Myths vs. Storytelling – Bejart

From the prior posts: I think my understanding of myth is somewhat personal.

What is the difference between a myth and a story?

Is is the presence of archetypal vs. ‘human’ characters?
Is it the presence of non-human, magical characters – like Sylphs?

I remember reading some Joseph Campbell when I was growing up – the Hero’s Journey, and some analysis of Star Wars… I don’t know. Didn’t really stick I guess.

Two years ago I went to Paris for a week to research Marie Taglioni at the Garnier Opera Archive. I was staying with a young scholar I had met in New York (we met while we were both working in the NY Library for the Performing Arts.) I was researching ballet families (Vestris, Taglioni, Coulon) and she was researching Balanchine.

While I was over there, we went to see Bejart Ballet.

Bejart passed away in late 2007. Here are a few excerpts from Lewis Segal’s obituary. (Bear with me – I know this seems disjointed: it comes together.)

Although he began his ballet career dancing the 19th century classics in pristine versions staged from the choreography notebooks of what is now the Kirov Ballet, Bejart eventually developed a complex style of contemporary ballet. It incorporated movement influences from a number of cultures, along with a flamboyant theatricality very much in the neo-Expressionist tradition of Western Europe but foreign to classical dancing. A key element of that new style was its refusal to accept conventional notions of what kind of dancing, roles and prominence “belonged” to males versus females.

Mauric Bejart

Contrary to their original versions, Bejart cast a man in the title role of his “Firebird” and in “Bolero” created a sexually indeterminate ballet: It is danced with 40 men and one woman, 40 women and one man or with an all-male cast.

“I and a few others have fought for men’s liberation in ballet — true equality,” he said in a 1985 Times interview, “though, of course, it is normal when you fight for equality that it looks like you are too much on the other side.” Above all, his approach to ballet was personal and intuitive, insisting, as he said, that “dance is a tool for expressing myself totally, for being, breathing, living, becoming myself.”

……. [C}ritics often disapproved of works that were long on philosophical and dramatic content but short on pure dance — particularly ballets that emphasized sensual and often openly homoerotic male dancing.

In hindsight, many of the attacks seem to be barely veiled homophobia, but Bejart took them in stride. “A creator who does not shock is useless,” he said at the time. “People need reactions. Progress is only achieved by jostling.”

Maybe myth is the difference between jostling, and attacking, an audience. One of the uses of myth is to create that slight distance necessary for audience comfort.

When I saw Bejart’s Ballet Mechanique, and his Bolero, I saw today’s myths. I saw the use of a highly dramatic, romantic peice of music, and a slowly expanding spot of light, to explore idealization, division, remove, and – what’s that word – ah yes, obsession.

I feel like I’m in good company with certain realizations about character/gender.

Maya Plisetskaya version of Bolero – 1st part:

Someone else – 1st part of the dance:

What are the myths of today? What are the lessons that we need to learn? Are they the same as the lessons transmitted by the greeks?

Have you seen today’s visions?
The ones that reflect and remove today’s barriers?

Who here got something from Balanchine’s Prodigal Son? Who here got something from Graham’s Errand into the Maze? Limon’s Moor’s Pavane?

Bejart has passed, joining Balanchine, Graham, Limon…. What’s next?

Author: Robert Bettmann

Founder of Day Eight, and the DC Arts Writing Fellowship.