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Flash Review 1, 5-28: All Ravel, All Disappointing
Strong Dancing Can't Lift Weak Choreography from Lyon Opera Ballet

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2002 Aimee Ts’ao

BERKELEY -- Having seen the Lyon Opera Ballet's production of Maguy Marin's "Cendrillon" two nights previous, I was filled with anticipation and expectation for this company's all-Ravel program. The evening of impressionist music, offering three different choreographers' takes on various pieces by the French composer, was performed May 4 and 5 at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, presented by Cal Performances. At first I thought the greatest disappointment would be the lack of live music, but I was in for a surprise.

Opening the evening is Jiri Kylian's "Un Ballo," to the Menuet from Le Tombeau du Couperin and Pavane pour une infante defunte. Fortunately, a footnote in the program clarifies the choreographer's intent and states that this piece was specifically created for young dancers (Nederlands Dans Theater II) and has no meaning beyond being an exercise in musicality between partners. In that light, Kylian succeeds very well, though Lyon Opera Ballet (LOB) does not rise much above making it look like a very good student performance. I sat with a Dutch friend who had just returned from a stint as guest ballet mistress with a company in Barcelona, where a member of Nederlands Dans Theater (I) recently staged "Un Ballo." She remarked that LOB dances it in a very classical manner, unlike the very lyrical and expressive way she had just witnessed in Spain. Still, Kylian manages to choreograph better than almost anybody else; his vocabulary is always filled with unexpected twists and inventions, his architectural sense beautifully balanced, and his musicality impeccable. Annabelle Salmon was gorgeously warm while reaching that extra bit beyond what seems possible in the first pas de deux.

Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit is a successful attempt, by his own admission, "to write piano pieces of transcendental virtuosity." When a piece of music is so rich and demanding of being listened to with utmost scrutiny, it is often difficult to take in the added element of choreography. Tero Saarinen's "Gaspard," for five dancers -- one male lead and four women -- wrestles admirably, but ultimately loses. Pierre Advokatoff is beautiful, as is Annabelle Salmon, again, but the choreography can't fill up the time in a manner equal to the complexity of the music. I like the simple opening in unison with it's occasional outbreaks into individual movement and the duets and solos which follow, eventually finishing with a slow version of the opening steps and then the man alone with the four women together in the corner.

Why do choreographers even bother to use Ravel's Bolero today? The work's immense popularity and overexposure in everything from films to commercials introduces a twinge of dread; "oh no, not again." The only choreography to this composition I have ever seen that matches AND sustains the musical tension is by another Maurice -- Bejart, whose version is so compelling I can still vividly see it in my mind's eye more than twenty years later.

Meryl Tankard's interpretation is at least interesting. The Zellerbach audience loved it, but I feel it could have easily been a film. Tankard employs a screen across the entire proscenium, playing with shadows of the dancers. After the first five witty minutes I wait impatiently for the screen to rise so I can see the dancers, expecting that there will be more smaller screens on stage and there will be some interplay between the shadows and live performers. While the choreography does evolve with the music, and even though the changing size of the silhouettes indicates a depth of field, it still reads as two dimensional in my book and I really want to have contact, face-to-face, with the dancers. It's a great gimmick thanks to incredible sets and lighting by Regis Lansac, but does not pass the art litmus test.

At the very least, in this performance I saw some excellent dancing by a number of the company and generally high production values, but I would love to have seen stronger choreography. I can't help remember Lyon Opera Ballet in Angelin Preljocaj's "Romeo and Juliet" in 1995, and Maguy Marin's "Cendrillon" two night before and wonder what else they dance that is of the same caliber?

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