Everything about the music of Queen is “big.” Just try listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” without doing even the teensiest bit of head-banging. That same philosophy goes for frontman Freddie Mercury. He knew how to play to the back rows of the world’s largest arenas. Every one of his moves on stage communicated to the masses. Queen’s shows with Freddie remain legendary (especially their gig at Live Aid).
In the dance world, the late choreographer Maurice Béjart was something of a rockstar as well. He was known for edgy moves, groundbreaking use of large “spaces” and experimental patterns with his dancers. So it’s not a huge leap that Béjart would tap the music of Queen for one of his most important works, Ballet for Life. It’s the first time a full-length ballet has been set to a such a complete range of rock music and includes pieces danced to Queen hits like “Radio Ga Ga” and “The Show Must Go On.” Queen + Béjart: Ballet for Life has just been released on DVD/Blu-Ray and digital formats.
Béjart was initially inspired by the unveiling of a statue in Switzerland in memory of Mercury. The loss of such a massive, young talent from AIDS hit especially hard since he had seen so much of the same in the dance world – including the passing of his muse, dancer Jorge Donn, just a year after the death of Freddie.
When Béjart approached the members of Queen to use their music, they immediately saw the potential to create something fresh and powerful. Both Brian May and Roger Taylor note the moving new insights into their music that the finished piece reveals. As May comments, the ballet finds beauty in “thoughts of death.”
Overall, Ballet for Life conveys a sense of lost promise, of great creative talents leaving us far too soon. The initial message about loss from AIDS has grown over the years to reflect on loss of all kinds (it includes costumes by Gianni Versace, who would be gunned down just a year after the ballet’s debut in 1997). And yet, there’s also a visceral joy, presenting the colorful, full spectrum of human experience. In this, Queen’s music works especially well.
The new DVD/Blu-Ray/digital releases include both a look at the “making of” the ballet plus a full-length performance of Ballet for Life, featuring a guest musical appearance from Elton John.
Twenty-plus years on, Béjart’s piece is still being performed. The blend of Queen’s music and the ballet world was a genius idea (who should be next?!). In the case of Ballet for Life, it’s a bittersweet marriage, one that will resonate with anyone who’s ever lost anyone close — but who still wants to celebrate their life with rock star passion.
Photo of Freddie Mercury: Getty Images