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Piotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Nutcracker (1892) [99:00]
Choreography by Maurice Béjart and Marius Petipa
Damaas Thijs - Bim, the son
Elisabet Ros - Elle, the mother
Gil Roman - Marius Petipa / Méphisto
Juichi Kobayashi - Félix, the cat
Yvette Horner - Fairy Godmother / Waltz of the Flowers
Béjart Ballet Lausanne
Orchestre Colonne/Edmón Colomer
Director: Ross MacGibbon
rec. live performance, Théâtre Musical de Paris – Châtelet, 2000
EMI CLASSICS 2165869 [99:00]
Experience Classicsonline

Don’t expect a conventional Nutcracker with this one. This is after all “Maurice Béjart’s Nutcracker”. True, Tchaikovsky’s score is still there … as well as a few rather unexpected musical additions, of which more later. But, turning to the story, you certainly won’t find feisty little Clara, her family, the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer, the enormously expanding Christmas tree, the wicked Mouse King and his cohorts or even a nutcracker on stage at the Châtelet.
 
What you will find, on the other hand is a completely new surrealist fantasy; “story” would most certainly be the wrong word. It is based around Maurice Béjart’s memories of his real-life mother who died when he was aged just seven years old. We are pointed in that direction right at the opening when a screen descends over the stage - a device that is used several times in the production - and Bejart himself appears on film to reminisce briefly about his childhood in Marseilles.
 
In a series of frankly bizarre episodes in Act 1, we see, among other things, the young boy Bim (Béjart’s alter ego) enticed into the world of dance by the influence of Marius Petipa/Méphisto It’s an episode inspired by Béjart’s own Faustian childhood games when he and his sister played Méphisto and Marguerite. Another scene derives from the choreographer’s early dreams of his mother - accompanied by a troop of scantily-dressed boy scouts! - wandering through an enchanted forest. There they encounter two bearded drag queens - or angels, as the end credits have it - and two high-kicking chorus girls: fairies, apparently.
 
And, as if all that wasn’t enough, at the first Act’s climax celebrated 78 years old French accordéoniste Yvette Horner gamely makes an appearance from the wings to offer a spirited ad lib accompaniment to the Waltz of the snowflakes. Horner is campily dressed up by Jean-Paul Gaultier as a sort of red-headed version of Dame Barbara Cartland.
 
The second Act – introduced on that screen descending over the stage by Béjart’s real-life grandmother - abandons the idea of the chronological approach based on Béjart’s childhood. It becomes instead a sort of homage to motherhood in general. Even so, it has to be pointed out that the sort of mother/son relationship hinted at here is of the rather suspect variety more usually encountered in Greek tragedy. Thus, the celebratory dances are staged here for a Mother’s Day celebration. We learn this when a large banner proclaiming Bonne Fête Maman is paraded across the stage. The Spanish dance features bullfighters, for it seems that the young Béjart actually aspired to become one. The Chinese dance features that country’s familiar bicyclists circling the stage in their Chairman Mao suits. A magician thrusts swords into a cabinet holding an exotic odalisque in the Arabian dance. The Russian dance features a pair of dancers who appear to be dressed as Ancient Greeks, even though they perform against the backdrop of a Soviet hammer-and-sickle flag!
 
As if all that weren’t enough, Béjart then adds another and entirely new dance – which, it is announced from the stage, is a Parisian one. That’s the cue for Madame Horner, in a French tricolour dress this time, to serenade us with a Gallic popular song while a couple of Apache dancers give a show. After this, nothing if not versatile, she plays a piece in the baroque style while Marius Petipa/Méphisto dances solo. We then hear Bim singing (off-key!) for a few bars before we are back in the familiar territory of the Waltz of the Flowers. This is danced by Bim and his mother, the drag queens/angels, chorus girls/fairies, a hitherto unseen woman in a tuxedo, the men of the corps de ballet who have changed by now out of their boy scout uniforms and into dinner jackets and Marius Petipa/Méphisto. Yvette Horner merrily plays along ad lib too.
 
Just to show, though, that cultural iconoclasm hasn’t won the day entirely, Marius Petipa/Méphisto then picks up a microphone to announce to the audience that: The director didn’t want to alter the classical choreography of the grand pas de deux in the “Nutcracker”. So tonight it’ll be danced in the original version by Marius Petipa. Quite why Béjart retained that one element of tradition when the rest of the production had thrown every other familiar element of Nutcracker out of the window remains something of a mystery – unless, of course, the sheer wilfulness of doing so was yet another completely deliberately surreal touch!
 
You will know by now, I suspect, whether this is a production for you. I actually rather enjoyed it for its sheer weirdness. On the other hand, I suspect that I won’t, in spite of some impressive dancing from the company, be watching it again in a hurry. My own copy of the DVD came with no accompanying booklet, leaving the viewer to work out for himself what’s going on; at least the members of the Châtelet audience could have bought programmes. In its previous DVD incarnation, on the TDK label in 2003, the production came with both an accompanying booklet and, even more usefully, a 23 minutes documentary which helped explain at least a few of the oddities. It’s a great shame that something similar isn’t to be found on EMI’s version for I’d hope that, if it were, we might even get an idea of what exactly it is that those bearded drag queens are doing in our beloved Nutcracker.
 
Rob Maynard
 

 


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