Memory or imagination? Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Syncope

Film recording of performances at Theatre de Beaulieu, Lausanne
June 21 & 22, 2018

David Mead

Syncope. In music, it is a rhythm out of time. Syncopation. In medicine, it’s a cardiac arrest or slowing of the heart. Five to ten seconds of loss of consciousness but during which the brain can imagine, invent or review anything and everything.

Gil Roman’s Syncope for Béjart Ballet Lausanne holds you in its surreal grip from the off, even on film. We may hear the syncopation in the music of Thierry Hochstätter, Jean-Bruno Meier and their Geneva-based group Citypercussion, and that certainly influences the choreography, but it’s the medical meaning of the term that is to the fore. For forty minutes, Roman takes us into the deep recesses of a man’s mind, but whether what we see is real, was once real, or is the product of a vivid imagination, is left for the viewer to decide. Maybe it’s all three.

That man is Gabriel Arenas Ruiz. Mostly he wears an expression of a man in shock. Eyes are open wide but frozen. They see everything and nothing. Scenes come and go. Sometimes he joins in with other dancers, sometimes he just watches of sorts, but always we return to that blankness.

Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Syncope by Gil RomanPhoto Ilia Chkolnik
Béjart Ballet Lausanne in Syncope by Gil Roman
Photo Ilia Chkolnik

Ruiz is accompanied by Elisabet Ros, dressed at first in costume designer Henri Davila’s rather chic blue calf-length trouser suit and a lampshade hat that really does light up. Almost always present either dancing with Ruiz or sitting, watching from a distance, she’s his guide through this strange world.

Ros’ dance is playful with lots of wiggling. There’s a bit of hint of Pierrot about her, but her look suggests a sailor. Perhaps that’s not so far from the truth as later on a white toy yacht puts in an appearance. When Ruiz carries her off in darkness, that hat looks like a jellyfish or strange giant amoeba floating in the timeless void in which we find ourselves.

Every now and then, Ruiz sits in an armchair, sometimes wheeled around by Ros. In a super visual gag, twice it sucks him into its back, spitting his out on the floor behind.

Although he clings to Ros, always returning to this one rock, Ruiz is also attracted by Alanna Archibald, a strange bird-like woman in white who emerges from a cage. With her graceful, swan-like arms, she is powerful and assured. Is she a message that this could be him? Or is she just another memory of what was or could have been?

Elsewhere, there are some neatly constructed and very watchable ensemble dances that sit perfectly with music that acts like a heartbeat, driving the ballet on, and that does occasionally and unexpectedly pause in a nod to the medical meaning of ‘syncope’. I especially enjoyed an early one for five couples in white but in which the men and women frequently split into opposing groups. If it was an old classical ballet, you would call it a dream sequence. Perhaps that’s appropriate. The togetherness and synchronicity of movement was excellent.

It ends with the whole cast lined up at the front of the stage, sprinting on the spot. Running from what, towards what, is just another unanswered question. The others are pulled back by some unknown force, swallowed one by one by the darkness and split curtain. Left alone, Ruiz collapses before sitting up in a silent scream. The dream is over. Consciousness returns. But the memories remain.

One of the few positives from the coronavirus lockdown is that it’s giving us the chance to see works from companies like this  that are so sadly rarely seen in Britain. There’s more from Béjart Ballet Lausanne from April 16-19, when the company are screening Maurice Béjart’s The Magic Flute. Visit for the trailer and details.