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Flash Review 1, 11-5: Sky-Watching
Charming Babilee Can't Save New Nadj

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- The landmark Spring 2001 France Moves festival, which introduced New York audiences to or re-acquainted them with several leading French dance companies, also introduced the choreographer Josef Nadj to Jean Babilee, in town for a screening of "Le Mystere Babilee." The legendary dancer has enthralled French -- and international -- audiences since 1946, when he created the role of the young man in "Le Jeune Homme et La Mort," choreographed by Roland Petit, to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, for the Ballets des Champs-Elysees. (Babilee and Nathalie Philippart reprised their roles for the 1951 US premiere, on Ballet Theatre at the Metropolitan Opera House.) About the same time, in 2001, the painter Balthus passed away. When Nadj decided to create a spectacle dedicated to Balthus and his friend Antonin Artaud, the 80-year-old Babilee was one of the first performers he enlisted. If he can't fly like a bird as he once could, last night's premiere of of "Il n'y a plus de firmament" (Literally, "There is no more firmament" or "There is no more sky") at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt showed that Babilee can still charm. Unfortunately, the dry choreography and theatrics depended on such charm to succeed, and only one other performer delivered it.

The work begins rather thrillingly with Babilee -- looking more or less the same, compact with big, if grayer, hair, combed back -- seated in his chair holding what could be either a big stylo or a small stiletto to his back, which is to the audience. Of course, the image immediately conjures "Le Poignard" (The Dagger), Jean Benoit-Levy's 1952 film featuring Xenia Paley and Babilee in the latter's choreography, with Babilee leaping and lunging repeatedly at a dagger stuck in a door, only to end up dangling from it.

Babilee may not be leaping anymore, but the blade, which eventually transforms into what's more clearly a knife, still signifies danger, as he twists it around his torso, holding it to his back. Later, there's a duet whose bare-bones theatrics are made hilarious only by the exquisite timing of Babilee and his partner, Peter Brook regular Yoshi Oida, who aren't given much to work with: They expectantly if warily open a big package set between them on a table, delightedly finding a loaf of bread. They bite into slices, only to discover nails. A picture of a horse hung on the wall above their table keeps falling down as if in reaction to the strange loaf, and they replace it. They reverse the painting, revealing another horse, this one with wings.

The painting and the wall console itself have all been placed there at the end of an excruciatingly run-out quartet in which the men essay Pilobolon climbing around, about, and in the mobile door-frame/wall, but they have neither the charisma of Babilee and Oida nor the drollness of Pilobolus to keep us engaged with their not-particularly original maneuverings.

Before and after this, the four men also play with Jing Li, in segments that are musically just offensive. Though Li's movement lexicon features the expressiveness of Peking Opera, the pointed and extended feet of ballet, and the upper-body flexibility and incongruity of modern, guess which musical style composer Vladimir Tarasov picks to signal Li's segments? Yes, friends, Orientalism rears its ugly head yet again! I'm not an expert on the Peking Opera so I don't know the name of the instrument the score highlights here, but it will be familiar to you if you've seen any Peking Opera as basically a Chinese cymbal, producing quick, high, clanging notes. Hay-yah!

After the spectacle, I said to my dancer companion: I have the feeling that if I took a non-dancer to this -- someone who didn't know who Babilee or Nadj was -- they would really hate it. She disagreed, pointing out that a non-dance person might be attracted by the show's other, plastic elements, for example Jacqueline Bosson's masks or sculptures, including one of a giant hand which is attached to the palm of one of two large Buddah-like figures upstage. I'll concede that Michel Tardif's central set, the slope-walled room which frames the action, effectively evokes the setting of a Balthus painting. But except for Babilee -- bien sur! -- and the tic-ey Oida, most of at takes place within those three walls does not linger.

"Il n'y a plus de firmament" continues through November 15 at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt.

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