorieux

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