Ballet of the Opera National de Paris
Opera Bastille
Paris, France

May 27, 2023
Celebrating Maurice Béjart: The Firebird, Song of the Wayfarer, Boléro

Sheenagh Pietrobruno         

The ballet opens with The Firebird, the first of a triple bill celebrating Maurice Béjart (1927–2007) and his bond with Paris Opera Ballet. A French-born dancer, director and choreographer, Béjart headed the Béjart Ballet Lausanne. He offered nine choreographic works and fourteen repertoire additions to the Paris Opera Ballet, including The Firebird, created for the company in 1970 at the Palais des Sports in Paris.

The corps of Partisans first appear garbed in drab bluish-grey uniforms designed by Joëlle Roustan and Roger Bernard. Their arms outstretched, the eight dancers hold one another. In unison, they beat out precise, deep, angular pliés to the front and then to the side to Stravinsky’s exquisite music, performed magnificently by the Orchestra of the Opera National de Paris. They become a machine that is soon dismantled as they break apart to occupy differing levels of space. At moments, some crawl on the floor. Then they stop and stare into the distance, emulating the glaring faces of 1960s action thriller posters.

Antoine Kirschner (center) and Paris Opera Balet
in Maurice Béjart’s “The Firebird”
Photo by Julien Benhamou

With a quick, frenzied musical interlude, the Firebird, performed by Antoine Kirscher, is suddenly in the limelight. Glittering in a bright-red unitard with the thorax partially naked, he blazes across the stage. His hands and arms flutter as if in flight, and he soars with arabesques and grand jetés. The energy of the Firebird wanes to mark his imminent demise. His dwindling avian gestures are taken over by the corps of eighteen Birds who enter the scene. At the close, above them burns a brilliant crimson sun designed by Roustan and Bernard. From the ashes of the Firebird rises the Phoenix, performed by Florimond Lorieux. The sun beams down on the ravishing sculpture forged by the bodies of the two lead dancers to capture the metamorphosis. The program notes celebrate how Béjart has immortalized the revolts of the 1968 generation in the ballet’s reworking of the mythological tale of the Phoenix’s rebirth. The clenched fists raised at intermittent instances throughout reinforce the spirited uprising. Yet flat and lifeless moments in an otherwise stunning choreography thwart the ballet’s depiction of triumphant youthful revolt.

Next up is the Song of the Wayfarer (Le Chant du compagnon), performed to Gustave Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen,” which was created in 1971 at the Forest National in Brussels and entered the Paris Opera Ballet repertoire in 2003. The program recounts how the young wayfarer’s wish to seek out the joys of the world is curtailed by his mentor, who shows him the need to control his passions and submit to the harsher realities of life.

(l-r) Mathieu Ganio and Audric Bezard
in Maurice Béjart’s
“Song of the Wayfarer”
Photo by Yonathan Kellerman

The relation between the Wayfarer and the mentor, the first performed by Mathieu Ganio in a blue leotard and the latter by Audric Bezard in a red leotard, both designed by Roustan and Bernard, is exceptionally communicated. The choreography embodies the emotional struggles of the two men through the four parts of the music, moving from grief to happiness to despair and finally to resolution. The tensions between the two men are played out through exchanges where they both mimic and counter each other’s movements. In a moment in the second part, both turn their back to the stage. But the Wayfarer breaks free in a solo filled with joy. At the end, the Wayfarer accepts the path of restraint, exhibiting beauty, precision and force, qualities that Ganio conveys from the start.

The German lyrics of Mahler’s composition envelope the stage during a haunting performance by baritone Thomas Tatzl. Music, language and the human voice interlace with dance, weaving together a complex tapestry of sights and sounds to suggest that we are witnessing something deeper than the curtailment of the Wayfarer’s youthful passions. Is it, in fact, a story of desire between two men and the trials and tribulations of romance? “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen” was written by Mahler in the wake of his unrequited feelings for soprano Johanna Richter. The challenges of love ruminating in the music certainly seep into the piece.

The richness of the choreography shines through an economy of movement. No matter how simple in form, each turn, step and arm gesture is consequential, and each hand position and facial expression is significant. The detailed intricacies of the piece are not lost in the colossal Bastille Opera House. The predominance of Classical ballet is broken in key moments by jazz hands and hip isolations. Bejart’s eclectic and powerful vernacular is made resplendent by the impressive interpretation of the two dancers. The audience roar with applause at the end.

The finale, Boléro, was created in 1961 by the Ballet of the 20th Century at the Brussels Monnaie Theatre and entered the Paris Opera Ballet repertoire in 1970 at the Palais des Sport. Enacted to music by Maurice Ravel, it begins with the isolated body moves of a lone dancer glimmering against the darkness of Dominque Roman’s lighting design. The right hand and the forearm of the dancer slink upwards. Suddenly, the hand flexes inwards. The same arm then slowly descends, gliding down the dancer’s torso with a jazz hand. The female face of the hidden dancer, Ludmilla Plagliero, flashes in the light. The casting of Pagliero, who is sensational, marks the first time that the company has given the lead role to a female dancer.

Ludmila Pagliero in Maurice Béjart’s “Boléro”
Photo by Julien Benhamou

In a set designed by Béjart himself, Pagliero moves on a large round table that glows with a bright-red sheen. Her arms and torso wind to the sinewy melody of Bolero’s compelling score. Her feet simultaneously repeat the same footwork, perfectly matching the music’s refrain of rhythmic drumming. Eventually, the entire set is illuminated, and the audience see that Pagliero is surrounded by a corps of eighteen male dancers, their chests bare, in costumes designed by Béjart, two of whom have solo performances, Florimond Lorieux and Fabillon Révillon.

The corporeal cleavage at the beginning never ceases. With their upper bodies, Pagliero and the male dancers perform the voluptuousness of Bolero’s melody. With their lower bodies, they capture the militaristic rhythm of the music, swept away by its rising intensity, crescendo and climax. The clash between repeated arousing gestures and controlled stepping is exhilarating to watch. And it rouses the hall. The dancers summon the audience, even seated, to experience dance as the twofold sensation of discipline and sensual release. Béjart’s evocative provocation is masterful. When the electrifying performance comes to an end, the audience can hardly contain their exuberance. Their applause brings down the house.