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May 7, 2012 5:51 pm
Ballet is in a difficult place in Italy. Hit by recent funding cuts to opera houses, marginalised on the world stage, Italian companies seem unsure where to go from here. The Rome Opera Ballet is one of them: former ballerina Carla Fracci, who had breathed some life into the classics, was ousted as artistic director amid relative indifference in 2010. No artistic vision has emerged since, and last weekend the company paid a welcome but unfocused tribute to French choreographer Maurice Béjart, who passed away five years ago.
Symphonie pour un homme seul is a very early example of his choreographic gifts. Created in 1955, this one-act work is a new generation’s answer to Roland Petit’s 1946 Le Jeune homme et la Mort. In lieu of an elaborate set, ropes prefigure the hero’s ultimate suicide; his existential angst is fuelled by an increasingly alienated, mechanical world moving to Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s absurdist musique concrète.
The sharp, strangely musical choreography deserves another look, and two guests from the Paris Opera Ballet, Nicolas Le Riche and Clairemarie Osta, performed the lead roles with gusto. The diminutive Osta is due to retire at the end of the season, and her wit and cool musicality in neoclassical choreography will be much missed – as the Woman who drives Le Riche to his death, she was an enigmatic presence, alluring, cruel and fully in control of the difficult score.
With Gaîté Parisienne suite, a zany coming-of-age ballet created in 1978, we meet a different Béjart. The hero, Bim, sets out to learn ballet in Paris, and on the way encounters Offenbach, Napoleon, a couple straight from Balanchine’s Apollo and scores of dancers in Fame-style attire. Highbrow meets lowbrow throughout, and while the dancing was only adequate, Gaîté, with its Offenbach score and cancan scenes, shows exactly why the French choreographer was once considered the pop star of dance.
There is more to this partly autobiographical piece, however. As often, Béjart pushes the cause of male dancing: in a nod to Sleeping Beauty, Bim’s cradle is blessed by fairies, but his guardian angels turn out to be virtuoso men in black and white. Bim’s relationship with Madame, the ballet teacher who admonishes him in Italian, Russian and French, is also a lovely touch. After her death, Bim is left alone on an empty stage, only to start another cycle where every dancer’s day begins: with a simple plié exercise.
The evening was prefaced by two choreographic tributes to Béjart: Micha van Hoecke’s Grand Rythme, an unfortunate balletic haka involving Rome Opera Ballet School students squatting and grunting, and Maguy Marin’s 1986 duo Eden. Neither did much for our understanding of Béjart’s works, and smarter programming may be in order to fill the Teatro dell’Opera, sadly half-empty for this bill.
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