Some of the most pretentious showpiece choreography in the world is currently on view in Royce Hall, UCLA, where Maurice Bejart's brilliant Ballet of the 20th Century is in residence for an eight-performance run.
It's not that every little movement has a meaning all its own, for much of Bejart's choreography is inherently anti-dramatic, eloquent only as sheer display. But each step-tangled solo, each tortuous gymnastic duet and each fire-breathing assault by what is still the most astonishing male corps anywhere inevitably bears the weight of an elaborate philosophical/anthropological premise. And the ideas often blaze even when the movement merely sputters.
All three of the works on the Saturday program dealt with submitting to divine will--specifically to pagan deities, though the UCLA season will also include a ballet about The Annunciation. And, in all three, Bejart commented on the act (and art) of dancing itself.
The suite from "Dionysos" (1986, music by Manos Hadjidakis) began with tavern habitues exploring private (mostly seedy) liasons in simultaneous character-dance vignettes.
Suddenly, unison movement seized everyone, and soon the intense yet otherworldly Michel Gascard--Gascard of the impossibly intricate footwork, fabulous cantilevered balances and positively godlike hopping accents on one leg--emerged as Dionysos himself.
Soon, too, as individual psychology yielded to a core communal impulse, scarlet jodhpurs adorned nearly everyone and, like the movement vocabulary, suggested a link between Greek folk culture and the ancient dances of India.
After an effortful nightclub-style adagio for Jupiter and Semele (Maurice Courchay and Cecilia Mones-Ruiz), the work became overpoweringly rhythmic, ritualistic, cathartic.
The character of Jupiter returned in "Leda," a 1979 pas de deux to ominous Japanese theater music in which Bejart commented on balletic swan-obsession by making the title character a classical danseuse violently stripped out of her Odette tutu and possessed by a supernatural Swan King.
Parodistic evocations of Ivanov and Fokine contrasted with sinewy male swan-movement and highly convoluted lifts--executed with power and control by guest artist Marcia Haydee and Bejart veteran Jorge Donn. However, since the ballet's key action represented the oldest lie about rape--that a woman taken by force ends up liking it--mere performance skill arguably proved beside the point.
Ballet fixation also served as one of the undeveloped subthemes in "Le Baiser de la Fee," a muddled two-year-old dance drama set to both Stravinsky's score and Peter Kubik's pianistic "Variations on Tchaikovsky."
The endless use of masks and toy dolls never yielded expressive revelations, merely picturesque groupings, and the most touching moment--the farewell-to-the-light ending--was familiar from Bejart's "Songs of a Wayfarer" (a more artful study of capitulation to an unwanted destiny).
Some major roles seemed strangely underdeveloped--especially the fairy (Katarzyna Gdaniec) who claims the soul of the protagonist. Other minor roles seemed just as strangely overinflated--especially the protagonist's treacherous friend (Gil Roman).
But "Le Baiser de la Fee" triumphed--and, for once, not because of the male corps. No, this time the credit belonged to a superb 23-year-old guest from the Paris Opera Ballet, Eric Vu-An, cast as the suffering central figure.
With his striking looks and powerful physique, his heroic attack, remarkable technical plush and the extra feline stretch that gave his dancing a personal signature, Vu-An immediately established himself Saturday as an authentic star.
Not an aging media-darling. Not an official "principal dancer" promoted Lord-knows-why, but someone who dances with the heat and blood that makes a performance unforgettable. You never heard of him? Your loss.