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Flash Review 2, 12-30: Downtown Decoys
Trisha Brown, and Liebeslieder Walzing, at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- Why does Trisha Brown have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to find a major ballet company to undertake her choreography? Why does New York City Ballet refuse to look below 42nd Street for additions to its repertoire, instead padding its Balanchine and Robbins legacy with filler from Peter Martins and others? I fumed over these questions last week at the Garnier, as I exalted over the Paris Opera Ballet's breathless interpretations of two newly acquired American masterpieces, Brown's 1979 "Glacial Decoy," with photography, sets, and costumes by Robert Rauschenberg, and Balanchine's 1960 "Liebeslieder Walzer," to Brahms.

Proving post-Modern choreography can reveal peris as easily as classical, five women flit on and off stage -- usually laterally, and occasionally followed by unison cascades down the raked surface. Loose-limbed in gauzy gowns, notwithstanding their physical brilliance their aspects are neutral. Miteki Kudo side-skips onto the stage, hovers at the periphery for a minute and then disappears back into a wing, before reappearing from a higher one. Muriel Zusperreguy and Geraldine Wiart release their limbs and shake them out, as if limbering up, bow extremely, hands on hips, shimmying their bare shoulders. Zusperreguy surfs her hand on a wave of air. They play with balance on the balls of their feet, and nod their heads, elbows akimbo, palms turned up. Kudo side-skips on again, the others following her; loose-limbed, she jogs in place, her arms weightless -- not so much floating as unanchored. Quick turns, vast windmilling; Kudo tilts. Later she enters loosey-goosey, and the others follow suit.

The spare ambience is set off by Rauschenberg's rotating black-and-white photos dropped along the rear wall, Western-evoking images of rain-clouds, silos, road signs and pelicans. The program says "performed in silence," but I swear I hear a whispering wind. Maybe it's the ethereal dancing.

But maybe you'd like to hear a real dance insider point of view? "Glacial Decoy" was taught to the Paris Opera Ballet dancers by Lisa Kraus and Diane Madden. In her extraordinary blog on the experience, "Decoy Among the Swans," Kraus notes:

"My favorite all-time quote is from James Waring: 'The best dancers are translucent, you can see right through them.' I would take that a notch further, saying the best dancers are translucent and in being so make the stage a true alternate reality for themselves and the viewer. I don't know whether the Paris Opera Ballet dancers receive particular training in how to BE. I know they watch each other closely and coach each other and have the opportunity to work with great choreographers: William Forsythe, Pina Bausch, Saburo Teshigawara, Trisha Brown. There is a culture of excellence regarding the veracity of performing.

"Perhaps these thoughts about quality of performance only arise as noteworthy when so much performing post-Judson was an attempt to have a person behaving as themselves, 'naturally.' In fact, some of the most stunning recent work has gone way beyond this playful or earnest dancers-in-space stance into a much more emotionally colored place. Maybe I am just registering the significance of this full circle return to embracing the virtuosity of 'theatrical' dancing.

"The 'Glacial Decoy' dancers were no exception in upping their performing ante. They were amplified, glorified, more everything -- more subtle, more slicing, more beautiful...."

Besides enriching the diet of an audience, any director interested in dancers' progress will tell you that the main benefit of an adventurous repertoire is that it pushes the dancers -- ups the artistic ante for them. Just as dancers like Suzanne Farrell and Edward Villella made it possible for Balanchine to extend the form, so Balanchine's new ideas for the possibilities of the ballet vocabulary developed those dancers; the relationship was symbiotic. The reason that this generation of New York City Ballet dancers freezes up -- or seems brittle -- in contemporary (and classical) work is that they're rarely STRETCHED. I don't know whether the ballet audience on either side of the ocean can fully appreciate Trisha Brown, even when divinely interpreted as she has been here; at last Tuesday's Paris Opera Ballet performance, the applause for "Glacial Decoy" was relatively restrained compared to the more robust reception for Angelin Preljocaj's husky 1989 male duet, "Un Trait d'Union," performed by Laurent Hilaire, Wilfried Romoli, and an over-stuffed armchair. But regardless of whether the audience gets it, doesn't the ballet director owe it to the dancers to bring them such work, so they can fully realize their potential as creative artists? And maybe the audience just needs to see more like work to get used to it; at New York City Ballet, where Trisha Brown is just a twenty-minute walk away, they're not seeing any.

Speaking of Balanchine, this Paris Opera program also included the company premiere of his 1960 "Liebeslieder Walzer." As my DI colleague Tom Patrick pointed out in a 2000 review of this work on City Ballet, the casual demeanor of the Viennese ballroom setting belies the challenge for the dancers in the first part. "Anybody who's done any of that gloved partnering, gowns/heels sort of thing knows it ain't easy to look so smooth," Tom wrote in part. (Read his complete, and much more technically adept Flash by clicking here.)

If this ballet presents difficulties for the dancers, it's easy to access for an audience, precisely because of the social milieu. Here the theatrical inclination of the Paris Opera Ballet dancers, which sometimes sabotages their attempts at more abstract Balanchine ballets, worked for them, for the most part. Colleagues more familiar with 'Liebeslieder' than I am say Balanchine allowed some dramatic lee-way here, to the extent that each of the four couples reveals a distinct relationship. With the exception of the hammy Yann Saiz, who should have been coached to some restraint here (and who sabotaged his gifted partner Marie-Agnes Gillot by his glibness), these dancers found those nuances. Aurelie Dupont and Hilaire, as a couple in formation or perhaps undergoing their first crisis and uncertain whether they'll emerge intact, were fine. But the real shadings were delivered by Delphine Moussin and Manuel Legris, as a couple who's already been through it and is now intact, secure and familiar with each other's nuances. Legris's contribution came in its usual form -- knowing where and how to touch his partner, always delicately and never as if handling a piece of meat (as is the case with some would-be swains), deferential but not self-effacing, and presenting her with pride. Moussin's was in her constant wonder that he was there; the relationship may be secure, but it's still precious; neither takes it for granted.

Because these dancers' success in interpreting this ballet came in conveying its personal dimensions, I think it's appropriate for me to share how it affected me. My ongoing challenge has been in finding that secure relationship. In a dry season, the model presented by Moussin and Legris gave me hope. And shouldn't ballet, for the dancers as well as the audience, present infinite horizons? There are extraordinary things, indeed, awaiting those who have eyes to see.

Research assistance by Melanie Rios.

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