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Flash Review 1, 11-12: Fruit Loops for Diaghilev
Fromage to Les Ballets Russes from Biarritz

By Nancy Dalva
Copyright 2002 Nancy Dalva

NEW YORK -- There's no credit in the program -- at least that I can find -- for the really marvelous recording Thierry Malandain uses for his repulsive rescension of "Pulcinella," based on an original for which he credits Serge Diaghilev (spelled every which way in the same program, along with every other Russian name) and Leonide Massine. He's lucky neither of them can sue. His entire evening for his company, the Ballet Biarritz, which came to shock the bourgeois at the Joyce Theatre last week, was in fact billed as an "Homage to Les Ballets Russes," and there's not much you can do about it except read about the sources for what you haven't seen, remember whatever versions you have seen, and then say, "I don't think so."

In your reading, you would find that others have had their way with the Pulcinella story, among them George Balanchine (with Jerry Robbins). You can hear why Balanchine wanted "Pulcinella" for the Stravinsky Festival -- the music is just too delicious not to use. To the already tangled tale based on the commedia dell'arte character Pulcinella, who is in the original a clown-like figure, Balanchine -- if I may digress -- added a Faust sub-plot, a spaghetti fight, and sumptuous costumes and sets by Eugene Berman. (In Nancy Reynolds's indispensable "Repertory in Review," you can read tactful contemporary reports indicating the production was a mess.) Malandain, in his version, adds, transposes, and substitutes all manner of this and that, including a medic (whose for-pay performance of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is taken by Pulcinella as an amorous overture, rewarded with, shall we say, a Viagra moment); a hot-to-trot drag queen; and a barnyard number reminiscent of Ashton's chicken dance (itself a play on the four-little-swans from "Swan Lake") in "Fille Mal Gardee." Malandain is like this. His work keeps reminding you of things (Paul Taylor, Alwin Nikolais, the travesty version of the step-sisters in "Cinderella" ), not in an authentic way, but rather in the way Fruit Loops remind you of actual produce.

Speaking of authenticity, how authentic, and how sexy, is feigned intercourse by fully dressed people? What with its rape scenes, its humping scenes, its groping scenes, and its breast-grabbing scenes (the girls put up with a lot, but then so do the boys), "Pulcinella" seemed to last ages, though not as long as the evening's last number, to Ravel's "Bolero." That looked like a cross between a Nikolais floor routine and a Lamaze class, and seemed to last longer than actually giving birth. In between these dances, there was a horrid version of "Le Spectre de la Rose," which is pretty silly to begin with, but not offensive. It is supposed to be a dream about a handsome suitor. It is not a nightmare about a man who commits a sort of doggie-style rape -- but then, this is Malandain's dream, not Theophile Gautier's, not Nijinsky's, and not Fokine's. (They are cited in the program, which brings up an interesting issue: if you credit something, which surely you must if you use it, does its luster rub off on you? Really, it shouldn't.)

It's not, dear dance insider, that I have anything against the restaging of masterpieces -- as Artaud said, there are "no more masterpieces." And it's not --because I can just sense someone out there thinking what a prude I am -- that I am offended by the genuine lustiness of the original "Pulcinella" (commedia being based, as it is, on racy Roman comedy), or the sexual undertones of the "Spectre," or -- and we'll get to this soon -- the sensuality of "Afternoon of a Faun." What does offend me is the choreographer's rare mixture of refinement (that would be the classical ballet technique) and obscenity (that would be the use to which he puts it). Malandain makes soft porn ballets. What appalling taste! And not very hot at that, in my opinion. (Malandain is no Bejart.)

Of course Malandain must be hot to someone -- and one deeply suspects, from the evidence of his solo version of "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," that that person is himself. Here's the gist of his version (with the program citing Nijinsky, Bakst, and Mallarme, poor dears): A man, alone, wearing tight white underpants, is splayed on a catafalque-like piece of furniture that turns out to be a giant tissue box. Disposed on the stage are two ottoman-sized clumps of white fabric, which are apparently meant to portray used tissues -- that is, tissues with which he has already, as it were, had his way. How do we know this? Because he dismounts the tissue box to dip his thumb into one clump and then -- this is truly disgusting --sucks it. (This reminded me of David Parker's The Bang Group, which is famous for thumb sucking, but not as a solo enterprise.) By the end of the dance, the "faun," who is like nothing so much as a French Portnoy locked in a bathroom with himself, has, though not disrobing, thoroughly shown off his buttocks -- or shall we say "derriere," to be chic? --- and concluded another satisfactory encounter with himself. If this reminds you of the original, with the girl and the scarf, so be it.

I suppose this would be the moment to say that the soloist, Christophe Romero, and indeed all the Biarritz dancers, seem dedicated to the work, and dance it with vigor. But whatever pleasure you find in their sincerity diminishes when you begin to worry that they are delusional. After a while you find yourself hoping that they know that what they are doing is of dubious merit. (You can feel lonesome, watching bad art.) I have to say that the Frenchmen in front of me were enthusiastic, and kept the final applause going for quite a while. I doubt they were faking it.

Nancy Dalva is the Senior Writer for 2wice.

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