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Flash Review 3, 12-12: Near-Pilobolus Experience
Everything but the Kitchen Sinks New Preljocaj

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- These are fallow days for Angelin Preljocaj. Perhaps the most popular touring French choreographer in the United States over the last seven years, and still a darling of the chic set here, his name elicits a shrug or a smirk when I float it to dancer friends under 35. And after seeing his new yet tired "Near Life Experience" Wednesday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, my third disappointment from him in three years, I can understand why.

It's hard to do justice to Preljocaj's internalized choreography of the heart and how he communicates it on the body, especially for an inadequate critic like myself. In the simplest terms, let's say he confronts ballet's legs with post-modern's waist, upper-body, and demeanor. His scenarios often go to the heart, as the 1998 "Casanova" for the Paris Opera Ballet, raved by me last season. They also rely on the dancers to communicate a lot from their hearts, amplifying the sometimes generalized ecstasy or agony conveyed by the choreography. Thus, I can tell you that I recall the very French (as much a battle as a tryst) pas de deux from his 1996 "Romeo and Juliet," and that his setting suggested a re-casting in a fascistic Balkan state, but little of the choreography of that pas de deux lingers besides that it involved lots of grappling.

There's lots of that, too, in "Near Life Experience," in which, says the choreographer in a program note, he was working with, among other things, states of trance, orgasm, and hysteria. He also says that he was trying to "penetrate a totally extraordinary dimension of life." The man aims high, he's in earnest, and he often gets there, but unfortunately the tools he uses this time around are of the ordinary variety.

A colleague to whom I unloaded after seeing this piece immediately asked, "Were there lots of chairs?," evoking another ballet for the Paris Opera, "Le Parc." In her DI review of that attempt to infuse the extraordinary into the ordinary, Aimee Ts'ao observed that "Preljocaj, for some inexplicable reason, assumes that the audience lacks that ability to understand his choreography without his drilling it so deeply into their heads that the net effect is that of having had a lobotomy." He's equally lacking in subtlety with his latest work. That extraordinary experience the orgasm is evoked by a woman on a yes, lifeguard chair upstage right moaning unimaginatively to simulate her ecstasy (we're not talking Brigitte Bardot or even Meg Ryan here) while a man diagonally downstage from her weaves around another lifeguard chair, in slo-mo. In fact, there's a lot of slo-mo here, but extraordinary experiences are not heightened just by slowing down their depiction, especially when the depiction is so base, as in another segment where -- am I ready for my lobotomy, yet? -- a girl-girl couple tenderly grapples upstage, while a boy-boy pair (pardon my language, but the base act merits the base word) rolls around humping in their underwear upstage right.

But it gets worse! In his recent review of Les Ballets de Montreal, my DI colleague Gus Solomons jr described a segment of one piece in which, "Their rhythms doggedly matched the barrage of athletic, stamina-defying, joint-punishing movement of five men in black Speedos: Paul Taylor meets Pilobolus." Yes, now it's.... Pilobolus meets Preljocaj!

Long-time DI readers know me as a fan of the Pilobolus aesthetic. It doesn't always work, but when it does work, it works because there IS an aesthetic. If that aesthetic sometimes involves the USE of props, props are not in and of themselves the aesthetic. The aesthetic is PLAY, not PROPS. The problem with the increasing number of Pilobolus and Momix copiers is not that they use props, but that their reasons for using them are not playful but facile. The only apparent reason I can see for their use in "Near Life Experience" is to prop up, so to speak, a tired choreography. But there's a difference between the chaotic and the non sequitur, between the truly inventive and the simply inane. All of Preljocaj's props here have the effect of a joke that the originator thinks is funny, but that drops with a thud for the rest of us.

If I may go into Joe-Bob mode to get this over with quickly, we're talking lots of yarn, yarn sex, man covered in shaving cream emerging from giant ball of yarn rolled onto stage by Lifeguard girl, yarn trailing from the mouth, yarn wrapping around two grappling bodies..... And opposed to Pilobolus, which expands the use of ordinary objects, Preljocaj uses them in expected ways, as when plastic bubbles are placed one by one across the stage, following which two pairs of men each lift a woman from ball to ball, with the rule that her feet can't touch the ground. In similar circumstances, Pilobolus would have involved the balls and made the lifts more involved. It requires the active imagination of a child (that's a compliment) to do this, and big boys like Preljocaj shouldn't play with toys.

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