Ravel’s Bolero: from stage to screen

The erotic rite of Bolero at the cinema, inspirations and adaptations

By Paola Dicelli 15 February 2018

© Sébastien Mathé / OnP

Ravel’s Bolero: from stage to screen

At Bolero’s beginning was Maurice Ravel. Then came numerous adaptations for both stage and screen. Choreographers and film directors never tire of sublimating the spiralling lasciviousness of this score. The best known of them being Maurice Béjart whose star performer, Jorge Donn, infiltrates Claude Lelouch’s film set at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Not forgetting Wesley Ruggles in Hollywood and Miguel M. Delgado in Andalusia. Bolero travels the world and continues its career of seduction.

Ravel’s Bolero is inherent to dance. Commissioned by the Russian ballerina, Ida Rubinstein, in 1929, this intense musical work has been taken up by numerous choreographers and has so inspired the world of cinema that it has even become a central plot element. Originally, Ravel intended the repetitive theme as a metaphor for the effects of propaganda on the populace. However, the choreography, created by Nijinsky’s sister, Bronislava Nijinska, for Ida Rubinstein – alone on a circular stage, dressed as a gipsy – gave the score another colour: a crescendo evoking an erotic and quasi-orgasmic rite. Like ballet, cinema has chosen to spotlight the sexual sub-text rather than its original, political agenda.

Boléro, film de Wesley Ruggles, 1934, avec George Raft et Carole Lombard
Boléro, film de Wesley Ruggles, 1934, avec George Raft et Carole Lombard © Collection Christophel

In 1931, following its success, the solo was exported to the United States. A mere three years later, Hollywood bought the film rights. In 1934, Wesley Ruggles’ Bolero was the first film in which it was heard. The film tells the story of Raoul (George Raft), a miner who wants to become a dancer. He goes off to fulfil his dream in Paris where he meets Helen (Carole Lombard), with whom he plans to stage a choreography on the music of Bolero. But the First World War breaks out … Setting aside the anachronism, (Ravel composed the piece ten years after the end of the First World War), the film has retained a certain notoriety on the strength of its final scene.

Raoul, wounded during the war, is forbidden to dance. He disobeys and performs a highly sensual pas de deux with Helen. Although the two characters both come to grief, it is not for the same reasons. Whilst the hero dies of a heart attack, his young wife indulges in voluptuous pleasure, induced by the music. Wesley Ruggles divested Bolero of its Spanish character, choosing an uncluttered set (a round stage), simple costumes and slow, gliding movements extending the length of the dancers’ bodies and presaging Béjart’s choreography.

But Spanish-ism, already prominent in 1928, re-emerged in the forties and fifties. Whilst Serge Lifar transposed his 1941 choreography to Andalusia (toreador costumes for the men, voluminous dresses for the women), in 1951, El Boléro de Raquel by Miguel M. Delgado takes us to Mexico. In this comedy, Cantiflas, a rather dim-witted shoe-shine boy, watches a young woman dance before an audience on Ravel’s Bolero. The stage is no longer round and the dancer’s movements are much more redolent of Hispanic culture. Like the paso doble. The film also plays with the erotic mood of the original composition, exaggerating the sexual rhetoric. Its lascivious poses and the appearance of a shapely leg from behind a wall thus render the situation comic. But whilst cinema laughed at the sexual innuendo of Bolero, on stage, one man made it sexually explicit and definitively so.

Les Uns et les Autres, film de Claude Lelouch, 1981. Jorge Donn y interprète le Boléro de Maurice Béjart.
Les Uns et les Autres, film de Claude Lelouch, 1981. Jorge Donn y interprète le Boléro de Maurice Béjart. © Collection Christophel

In 1961, Maurice Béjart created a new choreography for the Greek dancer Duska Sifnos, drawing inspiration from the 1928 production (a single woman in the middle of a circle). He added forty men around her, all aroused by her intoxicating dance. As of March 2nd 1979, the Argentinian dancer, Jorge Donne, Béjart’s most celebrated performer, was to replace the ballerina in the centre of the red circle, surrounded by female dancers, then, a few years later, by male dancers.

Claude Lelouch made this ballet the leitmotif of Les Uns et les Autres (1981), a film which recounts the destinies of three families – American, Russian and French – during and after the Second World War. Jorge Donn plays the role of a Russian dancer, Sergei, a character based on Nureyev. As the film begins we see Sergei performing Béjart’s Bolero at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The following scene is a flashback to 1936: in Russia, during a competition, two ballerinas spin and whirl to the music of Ravel. Boris, Sergei’s father (also played by Jorge Donn), is a member of the jury. Family ties and the passage of time, from past to present, are symbolised by the music’s progression. The ending also pays tribute to the grandiloquence of the music by using it in a key scene, during a gala at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, when all the characters are brought together. In this film, even more than in the others, the scenes featuring Bolero are no mere interludes but unforgettable scenes.

As Béjart’s choreography returns to the stage of the Opéra Bastille, as part of a Millepied/Béjart programme opening on February 24th, the round continues: the director Anne Fontaine is préparing Boléro, a biopic on Maurice Ravel focussing on the composition of his cult work. What will she do with the dance?

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