Lausanne, Theatre Vidy
28 May 2002
Bejart and I don't normally get on. Well that's actually putting it rather politely. Two of my worst ever nights have involved Bejart when the company visited London in the 90's - tedious, pretentious, endless... I walked away both times at the earliest opportunity. I'm not exactly unique in the UK in not understanding Bejart (note the creeping in of a conciliatory tone here!) and yet on the continent he is feted and loved as a popularist of ballet and dance.
I've always been intrigued by his ability over the years to fill entire stadiums and send people home singing in the streets - as he did a very young Tamara Rojo for one. And if there is one thing we need in Britain it's to make ballet and dance more popular. So why on earth Bejart, with his strong dramatic and theatrical roots that the British adore, is not more warmly welcomed is a conundrum. Perhaps it's our failure to recognise success unless it comes wrapped in a particular straightjacket?
For some time I've wanted to see Bejart on home turf, in the company's base of Lausanne: I wanted to soak up the atmosphere and understand more. However on this occasion I didn't see the whole company but Maina Gielgud making a return to dancing and with a company she first joined in 1967 before eventually going on to direct Australian Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet and Boston Ballet. I interviewed Gielgud recently (it's yet to appear), an amazingly fit lady with eyes that grab you and speak of great drama - I just had to see her perform I thought. "But in Bejart!?", said the tiny little voice at the back of my head!
And so to Luton, Easyjet (great if full at 06:30 in the morning!), Geneva, Swiss Federal Railways (punctual, clean, fast and bliss) I found myself in Lausanne - "Home of the Olympics" - on the shore of Lake Geneva, with clean air and views to the mountains. It's a posh place too with a Louis Vuitton store and ladies with minute pampered dogs under their arms. Theatre Vidy is down on the shore of the lake, a modern black functional warehouse of a space. The stage is wide, with excellent sightlines from the single tier of banked stalls and lots of room to mingle in the very large bar - or you can walk out onto the grass and enjoy the splendid view. Ten out of ten for location I can tell you.
Gielgud was dancing (with Martyn Fleming) in L'heure exquise, subtitled "Variations on the theme of Happy Days by Samuel Beckett". In it the central ballerina is getting through her day by alternately grinning and grimly doing what she does each day merely to get through to the next. Each day a sham. In her absent-minded happiness and despair she is occasionally supported by a clown-like character who carts her around (as baggage), lifts her and manipulates her. In the play she was Winnie and he Willie, her rather detached husband.
The set, following the play's tradition for a pile of some metaphorical objects, consists here of a pile of used pointe shoes. At 6 feet high by 20 feet in diameter it's a hell of a pile and alone in the middle of it Gielgud is first spied. Its her lot and a position she returns to repeatedly. It's a rather amazing sight and the more so when the pile parts to let her out to perform at the front of the stage. It's a piece for a senior ballerina who can act - "Dance is my Life" it shrieks in so many ways.
At first Gielgud dances in bare feet but then we see her put on the pointe shoes (I realised for the first time I'd never seen a dancer actually do this before) and then in fleeting moments goes full on pointe, arabesques, pirouettes etc. What legs too, as she lies on her back and does an upside-down walk. Bejart's movement is humanitarian, fun, not heavy ballet. There are quirks in the choreography like people have quirks, and it chimes with real life rather than high art. There is singing, occasional reflections on the dancer's life (thanks to Rachel for the real-time translations), ballet, bar work and looking as ballerinas should: wonderful, no matter what life has thrown at you that day. It's Gielgud's show and her dramatic magnetism is considerable. Those eyes speak of the inner Winnie's fragile existence. No younger dancer could compete with this and it makes a strong case for work especially commissioned for older dancers.
Goodness only knows what I will make of a full Bejart night and I'll see one before too long in Lausanne I hope, but I thank him and Gielgud for a night of dance that was captivating, and uniquely enjoyable. It's a treasure of a piece/performance and I hope it tours far.
L'heure exquise is in rep at the Theatre Vidy, Lausanne until the 16th June.
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