Spectacle on a grand scale: Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Maurice Béjart’s The Ninth Symphony

June 11, 2020

David Mead

It’s a brave choreographer who turns to a Beethoven symphony for his first full-length work but that’s precisely what Maurice Béjart did in 1964. His The Ninth Symphony was to have been performed live this month at the Vaudoise Arena in Lausanne-Malley in Switzerland. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been postponed to 2021. However, that same crisis led to Béjart Ballet Lausanne streaming it recently, allowing a wider audience a look at what is dance and music on a truly spectacular scale.

Béjart described the four movements as earth and the struggle to reach an ideal, fire and the joy of dance, water and love, and liberty and air. The colour palettes of each: brown, red, white and orange/yellow reflect that. The choreography largely feels purely an interpretation of Beethoven’s music, however, although the opening spoken text from Nietzsche and those usually found in programme notes also suggest a theme of universal brotherhood and coming together.

It all takes place on a striking floor design reminiscent of a celestial diagram that’s full of geometric patterns, lines and circles of different diameters.

In this 2014 recording from Tokyo’s NHK Hall, The Tokyo Ballet perform the first movement, Béjart Ballet Lausanne the second and third, before all join for the fourth movement.

After Gil Roman’s speech, occasionally interrupted by powerful African drumming, the first dancers appear as the Beethoven strikes up. In earthy colours, there is a suggestion of beings coming to life.

Béjart Ballet Lausanne in The Ninth SymphonyPhoto Gregory Batardon
Béjart Ballet Lausanne in The Ninth Symphony
Photo Gregory Batardon

Here, as in the second movement, it does often feel that ballet is a mere visual exposé of the music. Béjart floods the stage with dancers who form harmonic groupings that create a physical majesty wedded the music. There’s a sense of yearning and struggle. The women, seemingly devoid of life, are carried. The men perform multiple double tours into deep pliés. It is powerful, almost militaristic at times. The men are especially powerful as strong arms and clenched fists abound. Unusually, the men also outdo the women in their unison work, which is quite outstanding.

The second movement is youthful. With the colour palette now red, a male opening solo (sadly, soloists were not named by section) is lighter and full of quick footwork. Hints of folk dance in patterning and movement too. As he is joined by the others, again it is a triumph of numbers. It almost feels like Béjart decided that was the only way to match the power of the score was to flood the stage with bodies. It does feel like a throwback to the symphonic ballets of the 1930s, though. Subtle it is not. They are fantastic bodies, though, jumping and turning multiple times with ease.

The third movement adagio is an oasis of calm; a dance of control and elegance. A duet is full of tenderness, the white of the dancers’ costumes indicating purity. At last the choreography feels more inventive. Freed from the clutches of the music, the dance becomes an equal partner to the music which is no longer absolute master. That dance is intimate in the sense of being physically close but not romantic. As feet flex and point and heads turn in unison or towards one another, it’s more about common understanding. I couldn’t help feeling it a shame that Béjart didn’t just leave it as a pas de deux, however. The addition of two mirroring couples is unnecessary.

So to the fourth movement, ‘Ode to Joy’. An opening male solo is full of virtuoso dance (the men do seem to get all the best parts) before he is joined by the three lead men from the preceding movements. We are back to the power of numbers as, slowly, the stage is filled. One of the advantages of video is that you can stop and count. I made it 68 dancers.

In their golden yellow they form lines and circles. A particularly powerful moment comes when they hold hands and walk slowly and purposely forward to the words of “all men become brothers”. That we are all brothers and sisters; there’s a pertinent message right now.

Finally, and in a thrilling finale, circles form inside circles. The dancers run in their concentric circles, holding hands, while a woman stands centre, arms stretched high in joyful freedom.

Those 2021 dates are in my diary!

Next up from Béjart Ballet Lausanne is ‘Ballet for Life’ by Maurice Béjart, accompanied by Lynne Wake’s 2018 documentary ‘Queen + Béjart: Ballet for Life’. Available from Thursday June 18 to Sunday June 21, 2020. Visit www.bejart.ch for details.