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Women on the Verge, 3: Infanticides, Shrews, and Sluts
Ek Skewers the Fair Sex at the Paris Opera; Teshigawara Rides Their Wings

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- For the first ten minutes of Mats Ek's "Appartement," created on the Paris Opera Ballet in 2000 and reprised this past weekend at the Garnier, I was all set to write a piece regurgitating the question: Why isn't Ek, a major contemporizing force in ballet in Europe, programmed by U.S. ballet companies, instead of the safe middling contemporary fare we often get from them? But then I realized the misogynistic vision of women Ek was using his innovative choreography to postulate. On International Women's Day, no less, the Paris Opera Ballet was presenting a view of women as a man-domineering baby-burning species who, when they are not subduing their men, have only one thing in mind, to get them to fuck them. (I use the vulgar language to convey the vulgar way in which Ek expressed this.)

On paper, the conceit of "Appartement" is one surprisingly full of possibilities. In the program notes, Ek points out that our apartments can be isolated chambers where we are alone with ourselves. (Indeed, the French word for 'room' is 'chambre.') How we interact with, in, and among its implements and environs is fertile territory for dramatic and kinetic exploration. Onstage, the piece starts intriguingly enough. As seen Saturday afternoon, the ever lissome Marie-Agnes Gillot squeezes under the drawn faux-curtain and onto the lip of the stage -- willowy and statuesque at the same time, and a heart-stopper seen at such close range, as evidenced by the gasping of the woman seated next to me. That we're in the bathroom (or salle de bain, as distinct from the WC) is indicated, prop-wise, by a solitary bidet or bathtub. (Perhaps it was a bidet-sized bathtub.) Physically, where we are is also indicated by Gillot, who stands up and shivers in anticipation as she enters, as many of us do when stepping into the capsule of a hot bath, to be alone with our whimsy, musings...and fantasy. She is suddenly free, her long limbs shooting to the sky, her arms and torso stretching and then relaxing.

Suddenly four rambunctious men burst in -- on Saturday afternoon, Nicolas Le Riche, Wilfried Romoli, Kader Belarbi, and Alessio Carbonne. In an explosion of testosterone, verbal and physical, they roar about the stage. Lolling in the tub, her back arched and her legs and heads leaning out and over either end, her neck tilted back, Gillot is in ecstasy, the meaning here transparent: Alone in her bath, this is her fantasy. Libidinous perhaps, but healthy all the same and not a sexist idea at all; it could just as easily be a man in the tub fantasizing about being joined by four angelic women as a woman dreaming of four devilish men. I could relate.

But the honeymoon is over a couple of passages later, when we arrive in "The Cuisine (Kitchen)," a pas de deux between Belarbi and Clairemarie Osta. She's trying to cook -- there's a 'working' oven upstage left -- but he wants to grapple with her. At first there's a hint that he's the aggressor, but that quickly dissipates as she seeks to dominate and subdue him (and then there are the multi-colored pins projecting from her grey dress). The oven begins to smoke, and the temper of the pas de deux heats up too. Finally she throws the door of the oven open and extracts a baby blackened to a crisp, thrusting it into his arms. He cradles it and disappears into the floor of the stage.

A similarly aggressive trio, "Children's Games," follows, with Melanie Hurel, Geraldine Wiart, and Herve Courtain taking turns swiping at and pounding each other. There's a waltz featuring four couples whose highlights don't linger, and then an anger-infused "March of Vacuum Cleaners" featuring Osta, Gillot, Wiart, Stephanie Romberg and Celine Talon partnered by vacuum cleaners and essaying what looks like Irish step dancing to Scottish bagpipe music, sampled by the Fleshquartet. (Eliot Feld would cheer, Sean Curran wouldgroan, and Michael Flatley would put his shirt back on.) When they're not burning babies, haranguing their men or begging to be schtupped by them, the women are of course sullenly doing the housework.

But the most vulgar stereotyping of women is saved for the penultimate pas de deux, between Talon and Le Riche. It starts with her knocking on a door, perhaps to a house or a room, begging to be let in. Some tender moments of reconciliation do follow, but it disintegrates quickly with her sliding about the floor with splayed legs, adjusting her position so that her open legs face him wherever he has skeedadled to, and him rubbing her crotch with his foot. After this scene, the ensemble stretches accident- or homicide-scene tape across the length of the stage.

Now, it did occur to me that some readers out there might react to my repulsion at Ek's ideas by saying, "It's parody, you dolt! Don't you have a sense of humor?" Well, it's certainly possible, but I think Ek would have a better argument here if he had skewered both sexes equally. For example, in watching Maurice Bejart's "Le Concours" last summer, my anger at the stereotyped American concourse judge was quickly defused when I realized that Bejart was making fun of the ethniciities of all the judges, most outrageously the French one.

In "Appartement," notwithstanding Jose Martinez's rubbery (as he fits his slouched body elastically into a curved fuzzy armchair) couch potato for the "Television" scene, Ek doesn't do that. Without this balance, one is left to think that Ek does indeed see all women as potential infanticides who beat their men when they're not begging to be fucked by them. In this, he sells short his audience, his choreographic gifts and, most disgracefully, the women without whom he wouldn't have a job. Perhaps Mats Ek has issues with the women in his life; if so, he should work them out on the psychoanalyst's couch, not the stage of the Garnier and NOT on the virtuous persons of the Paris Opera Ballet women. As it is, a choreographer who has long brought a progressive sensibility to ballet has, with "Appartement," given it an irredeemedly regressive ballet.

It should be noted that, notwithstanding this message, the cast Saturday afternoon danced its heart out, without exception, prompting a well-deserved thunderous applause and many curtain calls demands from the decidedly less than full house.

The calumny of "Appartement" might have been mitigated had Saturday's program order been reversed, with Saburo Teshigawara's "Air" following Ek's piece as its antidote. There's nothing wrong with exploiting -- in the best sense of that word -- the inherent beauty of women and men as expressed by the hyper-beautiful bodies of dancers, and this Teshigawara did, to sublimely ethereal effect.

Co-founder with Kei Miyata of the Japanese company Karas, Teshigawara specializes in exploring the interactions between dance, the visual arts, and music as a way to elaborate the language of movement. "Air" is not his first creation for a ballet company; he's also made two ballets for the Ballet Frankfort and one for Netherlands Dance Theater. Modern choreographers working on ballet companies often can't get past their fascination with pointe. And unless they have the vivid imagination and Balanchinean musicality of a Mark Dendy, the results, while perhaps enthralling to the choreographer, are nothing we haven't seen ballet dancers do before. Or, they can stumble while trying to graft onto the ballet dancers a modern sensibility that the ballet dancers are neither physically nor mentally inclined to grasp.

In "Air," Teshigawara avoids the pointe trap by starting up top, concentrating not on the possibilities of the feet but in the oft-neglected but so expressive arms of the ballet dancer. If dance evokes space not by actually materializing the invisible substance, but by the way the body moves through it, Teshigawara evokes the wind and other textures of "Air" in the way the bare arms of the female dancers ride the currents. He also uses that oft-forgotten quality of lightness which has been the claim of ballet dancers since the days of the Peri and the Sylph -- they don't just ride the wind, they seem to be enveloped in the air, or to spring from it. Less clear was how the actions of the men, principally soloist Jeremie Belingard, reflected on the subject. Here the air seemed to get thicker, as Belingard jerked his arms around the centrifuge of his trunk. But I may be thinking too much; maybe it's enough that Belingard is always a rare treat to watch, one of few male dancers able to evoke both feminine beauty and masculine brute handsomeness. The company in Saturday afternoon's cast was lead by Miteki Kudo, who brought with her the Spring that often floats in the air, especially these days here in Paris, and Caroline Bance, who seemed to hold the elusive and hard to grasp element.

Teshigawara set "Air" to John Cage's 1944 "Four Walls, Act 1, scene VII," 1948 "Dream," 1990 "One5," and 1948 "In a Landscape," a serene landscape played with appropriate calm by pianist Frederic Lagnau. Another landscape, a graded mosaic covering the entire rear curtain of the stage, was created by Teshigawara.

Saburo Teshigawara's "Air" and Mats Ek's "Appartement" are reprised tonight, Thursday, and Friday at the Palais Garnier.


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