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Flash Review 2, 6-24: Spectacle a la Kylian
NDT's 4-Hour Magical Mystery Tour

By Karen Eliot
Copyright 2000 Karen Eliot

PARIS -- What to say about Jiri Kylian, the Nederlands Dans Theater and the newly reworked four-hour long "Arcimboldo 2000," which I saw last Saturday at the Paris Opera House? C'etait superbe! C'etait trop! It was both -- superb and too much, and I loved every minute of it. Superb it was in terms of its performance, conception and genuine warmth and humanity. Too much it was in terms of its densely packed, over-stimulating onrush of imaginative events. Kylian's is a both-and world where too much energy, too much humor, too much imaginative use of costuming, lighting, stage space, props, video and music can be astonishing, awe-inspiring, magical, genuinely rewarding and uplifting. I was glad I hadn't missed this evening.

The Paris Opera played host to Netherlands Dans Theater in this, NDT's 40th anniversary. To honor the occasion, Kylian "remixed" his 1995 "Arcimboldo," an evening-long pastiche based on the eccentric, early "surrealist" painter Guiseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93). To fully realize a stagework based on Arcimboldo's paintings, Kylian drew from all of his forces: Nederlands Dans Theater is a company in triplicate. There are three groups under the NDT umbrella, one being the main company, the second being a junior company, and the third, a troupe of senior performers who have had long and distinguished careers onstage, but who are now called upon less for virtuosity than for their powerful theatrical presences. All three groups were present for this updated version of "Arcimboldo 2000," a premiere at the Opera. Kylian also solicited the videowork of Jorma Elo, and invited contributions from additional choreographers Patrick Delcroix, Karine Guizzo, Johan Inger, and Paul Lightfoot. Musical ideas represented in the work range wide and free, including compositions by Tchaikovsky, Steve Reich, Kevin Volans, Aram Khatchaturian, Guiseppe Torelli, Lukas Foss, Robert Ashley, and Michael Torke, as well as original Scottish bagpipe airs.

What seems to have intrigued Kylian about Arcimboldo's work is the painter's liveliness and sense of humor, his imaginative ventures into illusion and trompe l'oeil, his early ventures into collage and heightened surrealism, and, ultimately, his fundamental passion for life. Kylian's creation -- like one of Arcimboldo's fantastic vegetable or fruit assemblages -- is dense, at times witty or bawdy, sometimes poignant, usually outrageous, and always visually stunning. But, as I said, this is a both-and world, and while it shows its roots in the work of the 16th century painter/fireworks creator, it is also a work which plants itself firmly in the 21st century.

As the audience walked in to the Grand Hall of the Opera, we were first ushered downstairs to become part of an installation. Scattered around various spaces in the foyer, and up in the loges, young artists from the NDT2 (the junior group of dancers ranging in age from 18-21) performed improvisations within the space -- walking along walls, hanging with mischievous irreverence from the Opera's fountains and sculptures. All of them wore black, except one woman with short bleached blond hair, dressed in a stunning red evening gown, who kept at it with a man in a dress coat, while he ignored her and attempted to play Chopin on a grand piano in the foyer. After she banged his head on the keys a couple of times, the two, still avoiding each other's eyes, circled to the side of the piano where they executed a mechanical duet of arm gestures and side tilts. Upon completion of these tasks, they circled back to the piano, and began the same encounter all over again. Around us, as we walked through the space, the young male dancers got themselves into amazingly precarious balances, tilts and pratfalls, all performed with Marcel Marceau-like mime gestures, and obnoxious Charlie Chaplinesqe humor. Why all this precious, cutesy humor? I thought. I was beginning to feel annoyed, until I noticed the presence of a videographer in our midst. In fact, we were the spectacle, and as we found our seats in the theatre, a large video screen onstage projected the expressions of the audience members, watching the dancers. The whole thing suddenly reminded me very much of the performers I've been seeing daily on the streets of Paris. Some things never change, and the Parisian love for street entertainment is one of them: a love of carnivals and street entertainments dates way back, long before the time of Arcimboldo. Suddenly the sights and events surrounding me in everyday life in Paris became the spectacle, and witnessing familiar events in a new context, my own sense of the present merged with the historical past.

Everything began to fall into place 75 minutes later when the spectacle truly began. As straggling audience members continued to drift -- in accordance with the ushers' directives -- across the stage, crossing one of the three "bridges" which would be transformed in a variety of ways throughout the evening, those of us already in our seats were occasionally diverted by the ongoing video recording of audience reactions; like the t.v., you could tune it in or out, but it was very much present at all times. As the auditorium filled very nearly to capacity, it started to feel exciting, like everyone knew we were to witness a Parisian Event. At the opening of the curtain, the grandiose lighting, and Egon Madsen's ostentatious sweep onstage, suggested an imaginative entry into either the world of a game show, the old Lawrence Welk show, or a grand concert hall. But most likely it was all those worlds at once, as Madsen played out a Chaplin-like routine as a concert master. The problem was his music stand kept collapsing, his score kept falling, the musicians in the pit kept coughing, and he broke his baton in two -- well, you get the picture. Madsen was charming, elf-like, and not-too convincing.

After that disarming opening, it all began to hit: the Marcel Marceau routines, the Chaplinesque humor were all part of the ethos. "Arcimboldo 2000" jumps back and forth in its references, cramming together images from medieval carnivals, the bawdy humor of traditional street fairs as well as a slickness derived from contemporary media, and all dressed up with 21st century technology. It was as if a menu of events unfolded in front of us, including (but not limited to!) spectacular lighting effects, a gag involving a fake leg, Baroque choral music, Russian Romanticism, men and women vogueing, dancers crawling out of pits, dancers falling into pits, classical partnering, Flashdance and tango-take-offs, heterosexual love, homosexual love, and partial and total nudity. It was all there. And it all worked. Nothing in this four-hour long spectacle was gratuitous.

The menu metaphor is apt, actually, as food is a linking device for many of the events of the evening. And with reason: much of Arcimboldo's work deals with piles of food -- extravagant arrangements of fruits and vegetables which weirdly metamorphose into ribald portraits or caricatures. After Madsen abandons his music stand, we next see him seated with the three other dancers of NDT3 at a long banquet table. The four of them indulge in a witty, rhythmic gestural dance in which they unfurl napkins, bang on the table, and ravenously demand their food. A quartet of outrageous waiters crosses the stage, ostentatiously bearing trays and serviettes. Lots of humor as they crown the diners with tray covers and pull away platters, leaving the diners still hungry for more. Bicyclists circle the stage waving and smiling, while a sinuous quartet of nymphs in blue tunics descends the grand staircase. The banquet table seems suddenly transformed into a judges' station at an athletic event, and the NDT3 group now proceeds to hold up cards bearing fruits or vegetables instead of scores. Arcimboldo's wild assemblages of fruits and vegetables are brought to life, and then deconstructed in imaginative and unexpected ways.

There is -- for real -- a rubber chicken gag with waiters running wildly on and offstage; there is a "tomato salaten" routine, in which tomatoes are thrown from the pit at the performers, who then chatter and mime furiously as they appear to engage in outsized emotions -- laughing, screaming and crying; there is a quartet of eccentric instruments and instrumentalists; and an ensemble of what may or may not be crickets, but which are clearly, according to the program notes, "animaux etrange" (strange animals). Later a trio of luscious maidens will indulge themselves in poisoned fruit, as they sink to the floor after consuming bunches of silver grapes lowered from the ceiling.

There were also, lest I give you the wrong impression, moments of sheer elegance and profound beauty. The most jawdropping moment for me occurred toward the end of the first half, in the section titled "Bella Figura." To the music of Torelli, Foss, and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, dancers emerge en masse, everyone, men and women, wearing long, wide red skirts, a la Baroque. They are all, men and women, topless. The dancers begin a curvacious series of gestures, and plant themselves in wide second position plies. They indulge in long, sinuous tilts of the torso, elegant and very high ronds de jambes en l'air and beautiful swoops of legs into arabesque. At what seems to be the close of the first section, two women perform a lilting duet in which, with a series of deep back bends, they draw the curtains together. Except the section doesn't end there: the two dancers strip down to nothing and perform an ornate and profoundly moving duet to one of Pergolesi's vocal cantatas. It all felt right and powerful -- the human body, really and truly, revealed as sacrosanct.

In spite of its stunning visual display, the work never lacked for movement invention, and Kylian and his co-choreographers clearly sought out the sheer richness of their eclectic movement choices. In program notes, Kylian explains that he has never set out to create a style, but that his interest is centered in using all available movement as a means to communicate. And it is communication that Kylian is after: The movement languages I saw last night ranged from hip hop to ballet, to post-Tharp funk to simple, stark gestural actions. It brought together conventions of classical ballet, which it proceeded to challenge, an M.C. Hammer flair, and a Baryshnikov-like sense of abandonment to virtuosity. Lots of choreographers claim they seek eclecticism, but few really explore it. Kylian, though, convinced me that he drew from every source he could in an incessant effort "d'approcher de plus pres l'etre humain" (to get ever nearer the human condition).

When the Epilogue finally drew the evening to a close with a subtle and moving sequence to Schubert's "Der Leiermann," I stood on my feet, clapped, hollered and stamped my feet, along with everyone else. No ducking out early for me. You gotta' love those French audiences.

Editor's Note: Karen Eliot danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from 1982-88. Currently, she teaches ballet and modern technique and dance history and choreographs in the dance department of Ohio State University, where she is an associate professor. Karen studied Baroque dance with Catherine Turocy, and is the recent recipient of a Department of Women's Studies and Coca Cola Grant for Research on Women, a grant which will permit her to further her writing on the lives of women dancers from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Centuries.

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