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Raimund Hoghe, Bolero Variations
Posted by: Dusty Hoesly
In the first American production of Raimund Hoghe’s Bolero Variations, opening on September 11, 2009, the six-member company was short one dancer. Nabil Yahia-Aissa, an Algerian-born French citizen, was not able to leave France because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security held onto his passport, pending further review (even after his work visa was approved). In a performance that highlights and celebrates difference, Nabil’s absence was tragic. Still, the remaining five members danced beautifully, in a spare performance simultaneously full of concentration and grandeur.

The show is based upon the Spanish-Cuban slow-moving music and its accompanying dance, and especially Ravel’s masterpiece Bolero, originally written for ballet. Ravel’s Bolero has variations within its own symphonic architecture, as different instruments repeat the music’s central theme, and even within instruments as sometimes a clarinetist plays solo and at other times with fellow clarinetists. These variations are honored in Hoghe’s piece, where different dancers interpret the Bolero differently depending on the musical version playing as they perform (musical variations include a piano version, full orchestra, Benny Goodman’s jazz interpretation, and a version using traditional Japanese instruments, among many others). Each stage of the piece is denoted by a change in the music. [See these other inspirations: Evgeni Plushenko, Maurice Bejart, Maya Plisetskaya.]
We first see Hoghe dancing on a blank, well-lit stage, wearing a dark suit and socks but no shoes. He lurches forward, one large step until his body leans forward to support his weight, bent at the knee, before swinging his other foot forward and repeating the awkward gesture. He walks a large rectangle around the stage’s boundaries. This intentional gait highlights a forced movement, requiring us to pay attention to his body for longer than we might initially care to. We’re not immediately transported to another dancer or to a series of striking advances; instead, we gaze at this one movement, noticing through its repetition the labor it takes to execute and the grace in its expression. Throughout the ballet we see dancers making single slight gestures, repeating them or offering minor alterations–a movement at the wrist becomes a movement at the elbow, perhaps–bringing our attention constantly to the body, to how subtlety can be as revealing and as revelatory as fast-paced, bold strokes. Their deliberateness requires our full attention.
Next we hear a clip from the Sarajevo Olympics, where two ice skaters perform perfect 6s as they dance to Ravel’s Bolero. We hear the sportscasters’ commentary and adulation, which influences our appreciation of a dancer walking backward, toe to heel. More dancers approach, as the music cuts to a Spanish-language bolero song, then a man singing, some versions more hopeful-sounding while others seem lachrymose. Various performers pantomime slow dancing, now slapping biceps, now moving feely and energetically, and now all four male dancers stride towards the audience purposefully, arms crossed, in a show of power as the music’s rhythm marches along. A feisty love song plays as Hoghe walks around sassily, spraying a perfume in the air that looks like clouds of dust in the white light against the black backdrop. These variations underscore the choices given to the dancers and the various ways the music inspires them to dance.
In the final variation, Hoghe and the other male dancers take off their shirts, kneel, put their arms out in front of them (as if Muslims at prayer), and circle on their knees. Beans, lentils, rice of different colors have been piled out of bags into perfect cones at the foot of the stage, the center one covering up Hoghe’s shiny shoes. (One pile is placed for the absent Nabil, as is a shirt.) We hear a script from an Auschwitz survivor and remember that the Nazi’s also exterminated people with physical differences (“deformities”) alongside Jews, Catholics, homosexuals, the elderly, etc. We see Hoghe’s “hunchback” (due to kyphosis) and it looks beautiful in its purity and alongside the gracefulness of his dance, no better or worse than the backs of his partners on stage. This final act of baring their chests and backs opens a final variation on difference, of accepting our physical differences. Throughout the ballet, the dancers made different movement choices as they responded to the different pieces of music–and even when several dancers were on stage simultaneously, they were not always doing the same thing. If a dancer was not moved by a piece of music in rehearsal, that dancer sat out that variation. By allowing diverse interpretations to exist on stage side-by-side, Hoghe celebrates the themes of difference and acceptance. The variations exist in harmony, not competition. The ballet invites us to consider it as a model of human relations, of affirming rather than rejecting difference. On the eighth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, I can think of no better message or a more beautiful way to express it.