In contrast to the evocation of pagan gods on its opening (Saturday) program in Royce Hall, UCLA, Maurice Bejart's Ballet of the 20th Century offered three works on Sunday that explored Christian issues and archetypes.
From the re-enactment of the Annunciation in the celebratory "Cantata No. 51" (1969), to Crucifixion symbolism and other brooding religious references in an excerpt from the fantasy-biography "Malraux" (1986), through the depiction of an agonized St. Francis in the visionary epic "Light" (1981), Bejart traced crises of faith.
Unfortunately, his choreographic abilities seldom matched the high interest of his themes.
With its pious gestural homilies alternating with displays of bravura technique, "Cantata No. 51" (music by Bach) came off as perky divertissement, dismayingly literal in step-note relationships and vacant in spirituality, except for the very pure and deep performance of Katarzyna Gdaniec as Mary.
More Blue Bird than angel, Tony Fabre splendidly dispatched his virtuosic choreography and joined Gdaniec in the only passage with real creative interest: a series of slowly permuting friezes juxtaposed against the manic classical dancing of the demi-angels.
The "Malraux" Spanish Civil War sequence and "Light" were both sprawling, non-linear dance-theater spectacles mixing historical characters with figures representing forces of nature.
The former (to Beethoven intercut with apocalyptic rock and mood music by Hugues Le Bars) dealt with a bleak period in the life of author and statesman Andre Malraux. (As in "Dionysos" on Saturday, Gianni Versace's monochromatic costumes set an imposing standard of proletarian chic.)
The latter (to Vivaldi intercut with abrasive rock by the Residents and Tuxedo Moon) attempted a dreamlike superimposition of 16th-Century Venice and modern San Francisco, alternating vignettes portraying the corruption of an old order with scenes offering the hope of transcendence.
In each work, the extroverted dances often clashed with the grim subjects, but, however inappropriate or inexpressive, the choreography always provided sensational showpiece opportunities for the dazzling Bejart company principals.
And the generous, accomplished performances by Jorge Donn, Serge Campardon, Michel Gascard, Philippe Lizon, Gil Roman, Rouben Bach and others proved very much the heart of the matter: Whatever your tolerance for woozy Expressionism, dancing of this caliber is a treasurable experience.
Moreover, "Light" provided two major roles for the often-neglected Bejart women. With an unerring grasp of the ballet's shifting emotional currents, Grazia Galante (Woman) danced with great feeling and mastery of many dissimilar movement forms. In a more conventionally classical assignment, Lynne Charles (Light) revealed ideal strength, technical refinement and an easy accommodation to strenuous partnered gymnastics.
In "Malraux," Charles had played the teasing, glamorous figure of Death haunting the title character. In "Light," however, she was able to shed the Frenchified bitch-goddess mannerisms and dance with that wholehearted simplicity and sense of personal release-in-movement that the finest Bejart dancing always conveys.