Given its rise to global fame, it is easy to forget that Ravel’s Boléro was born as a dance score. Commissioned by Ballets Russes dancer Ida Rubinstein, it has been choreographed again and again since 1928, with mixed results. Its structure is daunting – repetitive and supposedly unsubtle, yet building up the tension to an explosive, almost diabolical finale. The Göteborg Ballet, the latest company to experiment with the 18-minute score, brought in no fewer than three Scandinavian choreographers to help. 3xBoléro or not, however, the programme they performed in Lyon provided precious little insight into Ravel’s enduring creation.
There was no need at least to fear a Boléro overkill, for only one of the three works, Johan Inger’s Walking Mad, used the score in its entirety. Created for the Nederlands Dans Theater in 2001, it is mostly derivative of the Dutch company’s style, with a smooth classical base and modern dance-inspired weight placement. A foldable wooden wall provides doors, fences and metaphorical barriers to nine restless characters, and from playful chase to angst-ridden pas de deux, Walking Mad covers impressive emotional ground with acute timing. It fails, however, to go beyond the surface rhythm of Boléro, and the addition of Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina to the score is unfortunate; currently the default soundtrack for sentimental pas de deux across the world, it is as spare as Boléro is bombastic and cheapens Inger’s overall concept.
The other two works were created for this programme in 2008, and they could hardly be more contrasting. Kenneth Kvarnström’s OreloB, set to an original score by Jukka Rintamäki, is as sleek and glossy as a perfume commercial, and has roughly the same impact on the audience. His five dancers, fitted with runway-worthy collars, look like futuristic crows as they go from one icy pose to the next, oblivious to the music and each other. Rintamäki’s electronic impression of Ravel, stripping Boléro down to its pounding, inexorable beat, had more to say about the theme of the evening and deserved less indifferent choreography.
Alexander Ekman uses very little music in Episode 17, but he has done his Boléro homework better than Inger or Kvarnström. At 26, this Royal Swedish Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater alumnus has an innate gift for comedy, and his vignettes, delightfully absurd as they mock Ravel’s big hit, are impossible to resist. We see dancers in wigs following the lead of a TV host and crouching to the beat of a syrupy version of Boléro – elsewhere, they are taught to look at the audience seductively, ridiculing the score’s sexual overtones. Episode 17 loses sight of Ravel in the second half but Ekman’s goofy theatricality brings out the best in the Göteborg Ballet, a company still looking for its contemporary identity.