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Flash Review, 1-24: The Figure is the Enemy
Video Kills Ouramdane's "Superstars"; Culturing Forsythe

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS -- If Rachid Ouramdane is a "figure of choreographic renewal," as Gerard Mayen claims in his notes for the program book of the Theatre de la Ville, at which Ouramdane's feebly titled "Superstars" opened the season for the Lyon Opera Ballet Tuesday night, then French dance is in more trouble than even I thought.

Oh wait -- I see here by the program credits that Ouramdane is listed as the 'conceiver' -- he leaves the choreography to the dancers. They can dance, ergo they can choreograph. What results of course is noodling around, vaporous near-improvising reflecting whatever's stuck in the particular dancer's body from a myriad of choreographers. Oh and -- they talk too! At least in amateurish video recordings. (Did Ouramdane make them too? Oh right, I forgot; he's a choreographer, ergo he's qualified to practice any other art.) I don't know about you, but when I go to a dance concert, I'm there for one thing -- to hear dancers talk about their experiences! And if they can dance their own choreography to video recordings of them talking about themselves -- all the better!

In all seriousness: There is a way to do this, and Judith Jamison proved it. For "Hymn," the current director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's 1993 tribute to its founder, the dancers were interviewed, but there was a dramatically trained and proven interloper before their musings reached the stage. Anna Deavere Smith interviewed, re-mixed, and interpreted the dancers' personalized memories of Alvin Ailey's impact on them. Ouramdane doesn't do this work, apparently thinking it's enough to have a concept and then just let the interviewed dancers recount anecdotes relating to their mixed cultural backgrounds. That's right, campers; we go to a dance concert to see, er, innovative dance and instead we get a very dated social lecture. A dancer has discovered we all come from all over and needs to share it with us. I call this being patronized and pandered to. (Click here to read Jennifer Dunning's New York Times review of "Hymn" to see how it's done right.)

Now, if you're one of those eclectics who goes to a dance concert to see dancers dancing to real choreograpy by a real choreographer, in this Lyon program you have to wait until the second act, and then you're in for a treat. William Forsythe's 1990 "Enemy in the Figure," excerpted from "Limb's theorem," is every dancer's dream, every notator's nightmare, and every critic's Mount Everest. I really can't do justice to its kinetics -- that would be like asking a kindergardener to detail Shakespeare's every moral twists and turns -- so I'll just try to give you the flavor.

Think "West Side Story" on steroids. (I would have loved to see Forsythe take a shot at the recently revived Jerome Robbins classic.) The scenery -- stark black walls on all three sides, part of which look like chain link fences -- is raw, the way the dancers sometimes grapple it thrilling yet clean. Even the lighting, annoying at first -- there goes Forsythe straining our eyes again -- makes sense in the context. Think of it: urban warriors don't go around lighting everything they do, so, so what if at least one duet enacted in a partly obscured upstage left corner is only seen dimly by a sliver of the audience? The only real lighting mechanism is a bright mobile unit on wheels, hauled around by the dancers, who light each other, of course. The black walls on all sides are intersected by a sort of wooden panel center-stage which additionally provides a background for the dancers to scale and rebound against. There's also a rope, perhaps the cord of the lighting module, which the performers sometimes shimmy on the ground.

Lyon Opera Ballet's Corey Scott Gilbert in William Forsythe's "Enemy in the Figure." Michel Cavalca photo copyright Michel Cavalca and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Speaking of super-stars, you heard it here first, if apparently late. The newest European sensation comes from Baltimore and lives in San Francisco. His name, remember it, is Corey Scott Gilbert, now with Alonzo King's Lines Contemporary Ballet in SanFran after two years with Lyon, to which he's returned to guest in this piece. In his first solo, I was sure he was a she, albeit the tallest she I've ever seen; his pointe work and backward extensions -- Reed Richards has nothing on Gilbert -- are feats that usually only women can pull off. Only at the final curtain, when the lights came up full and he bowed with the men, did I realize the young man was just that. He also courses through the dance with Garth Fagan-like spins, at a speed that puts Norwood Pennewell to shame. Speed however has its cost. I hope that King will teach Gilbert that slow is mo.

The piece also showcases the particular strengths and weaknesses of this ensemble as a ballet company: If they're less awkward then, say, the Paris Opera Ballet in the more modernesque, loosey goosey demands, they fall just short of the technique that would enable their limbs -- particularly the legs -- to go the neo-classical distance. And they often miss the mathematical element of Forsythe, falling for the speed traps and losing the points of the grid.

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