This is the second recent release of a Kader Belarbi production on the Opus Arte label that has come my way. It follows his sparely but imaginatively conceived and well executed account of the mid-19th century warhorse Le corsaire
M. Belarbi's approach to Le corsaire
was comparatively conventional. He utilised the traditional mongrel score, basically the one by Adolphe Adam but with extra material from other 19th century composers bolted on. He then added even more music - by Massenet, Arensky, Sibelius, Lalo and his conductor David Coleman. The resulting musical hybrid was tuneful and, at its core, relatively conventional. The choreography too, while imaginative, was recognisably well within the bounds of traditional ballet. There was a great deal to admire in Belarbi's Le corsaire
and many will also find much to enjoy in this new La bête et la belle
Almost all versions of this story, from the original and rather convoluted 1756 fairy tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont to a Franco-German feature film that appeared only last year, have adopted the familiar title La belle et la bête
("Beauty and the Beast"). M. Belarbi's ballet reverses that order of precedence. It would be reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the story will have been tweaked so as to change its perspective and make the Beast its narrative focus. That certainly wasn't my own perception, however. If I'm asked to pick out this version's central character, I'd still choose the young girl "Beauty". She both opens and closes the ballet on her own and, as you'd expect, is a major presence throughout the rest of the story. In that way, this production is just as much the traditionally-focused tale as any of its predecessors. In the booklet notes, however, Belarbi offers another explanation for the title change. He suggests that, although the Beast isn't the main focus of the story, the dilemma that confronts him makes him the more psychologically interesting character. "We inverted the title", he explains, "... so as to present the story in a new light, as a symbol of the rejection or acceptance of difference ... [and] how it might feel to be shunned or rejected ..."
That's certainly an intriguing approach - as well as one that can easily be justified - and it's one of La Bête et la Belle
's positive features. Another is the Toulouse dancers. They are clearly both skilled and enthusiastic, even if the choreography here is too individual to allow us to compare them with other companies in the way that we could if this were classical ballet. A further plus is the intelligently conceived production, once again presented somewhat sparely so as to keep one's visual focus on the characters on stage.
What some will certainly struggle with, however, as I did, is the musical score. The credits on the packaging might be read as suggesting that the oddly matched composers Daquin, Haydn, Ligeti and Ravel share equal responsibility for it. In fact the billing simply reflects their alphabetical order and disguises the fact that one of them predominates. In the booklet notes, Belarbi tells us that "The aim of the choreography ... was to find movements to suit the unusual atmosphere exuded by the unique music of Ligeti, a composer I see as a painter in sound. I explored all his works, and the powerful emotional responses his sound-world aroused in me also conjured up a series of images and visions in my imagination."
Those "images and visions" are, in many instances, appropriately matched to the pre-existing Ligeti scores. The latter itself may well be an element that more traditionally-minded ballet fans find something of a challenge. While not as great a shock to the system as the hip-hop and break-dancing music that characterises many other contemporary dance productions, Ligeti's rhythmically complex and sometimes pretty astringent scores are certainly not easy listening or even foot-tapping material. As a result, this La bête et la belle
lacks an immediate appeal for a general audience and, though well directed and presented on this new release, will, I think, primarily attract aficionados of contemporary dance, as well as fans of the undoubtedly talented M. Belarbi and his Ballet du Capitole forces.