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Béjart and Modernism: Case Studies in the Archetype of Dance

By: Pamela Gay-White
Reviewed by: H.F. Lippincott
University Press of the South, 2006
$46, Paperback

America has a vital modern dance tradition going back a century, but France has just one major figure, Maurice Béjart (1927-2007). Ironically his ballet companies were not based in France, but in Brussels and Lausanne. His companies made occasional visits here, but were never the popular and critical
success they were in Europe. Yet he was very prolific, with some 200 ballets over a fifty year period, and he was active up to his death. All the more welcome, then, is what is apparently the first book in English on Béjart and his ballets.

As a young woman, before college, Pamela Gay-White studied ballet in France, where she incidentally met Béjart. Later, while at Berkeley, he invited her to Europe for a residency to research her thesis, the original basis for this book. Then and subsequently she has seen all of Béjart’s major, full-length works, and her vivid, first-hand descriptions and analyses are the most valuable part of her study.

Béjart’s ballets often combined dance with the spoken word, spectacle, and electronic and concrete music (Beria, Stockhausen, Boulez), and with elaborate sets, lights, and costume. Many were iconoclastic and erotic, and for a time, even counter-culture. American critics often found his choreography superficial.

Born in Marseilles, Béjart came from a mixed-blood, Senegalese family, what the French call métisse. Gay uses the term métissage to describe Béjart’s eclectic mix of literatures, philosophies, and religions, combining genres and blurring gender. She traces his influence from the Symbolists (Baudelaire, Maurice Metterlich, The Rites of Spring) and explicates his work through reference to Surrealism and the alternative theatre of Antonin Arnaud, analysis most will find a little dense.

The book ends with a series of interviews with Béjart himself and some of his principal dancers, including Suzanne Farrell, an American who danced with Béjart after leaving Ballenchine. Gay-White was not always well served by her publisher, emerging from the New Orleans storm with uneven copy editing and a complete lack of photographs. Even the cover photo seems generic. But ballet fans will welcome this glimpse into the most significant, European, modern dance tradition.  Sept 2008

H.F. Lippincott is retired from the teaching of English and French.

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