Connor Barlow is one of the youngest members of the Béjart Ballet Lausanne’s ensemble. He is now in his second season after having graduated from English National Ballet School (ENBS) in 2014. Prior to his training in London, Connor was a student at the McDonald College in Sydney from 2007 to 2011.
When we met in Cologne, Germany, following one of 13 performances for the city’s summer festival, he was tired – not only from the gruelling conditions of a touring company but also from the 12-month season that was soon to come to a welcome end.
“I never had my heart set on a particular company,” Barlow says, looking back on his first year in the profession. “From the start I knew that to do so was (in some cases) to set myself up for failure. I was and still am more in love with the idea of letting dance take me where it may.” This is a mindset he seems to have gained from his final year of training at the ENBS, a period he describes as “geared towards auditioning”.
“The first week back we were told to write a list of 40+ companies we wanted to join. The reason for such a high number is to account for the fickleness of auditioning. For example, out of 40 companies you might have 30 holding auditions that year, 20 of those are looking for men, and half of those could be looking for a certain height or weight. After all the setbacks you’re left with a small list of companies that have asked you to come and audition.
“My audition for Béjart came on the back of a recommendation from Jean Yves Esquerre who was teaching Paquita at ENBS.” Esquerre is a renowned dancer and répétiteur who trained with Béjart’s now defunct Mudra school in Brussels prior to the company’s move to Lausanne. He later enjoyed an illustrious career on stage and behind the scenes at the Hamburg Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theatre and then as assistant director at the San Francisco Ballet. Esquerre suggested Barlow take a look at the Bejart company. “Two days later I flew to Lausanne, took class, after class I got a job offer, and I took the job. When the Béjart Ballet Lausanne says yes, you don’t turn it down!”
Often the guiding hand of those in the industry makes all the difference when looking for professional work, and here Barlow has the ENBS to thank for it. He raves about the “amazing opportunities within the dance world” the school provided him. He continues: “Whether it was working with professional choreographers, performing with ENB or even just watching professional dancers in class, there was always motivation to push my training forward. The training itself and the atmosphere around the school was at times necessarily ruthless. I believe it was this pressure to achieve within ENBS which shaped the quality my peers and I achieved.”
So-called “necessarily ruthless” schedules and high expectations continue to shape Barlow’s dance practice, all the more evident when he rattles off some of the places he’s toured to over the past year: “Georgia, France– we toured seven French cities in a month – Germany twice, Spain, China, Japan.” He pauses, trying to think what he’s forgotten, which is completely understandable seeing as he’s already thinking about the season to come. “Two weeks after we start back we’re going to Russia,” he adds, although he wasn’t sure of the details. My own research tells me he is scheduled to perform the male corps de ballet component to Maurice Béjart’s iconic Boléro with none other than Polina Semionova dancing the solo part. Following Maya Plisetskaya’s passing and Sylvie Guillem’s pending retirement, Semionova looks set to become the next in a long line of dance stars to grace the large, round, red table that makes the work so instantly recognisable.
Touring has come to dominate Barlow's life – and it isn’t all enjoyable. The company’s performances in Cologne were on a concert house stage – in other words a hardwood floor hidden beneath a marley dance floor that is intended for seated musicians and not jumping dancers. “After two days I got tendonitis and it’s going to take forever for that to go away,” Barlow sighs. On the other hand touring is made more attractive by a daily allowance that supplements the dancers’ generous Swiss wages.
Barlow is not too concerned with long work days eating at his spare time and taking their toll on his body. He chooses instead to look on the bright side: “Of course the company’s and Maurice Béjart’s big reputation factored into my decision, but I also joined with the goal of travelling the world.”
Despite the company’s namesake passing away in 2008, the Béjart Ballet Lausanne continues to profit from Béjart’s own critical acclaim and enduring commercial appeal. Unlike the Merce Cunningham Dance Company that closed shortly after Cunningham’s death, Barlow informs me, “there’s no discussion about the company closing or anything. It’s not certain yet, but it looks like we’ll be expanding,” with a possible extension or relocation of the company’s Swiss headquarters that are currently shared with the École Atelier Rudra Béjart.
The Béjart Ballet’s popularity was reasserted in Cologne, where the festival audience (that likely also attended large-scale Japanese drumming spectacles and a revival of Rocky Horror Picture Show) celebrated the dance troupe with a series of sold-out shows and standing ovations. However, in curating the program former Béjart Ballet soloist turned company director Gil Roman made an interesting decision – to revive works that could be described as historical curiosities, rather than masterpieces, as opposed to limiting the repertoire to Béjart’s most “significant” and timeless works.
In this regard, Roman walks a fine line between presenting works that appeal to the masses and preserving and maintaining the legacy of one of the 20th century’s most successful and adventurous choreographers.
From a dance critic’s perspective the shows in Cologne favoured the commercial. The company presented a mixed bill of works featuring choreographic and design elements that may have been avant-garde upon conception yet now appear dated or have been outright discredited. Examples of these lesser successes range from unflattering, brightly-coloured lycra unitards to melodrama and gestures pregnant with “meaning”, and even the misappropriation of “exotic” non-European cultural and religious material.
On the one hand the works demand dance audiences make some concessions in order to appreciate what they achieved in their historical context, as one does when watching most other 20th century dance works. On the other hand they make interesting examples of how Béjart’s aesthetic continues to influence contemporary (neo-)classical choreographers.
Béjart (along with his contemporaries) introduced ballet to what was once unfamiliar content, e.g. pop culture, fashion, sexuality, spirituality. The costumes might now look gaudy, but they were the result of collaboration with Gianni Versace. Such projects continue to act as an example for contemporary collaborations between choreographers and fashion designers. Bejart's eclectic music choices, ranging from world music to glam rock, may not seem daring to today’s audiences, but in its time it challenged the idea that classical music is the appropriate accompaniment for dance on ballet stages. Then there are the best known Béjart works that define 20th century ballet and continue to be revived around the world, many of which were originally created for and performed by illustrious dance personalities.
Barlow “never met Béjart” but he says that “the works feel fresh” to him. “We’re always hearing stories in rehearsals and even though it is second hand knowledge, I still think I’ve learnt so much about him and his work.” In addition to the choreographic legacy, Barlow also finds “a lot of inspiration in current as well as former dancers”.
Looking forward, he remarks ambitiously that “I'd like to remain with Béjart to see how far I can progress through the company. Other than that I want to leave my career open-ended so I don't tunnel too much into one idea.”
- Luke Aaron Forbes