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Flash Review Journal, 10-28: All About Love; Rats!; Grandparent Dance
Preljocaj Probes Love in "Casanova"; Maryinsky Mauls Heritage in new "Nutcracker"; Unyul Talchum Purifies the House inna Korean Stylee

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- In "Casanova," his 1998 evening-length work reprised this season on the Paris Opera Ballet, Angelin Preljocaj has created a radiography of love, a breakthrough work that synthesizes not only his own experiments on modern and ballet companies for the last 15 years, but makes him perhaps the first modern choreographer in recent memory to forge a raging success in the ballet realm, creating a choreography in which it's nigh impossible to separate the ballet from the modern influences. A woman neatly flips a leg up with none of the marvelling with which a modern choreographer usually uses such fleetness when working with ballet dancers. And -- as many of us have been hoping for -- a modern choreographer delivers the ballet story-line from its decrepit 19th-century tomb and creates, not so much a timeless love story, but a universal story about love.

Theoretically, a dramatic ballet should stand on its own -- clear composition, specific mime, and invested dancing making the story clear whether or not you've read the program notes. However, as "Casanova," sheerly by its title, is so loaded -- one expects to see a biography -- I was glad Saturday afternoon at the Garnier to have read in the program notes, just before the performance, Preljocaj's explanation that he "did not wish any one person to embody the title role. It is the ballet itself that is Casanova. I would like the audience to feel at the end of the performance that they have spent a little time in his company, not because he has told the story of his life, but because they have shared his sensation." It is not the man of letters, say the program notes, who interests Preljocaj, but his body.

Rather hitting us over the head with this fact -- at least it seems this way at first -- are Thierry Leproust's towering sets, flats that most resemble x-rays, largely of the regions around the heart and the sex organ. Yet that ostentatiousness is disarmed at once at the casual appearance and manner of the six lead dancers, the women in primary-colored velour skirts, the men in standard issue white shirts and black trousers. Oak doors upstage, the three couches on which the performers lounge -- the men occasionally bouncing ping-pong balls -- and the subdued aspect of the dancers indicate the intimate story that will follow. Some calisthenics around and over the couches and each other follow, introducing us to the personae: Laurent Hilaire easily flips and somersaults, locks and pops; but the implosion which is to come is telegraphed by his impatience when he begins a boogie to Goran Vejvoda's perccusive score, and has to (verbally) coax, one by one, each of his copains up from lolling on the couch to join him. Wilfried Romoli, as always -- and it's compelling -- seems to be only partly there, haunted; and Yann Bridard, as often, compels at first but ultimately can't take the proceedings -- romantic or tortuous -- seriously enough. Of the three women, Marie-Agnes Gillot also breaks the mold in which this tall dancer is usually cast; it's her inner grace, not her imposing form, which Preljocaj taps on. (Could any other ballerina walk upstage in only black briefs and bra and manage to look more elegant than tawdry?)

The partnerships are completed by the sufficiently languid Stephanie Romberg and Geraldine Wiart, and an equally languid, sensual sextet follows. I don't use the word 'sensual' as a euphemism for 'sexual' here, for Preljocaj, in this introduction and throughout (except for a tacky and bordering on tactless "Kama Sutra" section in which elephants aren't the only things which rear their ugly heads), doesn't go the usual route when ballet choreographers want to indicate coupling. Except for that Kama Sutra section, couples rarely place their legs around each other and press their pelvises together. Rather, they are all over each other -- not just facilely fondling but really exploring texture and response.

Not that all's light. This first tableau is busted open when a menacing corps of doctors appears upstage and, turning the couch tops into operation tables, wheels the women off before the men know what to do.

What follows is mixed; Preljocaj doesn't always seem to know what to do with a corps. Because it's the Paris Opera Ballet corps in this case, the dancers move with ferocity and commitment, and with a unison that makes a convincing argument. But writing this just two days after seeing the performance, I can't seem to remember exactly what that argument was, step-wise. (For the corps sections.) Preljocaj's costumes -- he designed them -- hinder more than help. Do the men in the Kama Sutra really make it while wearing rubber elephant heads? Was it really necessary for the women in bikini tops and bottoms to have phalluses strapped around their waist, or might there have been a choreographic way to convey onanism? In the next to penultimate tableau, why -- specifically -- were the women done up as skeletons?

Fortunately, in this scene that garish costume design was subsumed by Vejvoda's shattering set, a cave of the heart described by several levels of set flats, including an x-ray of the heart region overhanging the back of the stage, and red, lunar pockmarked slats at the entrance to this cave. Bridard stumbles on, wrecked, in briefs and with a black 'X' on his chest, and commences to try to scale this wall, but doesn't get far....

Bridard and the set apparently portray the turmoil inside of Hilaire, who rushes onto the stage and tears into an Albrechtian death dance, repeatedly hurtling himself around the stage, turning above it, toppling and crumpling on to the stage or into the arms of Romoli, "Laurent!" "Laurent!" Romoli calls, trying to fetch him back from the land of the love-torn. But as exhausting as it is, Hilaire can't stop this death rattle...and yet ultimately, I realized as I had a flashback to the final throes of one of my own relationships, what was dying here was not the man but a relationship. And what was living was the solidity provided by the male friend. Romoli tries to call Hilaire back by uttering his name, and yet knows he'll have to dance himself out. The picture sounds excruciating, but it was also exhilarating, exalting the throes of love.

....And setting up the final tableau, in which the three men and three women dance a slow waltz. They have been put through the ringer, they are spent, but these trials, rather than pull the men and women apart, have affirmed their bond; they are sobered, but they are also soldered.

....I've talked a lot about the sets, but while they augment and contextualize (scientifically) Preljocaj's story, the choreography is strong and dancer-relationships telling enough that they don't mask weak dancemaking. By contrast, the Maryinsky/Kirov's new (2001) version of "The Nutcracker," seen Friday at the Theatre du Chatelet, places visual design at the forefront, acting (or melodramatic gesticulating) in the middle, and dancing in the rear. More critically, the children typically associated with this ballet since Lev Ivanov created it in 1892 on the Maryinsky, based on Petipa's plan and Tchaikovsky's music, are more or less gone, replaced by more rats. Incredibly, the marching music usually accompanied by, er, the children, marching, is instead set to a scrim of a fitting room. With no dancing.

I suppose that director/designer Mikhail Chemiakin and choreographer Kirill Simonov are not the only 'Nutcracker' stagers to cast adults as Clara and Fritz, nor even to do away with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Perhaps an argument could be made for this choice -- but not by Diana Vishneva, who, trying to capture the child of Masha (as Clara is called here) was even more spastic than in the Maryinsky's recent reconstruction of "The Firebird." But a galumphing, gargantuan Alexei Semenov as Fritz stretched credibility even more, as he fixated on a stuffed cat, torturing it and using it as a sword against the toy soldier. This toy soldier, while still being produced by Drosselmeyer (who apparently has made a secret pact with the Rat King), does not dance to the usual accelerating toy soldier music; that's left to two saber-yielding Cassocks although, inextricably, this music is hardly met.

If I wasn't seeing red already, I could find it in the tint of Masha and Fritz's orange hair. A different color scheme was utilized for the Snowflakes -- black. Black tutus, black tights, black (and loudly clomping; these snowflakes don't float) pointe shoes, even black (because under-illumined) faces. Their movement motif, meanwhile, climaxed in an echo of the death rattle (on his back, limbs shuttering above) of the Rat King -- himself(or his commandant Napoleon -- I got a little lost here) spared, nursed back to life by Masha after one of the lamest slipper-assaults I've ever seen.

Contemporary choreographers should certainly be encouraged to make fresh interpretations of classic tales. But where Preljocaj has stripped Casanova's tale down to its essential sensual and sentimental elements, Chemiakin and Simonov have simply stripped "Nutcracker" of its essential element -- the viewpoint of the child -- without replacing it with anything but a garish design concept. Even if Ivanov's choreography or Petipa's book are not sacrosanct, certainly the perspective of the child is. In dispensing of this, the Maryinsky has squandered an opportunity to enchant children with ballet and scandalized its own heritage.

(The Maryinsky's new reconstruction of Petipa's "La Bayadere," reviewed for the DI in New York last summer by Susan Yung, runs tonight through Thursday at Chatelet.)

....Speaking of heritage, this fall's city-wide Korea 2002, co-produced by the Festival d'Automne, has proved a font of information about that culture. From the theater and mask dance company Unyul Talchum, seen last Monday at the Theatre de la Ville, I anticipated a lion dance. And I anticipated a fable. Here the fable, or most of it, concerned the exploits of an impudent, roving servant, Maltugi (the effervescent Lee Kwang-soo), who out-wiles his three masters to ravage and, sort of, win the heart of the comely Saemaegssi (Lee Eun-Kyu).

All this was mimed in unexceptional fashion. But then came the Dance of the Grandparents, concerning a grandma (An Sun-gyun), who searches for years for her errant husband (Kwan O-hun), only to discover him shacked up with a fetching concubine (Eun-kyu). Maltuggi and a friend mediate, finally awarding grandpa to grandma after they confirm her description of his member. But the concubine stamps on and kills her. A Shaman (Kim Nam-hee) is called to mollify grandma's spirit and purify the house. As Joe-Bobb Briggs might say, we're talking Grandma-fu, Concubine-fu, and Shaman fu.

But seriously: The ritual culminated in a ribbon dance unlike any I'd seen before, as Kim, holding a knife at her chest, used it and her body to slice through increasingly thin sheets of ribbon, finally pausing in the middle of the split ribbon facing upstage, bending backwards, yielding the knife upwards, and craning her neck until she faced downstage. Grandmother could rest, grandfather, who had been rubbing his hands together in a cleansing motion for the whole ceremony, had his conscience eased, the concubine was humbled, and the house was purified. It was a nice circle from the evening's beginning, when the theater itself had been purged of evil spirits.

Speaking of Shamans: Next up for Korea 2002 is the Shamanist Ritual of Daedong-gut, presented by Kim Kum-hwa, mudang or shaman, and a Korean national treasure. For more information on this and other Festival d'Automne events, please visit the festival web site.

Paul Ben-Itzak is the Dance Insider's editor-in-chief and publisher.

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