Béjart’s spellbinding Les Chaises headlines Programme B of the 16th World Ballet Festival on demand

Programme B
(Programme A)
Streaming by Japan Performing Arts Foundation (NBS) to January 10, 2022

For all the earlier fireworks of the gala favourites in the second programme of the 16th World Ballet Festival, the most interesting work without doubt is the revival of Maurice Béjart’s 25-minute pas de deux, Les Chaises that closes the performance. Based on the play by Eugène Ionesco and set to the Prelude and ”Liebestod’ from Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, it was originally created in 1981 for himself and Laura Proença. Most well-known, however, is the pairing of Marcia Haydée and John Neumeier, who performed a revised version for many years from 1984.

Melancholy is writ through the deeply touching ballet, which combines spoken word and dance as it deals with old age and the unavoidable passing of time. Alessandra Ferri and present Béjart Ballet Lausanne artistic director Gil Roman are perfect as the old couple residing in a dream world of empty chairs, where they hold a gathering for imaginary guests, talking of and reliving days long passed, until they finally walk off, presumably to death.

Madoka Sugai and Daniil Simkin in Grand pas classique
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

Roman is a fine actor. He speaks the lines from the play clearly, but best is the way he suggests an inability to communicate in any coherent sense with his partner, as Ionescu intended. Ferri is the powerful presence you would expect. Her dancing is exquisite, her classical lines still pinpoint clear, but even when she’s just rushing round the stage rearranging the chairs, you can’t take your eyes off her. Les Chaises is far from the usual gala fare, but a work I would definitely like to see live sometime.

Back to the beginning, and Programme B gets off to a fine classical start with Madoka Sugai (Hamburg Ballet) and Daniil Simkin (American Ballet Theatre and Staatsballett Berlin) in that gala perennial: Victor Gsovsky’s Grand pas classique.

Marcelo Gomes in Still of King by Jorma Elo
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

In his post pas de deux interview, Simkin made the point that, there really is nowhere to hide in it, “It’s either clean or it’s not.” It’s not just clean, it’s sparkling. Normally, it’s the virtuosic fireworks that one remembers but, here, the adagio moments are just as dramatic. Sugai’s balances are so finely on pointe you feel she could stay there for ever. Her pirouettes and a series of turning ballonnés are stunning too. As a partner, Simkin was all you could ask for, while also sailing through his own tours and batterie.

Set to the first movement of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 in G major (Military), Jorma Elo’s Still of King is a witty, tongue-in-cheek look at the princely role that, in the past at least, was so often relegated to male dancers. Marcelo Gomes (Dresden Semperoper Ballett), on whom it was created ten years ago, draws you in. Constantly shifting between subtle parody (often using those regal ballet gestures we take for granted) and exploding with energy and fine technique, it’s great fun.

From there it is to a rather more conventional prince in the shape of Vadim Muntagirov (The Royal Ballet) being led deliciously into temptation by Elisa Badenes (The Stuttgart Ballet) in the Black Swan Pas de deux from Swan Lake. It was something of a last-minute partnership after Muntagirov was left without a partner, not that you could tell.

Afterwards, Muntagirov speaks about the conditions under which the dancers had to live in Japan. He explains that all they saw were hotel and theatre, and not allowed to go out at all. Understandable perhaps, but “It’s just a little bit sad,” he says in something of an understatement.

Elisa Badenes and Vadim Muntagirov in the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

A very different mood is evoked by Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, performed by Amandine Albisson and Mathieu Ganio (both Paris Opera Ballet). Although there seems to be a romantic narrative not far beneath its surface, the first movement cool, controlled and reserved in every sense, the barre that is constantly between the dancers a very physical and visible expression of the constraints that hold them back. It does warm up along with the moods of Sergei Rachmaninov’s score, though, and by the closing third movement is quite joyous, her finally carried off overhead as if riding a wave of happiness. Albisson and Ganio get Stevenson’s classical shapes and lines spot on.

It might not have quite the excitement that Kimin Kim and Ekaterina Krysanova produce in Programme A, but more Parisian elegance followed in a second look at the Le Corsaire pas de deux (it also appeared on Programme A), this time with Hannah O’Neill and Mathias Heymann.

Alexandr Trusch and Madoka Sugai in ‘I Got Rhythm’
from John Neumeier’s Shall We Dance
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

Memories of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers flood back with the lively and sophisticated ‘I Got Rhythm’ from John Neumeier’s Shall We Dance, a celebration of Broadway and American style, delivered with perfect ease and nonchalance by Sugai and Alexandr Trusch of Hamburg Ballet

The line-up completes with fireworks aplenty from Ekaterina Krysanova (The Bolshoi Ballet) and Kimin Kim (Mariinsky Ballet) in that old gala favourite, the Grand pas de deux from Don Quixote. Kim soars so high on some of his leaps that it’s scarcely believable, while Krysanova’s fouettés are not only taken at warp speed but are spot on too. But as superb as they are, it’s that closing Les Chaises that really stays in the memory.

Presented by the Japan Performing Arts Foundation, The World Ballet Festival is available online to January 10, 2022. Tickets cost ¥6,000 for one programme or ¥11,000 for both, plus a fee ¥420 (approximately £46.20 and £72.80 respectively), available from www.nbs.or.jp.