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Paul Ben-Itzak
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
Palais des Sports
Paris, OT (France)

Beware the Competition - Bejart Ballet Lausanne: A concourse, a murder, an inspector, suspects, an ornery dance critic….

by Paul Ben-Itzak
June 5, 2009
Palais des Sports
Porte de Versailles
Paris, OT (France) 75015
PARIS — Okay, so I'm trying to figure out why Maurice Bejart's "Le Concours," a satire about a literally murderous ballet competition which thrilled me on the Paris Opera Ballet a few years ago, left me stone cold the second time around, when the late legend's own company Bejart Ballet Lausanne performed the evening-length work June 5 at the colossal Palais des Sports.

It could be the industrial setting of the Palais des Sports, a dome-shaped building in a complex of exhibition halls on the outskirts of Paris that seems more appropriate to a rock concert by, say, French idol Johnny Hallyday than a dance performance, even by this hugely popular company. (That popularity may be diminishing just a little in the wake of the death of the founding choreographer; the hall was only three-quarters full for this opening-night performance.) It might even be that a careless publicist placed me way out in left field where I initially couldn't see the whole stage. (Defying a squad of fearsome ushers, I moved over once the lights went down.) But the most likely explanation is that not having been to a ballet performance in a couple of years (not because of any aversion to the form, which I love), and having seen a dozen more or less reality-based modern works in the past month, I was unprepared for the artifice and the degree of suspension of disbelief that narrative ballet demands, and that this 1985 work by the most emotive ballet choreographer of the late 20th century was not a great candidate for my re-immersion, being itself a silly satire of silly ballet conventions.

What sinks "The Concours" is not that it's a satirical look at an international ballet competition which melds into a murder mystery when one of the competitors is shot. (Enter the Inspector, confidently and winningly played, and danced, by Julian Favreau, previously an electrifying Freddy Mercury in Bejart's "Le Presbytere") No, what sinks this two-hour intermission-less ballet is that the satire quickly devolves into stereotype. I might be sensitive here because I am an American, but the lines, mock-hysterical interpretation and above all accent of the woman playing the American competition judge, Elisabet Ros, were simply atrocious. It's not so much that Bejart spoofs Americans — the Russian and Japanese judges (though, ahem, not so much the French one) are also pigeon-holed. (It's a good thing that Michelle Robinson Obama, spotted down the road at the Eiffel Tower with her daughters earlier in the day, did not decide to cap it off with this show; we might have had another international incident on the eve of the 65th anniversary of D-Day.) No, it's that the skewering is not even original. At one point, Ros inexplicably recites "A rose is a rose is a rose" over and over and over again, in inflections, up to the level of ear-piercing screams, that I guess are supposed to be funny but which are ultimately just annoying.

The six people suspected of killing the competitor, Ada, are almost as bad in their one-dimensionality; there's the girl's would-be ballerina mother, frustrated because she didn't have a boy; her teacher, angered that the girl left her school; a t.v. dance show host (also ill-served by the interpreter's horrible French accent) who's annoyed because Ada tried to infiltrate an all-boy routine dressed as one; a show business personality (whatever that means), irked because he got rejected; a magician upset because Ada saved a man he'd hypnotized from humiliation; and her boyfriend, who doesn't really seem to have a reason for killing his beloved (with whom he dances a sublime pas de deux…. Yes, when he sticks to choreography, Bejart leaves just about all his peers but Balanchine in the dust with his inventiveness and full exploitation of the whole body. (At this point, if you don't want to know whodunit you should jump to the next paragraph.) But the best — as the French say when they mean the opposite — is that no clues are given beforehand that her real killer, her best friend, had a monstrous envy of Ada.

Where Bejart manages to successfully meld ballet and detective story is in his detailed movement for the Inspector, which makes it a real dancing role but doesn't get so fru-fru as to make the character of a dancing cop seem unbelievable. Determinedly masculine, it includes an angled sort of walk — angled in the dancer's joints, particularly the knees, but also in the way he marches in straight lines. Interstices of pirouettes also help. Here the interpreter gets a lot of the credit. Fauvreau imbues the pirouettes — and some barrel turns, too — with enough masculine confidence that they serve as an indicator of the Inspector's mastery, but stops short of giving them so much brio he'd seem more ballerino than detective and would harm his credibility.

Indeed, when I think of it, if there are two factors which keep us somewhat anchored in and engaged by the story, notwithstanding the "American" judge's increasingly spastic appearances, they would be the dancing and acting of Fauvreau and the evening's other star, Kateryna Shalkina in the role of Ada. The plot is set up so that the Inspector investigates by effectively going back into the past and observing Ada's tension-filled interactions with the six suspects. What this means is that the dancer playing Ada has to really make us believe she has enough strength of character and force to have annoyed all these people in so little time. Shalkina brings the fortified physique and evidently potent force to convince us that she really tangled with all these people (well, except the boyfriend, whose potential culpability is never adequately explained). But if we're to fully sense the tragedy of her loss — and care at all about the chase for her killer — her dancing has to convey the real loss of that her death represents, and here too she's pristine, fluid, steady, deep and above all lyrical.

I'd just like to see Shalkina — and for that matter, the ebullient Bejart Ballet Lausanne corps, the most energetic and engaged in ballet — in a pure dance piece that didn't have the freight of a trite plot and tired caricatures. I wish that Bejart's able and devoted successor, Gil Roman, had left the dance competition behind in Lausanne and brought another pure dance piece to Paris. (Bejart Ballet Lausanne will also be performing "Around the World in 80 Minutes," the last work conceived and begun by Bejart before he passed in the fall of 2007, in the Palais des Sports, June 11 - 13.)
The Japanese and American judges in Maurice Bejart's 'Le Concours' on Bejart Ballet Lausanne. Photo courtesy Bejart Ballet Lausanne.

The Japanese and American judges in Maurice Bejart's "Le Concours" on Bejart Ballet Lausanne.
Photo courtesy Bejart Ballet Lausanne.

Photo © & courtesy of Swissmodelling

Ada (the Victim) and the Inspector in Maurice Bejart's 'Le Concours' on Bejart Ballet Lausanne. Photo courtesy Bejart Ballet Lausanne.

Ada (the Victim) and the Inspector in Maurice Bejart's "Le Concours" on Bejart Ballet Lausanne.
Photo courtesy Bejart Ballet Lausanne.

Photo © & courtesy of Swissmodelling

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