In the beginning we see the contours of bodies hidden underneath the white sheets, basking in the pale morning light. With the first sounds of Freddie’s voice, young and beautiful faces emerge from these covers, staring intensely into the audience; as the sunlight floods the stage, they get up and wander around, clinging to their sheets, as if clamping a wound on their stomachs or pressing invisible children to their hearts. Suddenly the sheets fly into the air, transforming into the wings or banners or white sails swinging above their heads. And this sight, along with Freddie’s song about time waiting for no one, pierces your heart.
For many years, I saw classic ballet as a distant art: my knowledge was essentially limited by Swan Lake and Nutcracker, the obligatory experience that almost any Russian child went through. As an adult, I never attended these shows, always preferring more contemporary or ethnic dances; and even being an ardent fan of Queen, I was not overly excited when I have heard about a “ballet on Queen music.” However, when I got a present, a disc with highlights of Ballet For Life directed and choreographed by Maurice Bejart in 1997, I was completely astonished, playing it over and over again, as if I could not believe my own eyes. What a special and unexpected feeling it was, to fall in love with a show even prior to understanding its elements and symbolism in full, only sensing this ideal l match between music and dance, between grief and joy. Of course, I immediately bought a DVD containing the full version as well as two “making-of” documentaries.
Ballet For Life mourns and celebrates two characters, Freddie Mercury and Jorge Donn, a principal dancer of Bejart’s group: bright and special, loved dearly by their bandmates and fans, they both died of AIDS aged 45, in the course of one year. “There was a definite parallel there because we’d lost Freddie, and Maurice had lost Jorge, the love of his life, and this wonderfully talented man, and so did we,” – said Roger Taylor, – “I met Maurice Bejart at the unveiling of the statue of Freddie <in Montreux>. He was an entrancing man, and that steely blue eyes that lit up, and he would carry you along with his enthusiasm.”
Bejart’s idea came up when Roger, Brian, and John were least expecting any continuation of Queen projects – by 1995 Made In Heaven was already out, We Will Rock You musical was not conceived yet, and it seemed like this part of the band history was over. Nevertheless, there were some vital coincidences, such as Brian May’s work on his “No One But You” song that primarily commemorated Freddie but also “everyone who left us before their time.” Moreover, when Maurice Bejart bought Made in Heaven album he was astonished to see the picture of Lake Geneva on its cover, the view he saw from the window of his own house: “Life destiny took me by the hand, and I had to put Jorge and Freddie together, and in that case, it was love and death.”
Indeed, Death becomes one of the leading characters of this show, and all scenes, even the joyful ones, are saturated with its presence. We see a figure in black -a Fate collecting his toll; a beautiful girl in a wedding dress, standing arm in arm with “Freddie,” while a young widow is dancing desperately next to them; a group of mourners crying out the names of their dead lovers. There is a macabre video footage of a crucified clown, played by Jorge Donn himself. But the most tangible presence of Death is in the long and tranquil scene, with an elegant couple dancing slowly to Mozart’s music, while the orderlies are wheeling around the hospital stretchers with bodies drowning in their own sweat. I believe that Wayne Sleep, the director of Royal Ballet of London, refers to this exact moment when saying that “Ballet For Life is very important because it spreads to the public the agony the people went through before they died.”
Bejart possessed the striking ability to see beyond the songs’ lyrics and meanings, to dive into their musical texture, making the ideal visualization out of his impressions. It could be a literal interpretation of the text – in “Time” the dancers are glancing at their imaginable watches; or a completely new meaning, like in “I Was Born To Love You,” where love is present only as a memory, as a treasure that had been lost. But in majority of the numbers we see many layers – Queen imagery, the ballet history, and Bejart’s personal associations: in Radio Gaga, the references to the eponymous music video (red costume of “Freddie,” white background, and many of his recognizable gestures) are combined with the tortuous scene of half-naked young men flooding a box or a closet, forming shapes and pyramids, stretching their hands to Freddie – but not able to break free, till the very end of the song – and of course, we understand what it means. At the same time, one of Jorge’s avatars dances an almost-classic ballet number – only these moves are travestied, brought apart, turned into separate gestures. According to Domenico Levre, a dancer who played that role, Bejart told him to dance “like <Rudolf> Nureyev” and then break the movement.
I always thought that “Let Me Live” embodies the radiance of Queen music, with every sound, every note filled with meaning and with the affirmation of life. And I think that Bejart felt it too, when staging a scene in “Ballet For Life,” where we witness happy carelessness of the garden of Eden, before the separation into good and bad, or doomed and saved. The visuality and the music of this number bless the audience with a powerful wave of love, when everyone on stage becomes a part of a huge embrace, which later falls apart, leaving “Freddie” at the center. This is when actors become characters; as put by Gil Roman (Bejart’s principal dancer, and currently an artistic director of the theater), “When we made this ballet we didn’t think ‘You’re Death, you’re Life’ – we are all the same. And then we become different characters. And then we return to being the same. It’s the cycle of Life and Death.”
In the documentary dedicated to Ballet For Life, Bejart admits that he did not have an idea of a plot but rather thought of a series of scenes where everything would be revolving around a rock musician, a dancer, and death. Nevertheless, the plot constructs itself, mostly in the transitional scenes when dancers are moving to the sounds of guitar riffs. The associations with Queen canon show up in the lighting, in costumes created by Gianni Versace, in the fleeting gestures of the main character – his raised arm, his joyful smile, his recognizable microphone stand (Gregor Metzger, who played this part, said that instead of imitating Freddie he tried to present an image of a rock star in general). But most of all I feel the spirit of this great band in the sense of freedom that is always associated with Queen catalogue: despite the tragic subtext, even though this show mourns Jorge and Freddie it is filled with a passionate will for life that ultimately prevails and defeats darkness and grief. In the finale, when characters disappear and dissolve, they cover themselves with the same white sheets. The plot returns to the beginning, and we realize that this night and death will be followed by another awakening.
… After the chords of “Show Must Go On” fade out, Maurice Bejart appears on stage, silently looking into the audience with his piercing eyes. But then his face lightens up as his dancers surround him with a loving circle; he smiles, hugs them, kisses and shakes their hands as if rejoicing that after this symbolic death everyone came back, alive and young. And this mixture of sincerity and stagecraft fills your heart with joy.
P. S. I wrote this text in Russian before we all were enveloped in a new pandemic threat. I was hesitant to translate and publish it because everything that I wrote was too close to what we are all experiencing right now. Nevertheless, I still want to give it a try – because, in my opinion, the piece that I am going to focus on is mostly about life that always prevails. And so my hope is that this text will bring hope rather than dread and sadness.
P. P. S. Over the last three months, we have been watching in awe Bejart ballets that the company screened for free on their website. Every Thursday was like a holiday for us because all our family would get together to see another masterpiece of this amazing group. We got to know these dancers much better, recognized their faces, admired their skills, and endlessly savored this unique opportunity to see so many faces of Bejart’s art. This experience became an eye-opener for me, a huge discovery of another art that turned out to be so close to my heart. I am truly and deeply thankful.
Katya Neklyudova, June 2020 / May 2021
All screenshots, taken from the official DVD Queen Bejart Ballet For Life belong to Queen Productions Limited and Bejart Ballet Lausanne. All quotations are taken from two documentaries (1997 and 2018) available on the DVD. If you like this essay please consider buying a DVD or donating to Mercury Phoenix Trust.