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The Ninth Symphony on Schiller’s Ode to Joy
Maurice Béjart’s Ballet - based on Beethoven's music
Béjart Ballet Lausanne and the Tokyo Ballet
Kristin Lewis (soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (alto), Kei Fukui (tenor), Alexander Vinogradov (bass)
J.B. Meier and Thierry Hochstätter (percussions)
Ritsuyukai Choir
Israel Philharmonic Orchestra/Zubin Mehta
rec. NHK Hall, Tokyo, November 2014
NTSC 16.9 worldwide; PCM Stereo DD 5. – DTS 5.1
EUROARTS 2060878 DVD [88.00]

Maurice Béjart (1927-2007) was a French-born dancer, choreographer and opera director. He began his career in 1945 with the corps de ballet at the Opéra de Marseille. He later studied in Paris and amongst his many associations and influences were those of Janine Charrat, Roland Petit and Vera Volkova. He founded the Ballet de l’Étoile in 1954 in Paris then went on to Brussels in 1960 to found the Ballet du XXe Siècle. Then in 1987, in Lausanne, he founded the renowned Béjart Ballet Lausanne. His choreography was modern and much of his work controversial especially his take on The Nutcracker which scrapped the original family enchantment and replaced it with darker and sexually explicit imagery. Béjart also imposed his choreographic views on scores like Boléro and the Rite of Spring.

The Béjart balletic view of the spirit of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony based on Schiller’s Ode to Joy, is, to my mind, an interesting but not always convincing cross between ballet and gymnastics. At this point I thoroughly recommend the learned article about this ballet in Dance Tabs.

Perhaps Béjart, himself, best described his creation: “This choreographic interpretation of Beethoven’s masterpiece has no concept, goal or theme other than the music it encompasses … (the dancers follow the composer’s moods) from dread to joy from shadow to light … this is not a ballet in the general sense but a profound human participation in a masterpiece that belongs to the whole of mankind, and is not only played and sung here but is danced as were the Greek tragedies of Antiquity and primitive religious rites.”

This DVD recording was made in the vast NHK Hall, Tokyo that is able to accommodate an orchestra and choir both raised on platforms in the background with the dancers performing on the marked out foreground space.

Gil Roman, who had been associated with the Béjart from the days of the Ballet du XXe Siècle in Brussels and is now Artistic Director of the Béjart Ballet Lausanne, creates new choreographies and is keen to preserve Béjart’s heritage. He has grafted his own prize-winning choreographic creativity onto Béjart’s original Ninth Symphony dance concept. In celebration of his career, influence and creative spirit, Gil Roman was awarded the insignia of Knight of the National Order of Merit by France’s ambassador to Switzerland. It is Roman who opens the whole programme of the Ninth Symphony with a relaxed reading of a text by Nietzsche that has many references to “God”, “man” and “dance”. Set against this text and in pauses between the reading, the two percussionists (first the African percussionist) add their exhilarating commentary.

The performance of the Symphony by the Israel Philharmonic and choir is intense and joyous. The opening movement is danced by the Tokyo Ballet their movements suggesting primeval beings coming to life. Here is classical ballet technique blended with strong, some might suggest gymnastic, contemporary movements. The mood becomes stronger, with military overtones, and builds though an increasing sense of drama to a climax. The second and third movements are danced by the Béjart Ballet Lausanne. The second movement is one of supple, joyful high spirits with ring-dances and statuesque athlete–like poses. The Adagio, third movement, is more classically balletic. It’s more intimate with love and harmony predominant through the steps of the two principal dancers. For the Finale both ballet companies dance through intricate choreography to underline the overall spirit of Schiller’s Ode to Joy and the harmony of human sympathy and understanding.

The booklet notes could have been more informative about the ballet and Béjart’s concept and how he saw it supporting both text and music. It would have been useful if the principal dancers of each movement were identified instead of leaving just one block paragraph with all principal dancers listed.

An interesting ballet to be applauded or consigned to the curiosity drawer.

Ian Lace


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