Hello Sadness of Gaîté Parisienne!

Maurice Béjart’s Gaîté Parisienne (Parisian Gaiety, historical English title is The Gay Parisian) – is an anthem for Paris, according to Arian Dolfjus, his biographer, which is quite surprising since brilliant choreographer, born In Marseille, was not very fond of the capital. The production refers to that short period of time (end of 1970s) when choreographer was still working in Brussels but his connections with ‘metropolis’ were growing stronger and led to undeniable prestige in the capital later on. In 1976 his Ballet of the Twentieth Century was touring in Paris staging at Chaillot Palace. The same year he created Le Molière imaginaire that was premiered at The Comédie-Française theatre. After premiere in Brussels (1978) Gaîté Parisienne would witness tremendous success at Palais des Sports (1979), and Ministry of Culture in France came up with idea to open The Béjart Ballet School at Chaillot Palace (the plan that would never be executed).

In his autobiography Le Ballet des mots (Ballet of Words, 1994), Béjart recalls that the initial impulse for production he received from a writer, actress and journalist Jacqueline Cartier who showed him extract from her ‘music comedy’ about Jacques Offenbach’s life. Being carried away by the idea of portraying two characters in the context of several eras, combining his own reminiscence with humorous sketches of 1860’s – beginning of 1970’s, Paris of his youth with Paris of Offenbach’s triumphs, Béjart added two arias to the score. The score was compiled in 1938 by Manuel Rosenthal with scenes from Gaîté Parisienne and other Offenbach’s operettas and was meant for Leonide Massine. Massine was inclined to reject it at first, but then he made it to one of the biggest hits for those troupes, according to historians of ballet, who had Gaîté Parisienne in their repertoire at the end of the final act.

International Ballet of Mona Inglesby was example of such troupes. This troupe, which existed between 1941 and 1953, still attracts attention due to its founder’s personality, as well as the fact that classical ballets were performed under former director of Mariinsky Theatre Nikolai Sergeyev who used notations that he has taken from Russia. During his short stay with Mona Inglesby Béjart reached one of his peak as a classical dancer when he performed the Bluebird variation in The Sleeping Beauty. He also danced in Gaîté Parisienne where he got the part of pool player.

In a contrast to purely comic and frivolous Massine’s score, which couldn’t be claimed to be called Ballet with a capital B according to critic John Martin, Béjart’s Gaîté Parisienne focuses on “sorting out his relationship” specifically with Ballet. His Gaîté Parisienne is all about self-realization, pursuing the dream through hard work and resentment, unleashing the potential of choreographer and inevitability of death. In this intricate, like a dream, game of autobiographical and cross-cultural reminiscence young man Bim becomes the leading character, who decides to devote his life to dancing (part performed by Victor Ullate); whereas speaking role belongs to Madam Rousanne (Mathé Souverbie), the teacher of classical dance. She is merciless, oppressive and all forgiving if it is for a talent. Bim is choreographer’s alter ego, Madam Rousanne – of Madam Sarkissian. Student of Vera Trefilova, Ivan Clustine, Alexandre Volinine, Sarkissian started dancing only at the age of thirty; nevertheless, it didn’t stay in her way of becoming a legendary pedagogue. Besides Béjart, many dancers went through her studio (Studio Wacker) such as Roland Petit, Pierre Lacotte and others. Béjart gave a voice and entrusted this part to one of the most important for him dancer and actress: he worked with Mathé Souverbie even long before Symphonie pour un homme seul (Symphony for one man alone), very first production in the long list of his masterpieces.

Action of Gaîté Parisienne is built around parody of well-known supporting moves from The Sleeping Beauty and reflects many choreographic references from the latter. We first see six fairy god-fathers in practice clothes; this draws great amount of similarities with Bluebird and Prince Désiré variation. They bestow upon Bim talents same as Petipa’s fairy godmothers present a gift to Princess Aurora. Next, same like wicked fairy Carabosse, Madam appears (a grotesque dancer performed that at Petipa’s), and, apparently puts a spell by sending young man away to study in Paris where Grand Opera is located.

The idea of theatrical eras change was adapted from The Sleeping Beauty rather than from Jacqueline Cartier’s play (mentioned with honors as the author of ballet idea). Petipa shows an era of Ludwig XII (recognized by set and costumes) followed by the reign of Ludwig XIV whereas Bim sees how The Second Empire of Napoleon III shifts to The Third Republic. It is set and costumes, rather than choreography, which are more scrupulously chosen to demonstrate era, not necessarily following the logic and dancing language of the portrayed period. Very same Offenbach is more into dancing solo than can-cans using Peruvian solo of Leonid Massine as a primary source. Béjart gets inspiration and humor from collision of choreographic and artistic outsets. He wouldn’t be who he is without some correlation to painting: here is the whole scene with Empress Eugenie Surrounded by her Ladies-in-Waiting based on the art piece with the same title by Franz Winterhalter. He doesn’t mind to make fun of himself. His permanent and significant object of reflection – Ludwig II of Bavaria – appears in a choreographic fantasy, in a dashing vein of opus a la Petita. Ludwig is getting off the vessel beckoned by fake swan same like Lohengrin in Wagner Opera – or Prince Désiré by Lilac Fairy on a boat in order to promptly start pseudo classical dances against backdrop decorated with flowers and form spectacular groups with female dancers. This is how skillfully created impression of youthful graphomania and imitation, yet the talent comes through.

We can agree that “Gaîté Parisienne is almost entirely based on paraphrasing of classical, romantic and 'modern' choreography, and it is impossible to understand choreographer Béjart’s intention without knowing the background” – Yulia Churko wrote in 1987 after watching performance presented by Stuttgart Ballet. Yet the important thing that Béjart narrates about French classical school that worships grace, elegance, effeminacy and smoothly transitions to a comic opposite. Imaginary pas de deux by Carlotta Zambelli and Louis Mérante seems to represent the pinnacle of this direction. Béjart sends Zambelli (1875-1968), last of the greatest representative of genuine French School back to 1860s, dresses her up in snow white tutu with dark pink piece and makes her not only dance but also effortlessly walk on the backs of voluptuous ballet addicts who are wearing tuxedos. Mérante (1828-1887) entered Opera troupe in 1848, became more famous for his ballets rather than roles, appears “with mustache, in short tunic with tiger skin” (according to François-Marie Christout).He is taking pretentious poses and supporting Zambelli, who is so preoccupied with herself, that doesn’t even notice that support for her next stroke becomes Bim’s forehead instead of partner’s hand.

All this could be considered as amiable, good-natured, yet firm farewell to the outdated tradition, if not the ending. Ballet about Gaîté Parisienne does not come to a final point with passionate waltz of Bim and Madam who started believing in him, and admits that she would really desire to dance with him if only she was “slightly younger”, and he was “slightly taller“. Not even the tight, sensual, footloose, typical ‘Béjart style’ ballet that artists are dancing in ballet tights and leotards – composition where Bim discovered real self. Béjart ends his Gaîté Parisienne with Madam’s death to music by Offenbach barcarolle. Limping, but with the head up high, magnificent and at once aged Rousanne, with her ludicrous handbag, heading away from Bim backstage. She is then carried by improvised funeral procession of her students, fairies from prologue. However, that is still not the end. Last thing that we will see – Bim with his back to the audience, on a splendid Paris Opera stage in grand plié in fifth position, which means nothing but deep curtsy and the beginning of classical ballet.

Sergei Konaev

Translated by Anna Muraveva