Spine tingling: Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Piaf

May 8, 2020

David Mead

Piaf can’t die… She won’t ever die… She’s gone, that’s all.
(Marcel Blistène)

It’s now 57 years since Edith Piaf died, probably from cancer of the liver (there was no post-mortem examination), although her health had been suffering for years as a result of several serious car accidents, alcohol and drug abuse. In that time, the ‘little sparrow’ has become a French cultural institution, part of the story of the country.

It is a brave choreographer who attempts to work with her music. Indeed, it’s a brave artist who attempts to recreate her or the feelings that she engendered on stage in any way. Such a personality was she, so strong her music, attempts seem doomed to failure. Indeed, Béjart himself asked, “What dancer, what actress could play Piaf?” As an aside, for me there was one: Jane Lapotaire in the original version of Pam Gems’ superb drama, Piaf, who helped things along enormously by singing in French. Later revivals that used English failed to have the same impact.

But Maurice Béjart was nothing if not brave. Answering his own question, there are no women in his Piaf, itself now 32 years old, save for the lady herself. She dominates the ballet, haunting the stage with her music, looking down on the exclusively male cast from huge photographs. And how appropriate that is. She discovered men, loved them, used them. They were her strength and her weakness, the cause of her joy and despair.

'T'es beau tu sais' from Piaf by Maurice BéjartPhoto Laure N Pasche
‘T’es beau tu sais’ from Piaf by Maurice Béjart
Photo Laure N Pasche

And in his Piaf, a dance of eight songs and scenes, he evokes the chanteuse superbly. The dance and the dancers’ faces give physical voice to her music and words. Never does he attempt to recreate them literally, however.

It begins with a voice. “And here is Edith Piaf.” Spotlights circle before we see her huge photo. After ‘Les mots d’amour’, a gentle introductory dance for the ensemble dressed in period shirts and caps, the first solo is ”L’accordioniste’, featuring the animated, red-neckerchief wearing Kwinten Gwillems. Béjart cleverly references the instrument as the backing dancers give the scene a night club feel.

Fabrice Gallarrgue in the conversational and expressive monologue ‘Le Bel indifferent’ is followed by the super Masayoshi Onuki in ‘Mon manége a moi’. As he elegantly and lightly spins, leaps and jumps, always with a happy smile, he reminds of the jaunty little bird that Piaf was nicknamed after.

Javier Casado Suárez is a perfect ‘naked’, half-dressed clown (baggy trousers and skull cap but no make-up) in ‘Bravo pour le clown’. His vertical split jumps soar. With many of them stripped to underwear, the ensemble returns for ‘T’es beau tu sais’. The title (You are beautiful, you know) says it all. As they dance, a man watches on, apparently lost in thought. A lovely moment comes as this ‘other’ stands in front of a photos of her, which dissolves into a mirror of him. As she slips away, leaving nothing but memories, he clings to it

After ‘Mon vieux Lucien’ with Oscar Chacón, Piaf ends in the only way it can: with ‘No, je ne regrette rien’. The spine tingles even as Piaf announces the song herself. Bare-chested, and in perfect unison, the entire cast return to illustrate it perfectly.

How is it possible to listen to 20 songs in a foreign language and find one’s face wet with tears? There is only one word – genius – and that genius is Piaf.
(Lucien in Pam Gems’ play, Piaf)

It’s difficult to explain quite what it is about Piaf’s voice. Why it still grips people. But grip it does. Perhaps it is just genius, whatever that is. You can tell she and her music had a huge effect on Béjart. He may spare us her darker side of the little sparrow, but his ballet is a lovely accompaniment that takes us through a range of emotions. A real pleasure for all the senses.

Showing next in the BBL@Home series from Béjart Ballet Lausanne is Kyôdaï by Gil Roman. It will be available from May 14 to 17 at www.bejart.ch