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Letter from New York: Looks Ten, Dance Three
Wilson's Wacky 'Fables'; Marseille's Melted Architecture

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2007 Gus Solomons jr

Telling Tales

With direction, set and light design by internationally renowned conceptual theater artist and opera director Robert Wilson, "Fables de la Fontaine" looks like the giant coloring book of a precocious rich kid, come to life. Partnering with the venerable Comédie Francaise, Wilson has staged 19 of French poet Jean de la Fontaine's classic 17th-century morality tales, in which darkly human foibles are disguised as the perversely natural instincts of animals.

The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College was the ideal size for the production -- part of the Lincoln Center Festival -- but with a mere six scheduled performances (July 10 - 15), the production was a hot ticket, and it sold out fast. An extra performance was hastily slotted on Sunday afternoon July 15 to supplant Thursday's performance, cancelled due to the injury of a performer on Wednesday evening. Comédie Francaise artistic director Muriel Mayette stepped in convincingly for the disabled actress for the remainder of the run. (At the scale of a Robert Wilson production with such a sizable troupe, it's shocking there was no understudy prepared to step in.)

Wilson, trained as an architect, is essentially a visual artist, who creates paintings in four dimensions, designing the visual, aural, and kinetic elements in time. With prodigious painterly acuity he concocts striking stage pictures that burn into memory: an elegantly gowned Mouse (Francoise Gillard) sitting half way up a sheer wall, knitting; a Monkey (Nicolas Lormeau) cavorting in an expandable crown; a Stag (Charles Chemin) popping off one of his antlers and sticking it to the wall; Ulysses (Laurent Natrella) in a great-coat, sinking through the floor, as beasts fox-trot to faux-Baroque music (by Michael Galasso), after declining his offer to become humans.

The actors' vocal work is splendid; diction is flawless, and voices take flight in range and tambour with squeaks, croaks, and roars proclaiming their bestial identities. To a dance eye, however, the movement lacks performance conviction and inventive imagination. In rudimentary animal impersonations the bunny bounces about on tiptoe, the frogs squat and hop heavily, the stag lifts his knees in a slow-motion equine prance, the cock struts and flaps his fabric-feather arms. Bear, Lion, Heifer, and others in animal heads lumber generically.

Mssr. Fontaine -- portrayed by Christine Fersen -- enters frequently to comment on the action, and different characters sometimes step out of their animal personas to narrate, with projected super titles translating the French. "The Cicada and the Ant" cautions us about the prudence of storing provisions for the winter, like the latter, rather than wasting the good weather singing, like the former. The envious Fox falsely flatters Crow's voice, till she opens her mouth to caw and drops her tasty hunk of cheese, which Fox promptly makes off with -- the wages of vanity!

In "The Oak and the Reed," the oak, abstracted into a tall, narrow rectangle, descends diagonally from vertical to horizontal across the glowing cyclorama, while the thin reed sways gracefully in the breeze, illustrating the virtue of flexibility in the face of opposition. It's interesting that the tableau involving no live actors scores the greatest applause.

The style mixing of the costumes (designed by Moidele Bickel) is both provocative and puzzling. Some animals wear tuxedos with masks that completely cover their heads, while others wear animal suits and headpieces that show their own faces. Tiger's, Bear's, and Wolf's masks are realistic, but the Ox's could be an African tribal mask, the Ant's head and pincers read intergalactic alien, and the shiny, bulbous Frogs resemble stuffed kids' toys. Is this eclectic mix-and-match meant to show that morality transcends the ages? It's visually intriguing but contextually confusing.

Wilson's set is more coherent: walls that flank the stage glide between scenes to shrink and grow the amount of sky revealed. They also contain movable panels that open into doorways, both at stage level and higher up. The cyclorama glows with saturated colors -- vivid reds, blues, yellows -- while follow spots pinpoint actors' faces, matching or contrasting the background colors. A picture-frame/window, a lollipop-shaped tree, and a colonnade also appear briefly like holiday decorations on Wilson's stark, elegant architecture. It's hard to tell whether the final ovation was for the spectacle, the performers, or for just the self-proclaimed esthetic concept that is Robert Wilson.


Fluid Architecture

"They charge and romp," whispered my theater companion, an architect, during Ballet National de Marseille's "Metapolis II" at the New York State Theater, another Festival attraction (July 25 - 27), a collaboration between Pritzker Prize-winning Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid and choreographer Frédéric Flamand, the company's director. The Choreographer's Note in the program proclaims, "The city dweller's body enters into a dynamic symbiosis with the urban environment. The city imprints itself on the body in shifting geometries. The dancers literally form bodies within the city in an attempt to make the space dance."

With this premise, Flamand presents a maelstrom of restless motion. Dancers in futuristic gray-and-white body suits, deconstructed business suits, and briefs and kneepads (costumes also by Hadid), sprint onto the stage, perform series of disjointed, technically challenging moves, and then flee into the wings, as another group replaces them. The movement is indistinguishable from the body-bruising virtuosity that wows TV audiences on reality series like "So You Think You Can Dance."

Dancers are often accompanied by live video images of themselves on the backdrop, filmed by an unidentified onstage videographer. Two men dance a sensuous duet facing away from us, but it's shot from upstage, so we see them front view in the giant projection on the cyclorama. During one male solo, his simultaneous video image slowly rotates 360-degrees on the screen.

Sometimes the dancers wear or carry green fabric, invisible to the video camera; the green-draped portions of their moving bodies are replaced by projections of frenetic urban chaos. In the most gripping of these scenes, a naked woman is video-taped lolling on the floor on a green blanket -- a patch of urban grass, maybe -- but we see her on screen apparently floating midair in a tunnel of roaring traffic. If only there were more of this kind of poetry in the 80-minute intermission-less ballet!

In one duet, the woman wears halogen flashlights taped to her shins, turning her toe shoes into luminescent boots; otherwise the few excursions onto pointe work seem gratuitous, as do red lights on the dancers' wrists in another section.

Although the piece was made in 2000 at the modern dance National Choreographic Center in Belgium, Flamand has reset it on the ballet-trained dancers of his Marseille troupe. To their great credit, the physically beautiful and beautifully trained dancers manage to maintain the numbing pace throughout. A mélange of music ranging from mysterious electronic to lush Messaien violin music, played by onstage violinist George van Dam, alternately enhances and subverts the dancing. Continuous short sections pile up visual information -- costume changes, light textures, real-time video projections that include an imploding building, and finally, a soaring virtual cityscape that seems to envelop the stage space and overpower the dancing. Flamand and Hadid illustrate the metaphor of urban dysphoria with visual overload.

To her great credit, Hadid's architectural environment is striking -- projected urban rhythms and virtual architecture, and onstage, three nesting bridges that the dancers push into various configurations and dance over, under, around, and atop -- but choreographer Flamand's structural and kinetic randomness preclude emotional engagement. As usual, some of the New York audience walked out midway through, but others rose in ovation -- the latter group reflecting the desire to appreciate what's sold to them as important art, whether or not they have a clue how they feel about what they've just witnessed.

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