Among the immortal choreographers I don’t know many who are as tightly connected to their era as Maurice Béjart, someone who can be interpreted and appreciated only in his own cultural historical milieu. With Gil Roman as artistic director the company as a worthy successor is trying, attempting to make the work of the master timeless and universal by systematically reinvigorating the pieces and touring with them – at the moment we find eleven (and a half) Béjart-choreographies in their repertoire. My not at all frequent encounters with these often 20-30-40 year old works make me say: these resuscitations are mostly awkward, if not painfully disheartening, and on the long run do more to devaluate than glorify this eminent oeuvre.
Exceptions are of course always to be found: the extravagant dance mosaic created to the music of Queen and Mozart, Ballet for Life (1996), which can be seen as a manifesto for freedom, defies time, and the legendary Bolero (1961) stood its ground at the age of fifty on the Szeged Open-Air Stage. The Magic Flute from 1981 that has been renewed twice (2003, 2017) is on the other hand the bitter pill, and its aged approach and choreographic language is only one reason, albeit a crucial one.
I go on about dates and the “viability” of the performances to drive a point home. Béjart knew his profession, he was aware that ballet is an ephemeral genre of the present tense, and he was wise enough to have declared several times: he does not want his ballets to be performed after his death. Whether the company went against his wishes or he had revoked his earlier statements will remain a secret forever. What we know for certain is that the already mentioned former great dancer and current artistic director, Gil Roman, a man who allegedly was anointed by the master himself on his deathbed in 2007, plays a huge role and has a lot of responsibility in maintaining this anachronistic status quo. As a mediocre choreographer hardly in the international spotlight, Roman tries to survive and to keep the company alive by pushing forward like a battering ram the Béjart repertoire, at least its more memorable pieces that have seen better days.
Many issues could be raised regarding The Magic Flute, there are many reasons why it was a blunder to renew this piece of all pieces last year, but the most prominent is Béjart’s frightening lack of sensible thoughts on Mozart’s opera. He ignores the deeper strata of the play, he does not care about the productive contradictions cyphered into the libretto and the music, contradictions that led to countless debates and interpretations, he does not strive for anything more subtle than a two dimensional depiction of the characters. There is no trace of personal reading, taking a stance, raising questions. Even the free mason mystery that is deemed to be one of the cardinal points of the opera is for him more of an easily visualized set of symbols than a philosophy. He is interested in one thing and one thing only, and his obstinacy is unyielding: to unravel the plot in a clear and easy manner. I must dishearten those who think this is an achievement in itself: it is far from uplifting to watch the opera of Schikaneder and Mozart as a simple, or even simplistic tale on the ballet stage.
For Béjart simply provides a simultaneous interpretation of The Magic Flute, creating a one-to-one mapping from the characters of the opera and the music to dancers and movements. We only hear the singers (from a recording), and we see the dancers, and this mapping is so subservient, precise and accurate that the viewer recoils from it – there is no playfulness, no (self-)reflection, only discipline, strain, accomplishment. If someone sings a solo, there is a single dancer, if we hear a trio, three people give their best on the stage. Only in the case of a chorus is the rule broken, as we have to wait until the opening duet of Sarastro and Pamina to see the first crowd. The whole thing is like invisible singers moving giant puppets on invisible strings.
What we see during the overture is relatively crisp, and signifies something totally different. We see flesh-and-blood human beings, not characters: dancers, the whole company, populate the stage in loose tracksuit outfits as if after warm-up, and sit down in anticipation. One of them, the narrator-to-be lies in the middle of the space in a rite of passage posture, with arms outspread, face to the ground. This is symbolic: he is waiting, we are waiting for the ritual to start. The ritual, which was always a key word for Béjart, what’s more, the only synonym of dance. And then we hear the singers, the dancers pant closely in their tracks, and the whole ritual goes up in smoke.
The tests (fire, water) that the lovers must pass are inauthentic in terms of both the scenery and the choreography. They are parades with large sheets and a lot of face paint, lacking all excitement and magic. Plasticity or effervescence is far from Béjart’s characters: the most important quality of the lovers is mush, Sarastro strides elegantly in his golden mantle, Papageno’s appearance and character verges on imbecility, the Queen of the Night is covered in icy blue, Monostatos’s haggardness is helped by body paint and he assumes a grim mood with his steely countenance, but at least in him there is some dynamite. The role of the narrator is awful to begin with, and to top it all, not only does he help to understand the story, he further interprets this interpretation to dance for us.
We can count on one hand the ideas that add anything to the basic weaving of the plot. When Papageno is caught lying, his feet are padlocked instead of his mouth, which is funny. As opposed to others, the Queen of the Night and her three companions use the pointe technique to signal their fairy-world elevation. The three child ghosts also declare being from another world: with a bunch of colourful balloons. When the armed men attacking Tamino with a rope hear the magic flute, they first start to jump rope, and then tie themselves up instead of the young man looking for his love. But in spite of the fairy tale world, the performance cannot lift off the ground, and it also lacks the dancer personalities that characterized the Béjart era.
Translated by Péter Papolczy.