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Flash Flashback, 4-18: Full Words
Preljocaj Caged by Cage, Married with Violence

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006, 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Editor's Note: To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Archive. This Flash Review was first published on April 5, 2006. "Empty Moves" (Part 1 & 2) will be performed April 28 & 29 in Dublin as part of the newly renamed and annual Dublin Dance Festival, which opened last night in its first year under the direction of Laurie Uprichard, former executive director of Danspace Project.)

PARIS -- It was with a bit of skepticism that I took my seat last night for Ballet Preljocaj's opening performance at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt. The program notes promised dance for the "pure pleasure" of dance from artistic director Angelin Preljocaj, but recent experience with prop-laden Preljocaj augured otherwise. I was there, nonetheless, for the opportunity to see his classic 1989 "Noces" again, to the Stravinsky score, as well as the 2004 "Empty Moves," the program opener, which lured me with its promised John Cage soundtrack. If the movement that unrolled in the first piece did indeed exude the promised "passion of movement," exuberantly executed by Isabelle Arnaud particularly and also Lorena O'Neill, Yan Giraldou, and Thomas Michaux, the choreographer rather undermined himself by the choice of this particular Cage recording, which in effect gave us a total of three concerts to contend with.

Cage's 1974 "Empty Words" originated in remarks found in "The Journal of Henry David Thoreau" (not the author's "Civil Disobedience" as the program notes would have it), all relating to sound and silence and music that Thoreau heard and which Cage then subjected to chance operations, dividing the language into sentences, phrases, words, syllables, and nothing. The result was a four-part poem, "Mureau" (eliding 'music' and "Thoreau"), which became the performance work "Empty Words." "What was interesting to me was making English less understandable," Cage told an unidentified Colorado radio host before a 1974 performance. "Because when it's understandable, people control one another and poetry disappears." To hear the complete interview and a performance of the work, click here for the first part and here for the second part. You'll hear right away that it's a work that invites audience participation. At the 1977 performance a recording of which Preljocaj uses -- at the Teatro Lirico de Milan -- it apparently invited quite a lot of audience participation, including certainly some encouragement but a lot more hooting, insults, singing apparently attended to vanquish Cage, and premature rhythmic clapping perhaps intended to send him to a premature conclusion. Withal, Cage remains, as the program notes say, 'unperturbed.'

Perhaps, as Agnes Freschel's program notes indicate, the attitude of the dance and dancers towards Cage's 'score' is meant to replicate that of Cage towards his hostile Italian audience; perhaps the movement, indeed "scrupulously written" as Freschel indicates, is "never meant to signify anything." But we've seen this before, time and time again -- abstract movement that (apparently) ignores, or, perhaps better put, performs alongside but not in accompaniement of the selected score. We've seen it of course in pairings of Cage's music with Merce Cunningham's movement. But the difference there is that even though Cage and Cunningham composed separately with no promise of harmony, Cage's scores were and still are performed live when part of a Cunningham show. By their pure existing in live form side by side, they offer a dialogue, however incomprehensible and inscrutable to many of us. Even dissonance has its harmony. Here, the three elements -- Preljocaj's live dancers, Cage's score, and the Italian audience's lively response to it -- compete. Perhaps because the dance is the least interesting -- imagine trying to concentrate on even a well-constructed contemporary choreography while at the same time listening to a recording of that boisterous first performance of Stravinsky/Nijinsky's "Rite of Spring" and you get the idea -- it can't hold our focus, or mine anyway, long enough to make a lasting impression.

Speaking of Stravinsky, looking just now at Balanchine/Mason's description (in "Balanchine's Complete Stories of the Great Ballets"), and from my recollection of a Paris Opera Ballet performance, it seems that Preljocaj's version of Stravinsky's "Les Noces" (The Wedding) more or less jettisons much of the original narrative. Its traditional scenes -- "Benedictions of the Bride -- the Tresses," "Benediction of the Bridegroom -- the Bridegroom's House," "The Bride's Departure -- the Wedding," etc. -- only seem loosely adhered to. This could be my denseness -- it's not my right to expect Preljocaj to be a literalist -- but I think it's also that the dynamic between the six women and six men seems like so much of what we find in Preljocaj's other work, particularly his version of "Rite of Spring": a sort of generic, dare I say European, violent compulsion when it comes to making love. Here the men really get to go to town even more with their tossing around of the women, being provided with wedding-gown adorned mannequins that they can hurl into the air or throw onto the ground. Not that the live women -- Natacha Grimaud, Celine Marie, Claudia de Smet, Toshiko Oiwa, O'Neill, and the fearless Arnaud -- don't get their own work-out, most thrillingly in a penultimate section where they dive almost-sideways, arms outstretched, from benches into and onto their partners, who catch them and collapse, leaving the women to roll. To a degree this linking of violence with matrimony is not an unnatural graft to a narrative about ancient peasant marriage rites in Russia, I suppose, but in the context of Preljocaj it just seems like he is always working out his mixed feelings about women.

The program notes -- perhaps predictably -- also call Preljocaj one of the most constant and prolific choreographers in France. If this program, running through Sunday, re-asserts his fluid craftsmanship -- 'Noces' in particular is meticulously drawn -- the newer work, unforunately, continues the constant of his recent creations, an over-reliance on effects outside the movement. This should not take away, however, from appreciating the Ballet Preljocaj dancers -- certainly the fiercest in France -- nor the scrupulous efforts of the notators on these ballets -- Dany Leveque for "Empty Moves" and Leveque and Noemie Perlov for "Les Noces" -- particularly evident in the older work.

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