What do Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Freddie Mercury and Gianni Versace have in common? The answer is that they all died too young, at the respective ages of 35, 45 and 50. With Ballet for Life Maurice Béjart (1927-2007) created an ode to these creative minds in a 105 minute long performance.

Béjart Ballet Lausanne © Francois Paolini
Béjart Ballet Lausanne
© Francois Paolini

Béjart began choreographing in the 1950s. In France – the birth place of classical ballet but a country with no modern dance tradition – Béjart was praised as an innovator. Outside France, while some contemporary critics doubted his skills as a choreographer, his ballets continued to attract audiences throughout the years. In 1987 Béjart moved his ballet company to Switzerland and gave it the name Béjart Ballet Lausanne. After his death at the age of 80, this ballet company, with as many as 39 dancers from 15 different countries, continues to spread Béjart's work. It is in Theatre Carré in Amsterdam that they present Ballet for Life.

Béjart explained that with Ballet for Life he wanted to bring Freddie Mercury back to life. That is something he definitely succeeded at, if only because of the pop-concert atmosphere that is evoked by low spotlights and the use of live recordings with a cheering and clapping audience that sings along in the background. The bigger part of the music for the choreographies is by Queen. To hits like It’s a Beautiful Day, I Was Born to Love You and Radio Gaga, the dancers blend classical and modern ballet.

Ballet for Life © Colette Masson
Ballet for Life
© Colette Masson

All costumes in the performance are designed by Gianni Versace, making Ballet for Life his final ‘runway show’. Most of the costumes are snow white with black accents, but there are a few colourful extravaganzas that really catch the eye. The high fashion atmosphere is conveyed well in a hip, clean-cut rhythmic choreography to A Kind of Magic that reminds of The Arbiter from Chess. In this piece, the dancers wear cool, business-like black and white suits with a twist in their short trousers. They walk back and forth in static movement, but the soloist on the far left who runs in rhythm (which must be exhausting), makes this act rock. This choreography gets the most out Versace’s costumes and works like a video-clip, as promised by the ads for the show.

Things get really exciting with one of the few choreographies to music by Mozart. Oscar Chacon delivers a sensational solo full of classic pirouettes and skilled jumps, paired with sharper movements. In his dancing, he truly expresses the music of Mozart’s Thamos, King of Egypt ouverture – Chacon deserves the stirring spotlight aimed at him. Equally successful are the purely classical choreographies, high in the air and often en pointe, danced to the electrical guitars of Queen’s music. It is this paradoxic combination that proves to be powerful.

Radio Gaga © Ilia Chkolnik
Radio Gaga
© Ilia Chkolnik

Some of the modern choreographies are not quite as catchy. Ballet for Life was created in 1997, which, unfortunately, shows every now and then. I once heard a hip-hop choreographer describe modern ballet as “rolling on the ground and weeping”. This was what came to mind when watching the choreography to Heaven for Everyone. While probably intended as poetic movement, all I could see was a man running around with a sheet while another man was rolling on the ground. It just did not quite come across as intended.

Such small annoyances are compensated for by a mixture of varying acts that pass in review: a tango danced to a Mozart waltz in exquisite Versace designs; a Broadway-style Seaside Rendez-vous with a rough edge, and organized chaos in Radio Gaga. In spite of some of the less captivating pieces, they make Ballet for Life worth watching and an easily accessible introduction to Béjart’s work.