Wim Vanlessen bids farewell in Béjart’s astonishing Boléro

Ballet Vlaanderen at the Stadsschouwburg, Antwerp
February 2, 2019

Maggie Foyer

It was a big night in Antwerp, the end of an era as Wim Vanlessen took his leave after a performance of Béjart’s Boléro that drew a standing ovation, amazing in its length and warmth. The combination of star performer, Béjart’s showmanship and Maurice Ravel’s hypnotic rhythm, centred on a red circle surrounded by a large cohort of superb male dancers and you have lift-off. Vanlessen couldn’t have chosen a better close to a brilliant career.

It’s a clever piece of choreography where Vanlessen’s body duplicates the orchestra as a hand movement extends to the arm, to the leg, the torso and finally the whole body. Each element is expertly focused, and the tension has an exquisite slow build to climax as the brass finally join ranks.

The triple bill was well balanced to mix old and new. Fall, from director, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, premiered in 2015 exploits the talents of the company. Their classical base takes a novel turn as Cherkaoui explores new pathways for pointe work in innovative movements. Add to this the opening moments of high energy tumbling and fluid floorwork, the style of movement we are more used to seeing in Eastman dancers, and you have a fresh window on classicism. There is space to isolate solo dancers and duets from the crowd and create for them moments of great depth and beauty, but no sense of hierarchical barriers in this very satisfying work.

Ballet Vlaanderen in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's FallPhoto Filip Van Roe
Ballet Vlaanderen in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Fall
Photo Filip Van Roe

Cherkaoui captures the modernity in Arvo Pärt’s meld of classical expression couched in contemporary minimalism. The set by Fabiana Piccioli and Sander Loonen, is a surround of white cloth, simple and seemingly neutral, but alive with movement as an airstream billows the material to give a constant restless edge and provides the canvas for subtle shadowing of light and colour.

The middle work was a revival of Martha Graham’s Chronicle premiered in 1936. The work is a rare expression of her political ideas and was a response to the rising menace of fascism in Europe. Dresden have recently revived Graham’s Errand into the Maze (1947) and the time seems right for these powerful pieces to be seen again after their long sleep.

The three sections presented: ‘Spectre – 1914’, ‘Steps in the Street’ and ‘Prelude to Action’ are not narrative but rather evoke the devastation of war and suggests an answer. Ana Carolina Quaresma dominates the stage sitting on a plinth in a costume, designed by Graham, that has a choreographic life of its own.  The swathes of cloth, some patterned and some plain, are wrapped into a bundle or sometimes used to outline her face and body. There are no soft edges, each move is etched and powerful, suffused with Graham’s forceful spirit.

The ensemble of women in black approach the choreography with the dedication of disciples, their commitment is palpable. The movement is demanding with little organic flow; rather it is harsh and dismembered, grabbing and holding attention by its sheer power. Denise Vale and Blakeley White-McGuire have done an excellent job in staging the work to give a taste of true authenticity.

The party continued long into the night and a final treat was the lavish biography, Wim Vanlessen: Dancer, published to celebrate the occasion. Wim Vanlessen and Aki Saito, we will miss you but your farewell, Saito in Akram Khan’s Giselle and Vanlessen’s in Boléro had the elegant leave taking we expect from such great dancers.