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Flash Flashback, 11-29: Freddy's Dead
Bejart Makes Sure the Show goes on

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 Paul Ben-Itzak

(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Review was first posted April 22, 2003. Maurce Bejart passed away November 22 at the age of 80. )

PARIS -- Well, I still feel less than qualified to review Maurice Bejart, by dint of being such a scant viewer of his oeuvre, but after seeing his "Le Presbytere" (the name has nothing to do with the piece, the choreographer just liked the word) Friday at the Palais des Congres, a couple of things are clear: A Bejart spectacle works and works its magic on the audience because despite being thematically over the top, the creator is a choreographic, compositional, and musical past master, and in the dancers of Bejart Ballet Lausanne he has interpreters who invest themselves spirit and soul in his subject -- on this occasion, AIDS/SIDA, life/death, and the music of Freddy Mercury and Mozart.

In case all you know of Mercury, the lead singer for Queen who died of complications related to AIDS -- or SIDA as it's called here -- is "We are the Champions" and "We Will Rock You," the man could waltz with schmaltz, and it shows up right away in Bejart's spectacle with the group number "It's a Beautiful Day." As the dancers rose from white sheets, I was on my way to an it's going to be a long evening groan when the winning spirit of the performers, the facile choreography, and the STORY that Bejart had created swept me away.

His first piece of structural genius is to feature four central characters who neatly encompass all his motifs: In the performance I saw, Julien Favreau as the campy, queeny, bare-chested, Fabio-like Freddy; senior company dancer and assistant director Gil Roman as the relatively sober dance pivot; and the energetic and focused Stephane Bourhis paired with the dignified and melancholic Claire Galtier as the central couple ravished by love and, perhaps, ravaged by AIDS, anchoring the tale, if you will, to its serious purpose. This is best signified by a line uttered by Roman, to the effect of: They told us to make love not war. Why is love making war on us? The effect of this distribution of responsibilities is that Favreau is free to go off the campy deep end without dragging the sober story off the serious side of its purpose.

With all due credit to Favreau's Freddy, who struts about (a different flamboyant costume at each appearance, natch) lip-synching so convincingly to Mercury's music that you start to believe he's singing, it's Roman's dancing, a thread throughout the 21 pieces, that keeps you riveted. He's almost a Svengali, not just responding to the music but seeming to control it and manipulate it, arresting it or sweeping it (and us) away with him at will. He's gripping in a somber, extended solo to Mozart's "Musique Funebre Maconnique" that ends with a blackly comic and grinning shuffle off to Buffalo, but the killer moment is -- wait for it -- when a white scrim suddenly drops downstage and Roman zooms in front of it for a razor-sharp shadow dance to the "Galileo" section of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody." The music may be campy, but the choreography and its execution are jaggedly clean. Unlike Bejart's version of Mozart's "Magic Flute," the Queen music here is stadium rock and thus fits the over-sized venue perfectly. As any rocker knows, stadium rock also delivers its intimate moments -- here, the power-ballad "Love of My life" into "Brighton Rock," in live concert recordings to which Bejart sets two couples slow dancing, the personnel including Roman and a charming Luisa Diaz Gonzalez.

As for Galtier and Bourhis, they bookend the story's tragic and romantic dimensions, first in an extended choreography to Mozart's "Concerto 21" where they are trundled about on hospital beds, so close and yet so far, and later in a romp to "Winter's Tale" in which they burst a pillow and toss its downy feathers whimsically about them. Both dancers are sensuously and heartbreakingly topless here, and it works. Bejart often leaves Bourhis lingering for the following section, a ghostly reminder of the spectre that hangs over all the camp, like the shadow soldiers that haunt Paul Taylor's "Company B."

In addition to the overall charming spirit of both sexes in the corps, the boys particularly shine in "Radio Gaga," where one by one, vulnerably clad in only black shorts, they enter and, at right angle turns, step up into a boxed structure until there are at least a dozen of them cramming it, some climbing the walls, some choreographically contained in their individual worlds. Bourhis is the last to enter, of course -- and the last to leave.

Before the show-stopping ending, we're treated to the great Bejart dancer Jorge Donn, a Paganini breaking down on film to "I Want to Break Free."

The show does go on, to the Mercury number of that name. By the time Bejart himself appears, at the curtain call, to lead the dancers slowly forward to repeated choruses of "The show must go on," you're with them.

Bejart also shakes the hand of each and every dancer, which is, unfortunately, more credit than the show's producer, Gerard Louvin, saw fit to grant them. Here in Paris, we don't have Stagebills or Playbills. But while you need to purchase the slick and well-produced programs, most theaters hand out for free a basic handbill with the essential credits, including the names of the dancers. This did not happen in the two performances I attended at the Palais des Congres.

The show can't go on without the dancers, and we need to remember their names.

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