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Flash Review 1, 6-16: Play Time
Montalvo-Hervieu puts the Fun (& the Fete) Back in Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- If you're like me, hearing a commentator describe a battle or other non-dance engagement as "carefully choreographed" probably makes you stamp your feet and clutch your head in a not so carefully choreographed fashion. Yet the term can be applied to film direction, and Jacques Tati's restored 1967 "Play Time," around which the choreographers Jose Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu, along with Jerome Deschamps and Macha Makeiff, have constructed a spectacle-fete at the Theatre National de Chaillot (seen last night), is just such a flick, built on split-second timing and carefully constructed pas, with each character having his or her own nuanced body language.

Tati, of course, is France's answer to Charlie Chaplin. (Or Charlot, as they call him here.) In "Play Time," restored in 2002 to a pristine print, one of Tati's stock characters, M. Hulot, is in effect the narrator, conveying us to the stages of his circus, including: a tres modern Paris airport lobby that could be a hospital reception room, with nurse-stewardesses disappearing behind partitions with babies; a tres modern glass office building in which M. Hulot gets lost in a maze of first-floor cubicles, on some business we're never meant to be clear on; a showroom/trade fair in which a group of American tourists and others are tempted by vacuum cleaners with headlights, doors that slam silently, and lighting fixtures that bathe everything in rose; street-level apartments whose department store-like display windows reveal the bourgeois life within, as families unwind before the tele or home movie screens; and a hysterical chi-chi nightclub opening in which the restaurant is not quite good to go, haywire heating causes patrons and decor (such as a withering model airplane behind the bar) to meltdown, head-waiters walk away with panels of the floor stuck to their feet, other waiters are more interested in preening than serving, a doorman 'holds the door open' using only the knob and miming the glass door after M. Hulot smashes it, a Boho black man is about to be turned away until the host realizes he's the band-leader, a loud-talking, cigar-chomping American sets up his own corner bistro behind a section of the ceiling Hulot has caused to come tumbling down, and everyone dances, to increasingly wild conga-laden and mambo-infused jazz, more tranquil piano ballads played by the central American tourist figure and semi-Tati love interest (Barbara Dennek) and chanson. It all ends at an airport traffic circle, whose vehicles, when seen from above, could have been choreographed by Busby Berkeley.The action is greased by Francis Lemarque's score, with "African" themes provided by James Campbell.

"Play Time" is actually a more dancey than most of the films or video infringing on dance concerts these days. In addition to the extended dance at the nightclub, it features segments in which the humor relies on movement jokes, as when a single employee mans a busy travel counter by sliding back and forth on his roller-chair; viewing only his legs from beneath a mobile map behind the desk which Hulot inspects, we can see how delicate and precise is his flow; he's even 'on point.' But it's in the overall composition and sequencing that "Play Time" can lay claim to being "carefully choreographed." As Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times on the film's 1973 U.S. release, "... it is not the shape of the film or its cheerful philosophy that are important. Rather it is the density of the wit. It is the gracefulness of the visual gags that flow one into another, nonstop, in a manner that only Tati now masters."

Around this film spectacle, the creators of "Tati: Soiree 'Play Time' a Chaillot" have made a "fete" of sorts The show starts on the terrace of the theater, as a band plays fanfare riffs (complete with conch horns) on the scores to various Tati films. The band soon moves downstairs to the theater's grand foyer, out of whose windows one can see the Eiffel Tower just across the River. In the theater itself, the showing of "Play Time" the film is preceded onstage by an amateur-style variety show. A man in a business suit deftly extracts cigarettes which he lights from fire apparently ignited in his bare hand; a dog on two legs pushes a baby cart onstage and then performs any tricks other than the ones demanded by his 'master,' playing a toy piano and a keyboard; a heavy-set cherubic woman pretends to misplace her left leg, retracing her footsteps with her hands; two men play tennis with an invisible ball and castanet-like metal objects which make the sound of the ball being hit and later, galloping horse-hoofs.

After all this, we exit the theater and return to the building's grand foyer, where the dancers of the Montalvo-Hervieu company show up. Having been in the theater about four hours at this point and seeing this section described as "The ball," I assumed it would be more participatory than performance, and, having gotten sick from some bad cheese the night before, decided to leave. But I emerged with hope, if not totally renewed confidence, that at least someone around here understands that the dance impulse is a joyous one, and that maybe its time to turn the page from the mopey, brooding spectacles that more often pass for dance these days in Paris.

"Tati: Soiree 'Play Time' a Chaillot," continues through Saturday at the Theatre National de Chaillot. For more information, please visit Chaillot's web site.

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