February 2016


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Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, photo by Alice Blangero

Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo was up at the Segerstrom Center’s international dance series, with the U.S. premiere of artistic director Jean-Christophe Maillot’s “Choré,” on Friday night (Feb. 12). It struck me as 75 minutes of strange and frustrating work—occasionally engaging thanks to its theatrics; choreographically sleep-inducing (Eyelids, stay open!); and ultimately a mix of just too many weighty intellectual topics.

Let’s start with the title “Choré.” What Maillot is referencing here is also known as Syndenham’s chorea, chorea minor, and Saint Vitus Dance—a nervous disorder in which irregular, jerking movements are caused by involuntary muscular contractions, often a result of rheumatic fever. (Thank you, Webster’s New World Dictionary.)  “Choré,” however, is not about illness. But it is about the compulsion to dance. Dancing is a natural part of being human, “Choré” tells us, and the forms that dance takes are a direct reflection of its makers and adherents, of culture and history, and how it metamorphoses over time. These are issues that the choreographer has been obsessed with throughout his career.

French author and librettist Jean Rouaud approached Maillot with a proposition: Make a ballet that looks at the developments of dancing in light of the American movie musical and, oh yeah, throw in major world events, including the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, and so on. That is “Choré.”

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I have to say that Maillot is more sophisticated than Russia’s Boris Eifman, who attempts to tackle some of the same issues but turns all his ballets into the dance equivalent of a melodramatic nightmarish scream-fest. Still, Maillot was not able to present any insights into the woven threads that connect life and art.

Rather, Maillot, with the essential collaboration of costume designer Philippe Guillotel and stage and lighting designer Domique Drillot, created some striking stage pictures. Not original, but eye-catching nonetheless.

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They present a world that is first sepia-toned and then black and white. Amid a group of elegantly attired couples—stand-ins for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers—is one faceless masked duo in coal black, very eerie. A Gene Kelly character and his surrogates enter later, in polo shirts.  The second scene, a stereotypical look back at Hollywood movie-making, concludes with the dancers performing on a painted flooring of M.C. Escher-like stairways, which when reflected in the giant mirrored backdrop made for an ingenious recreation of a Busby Berkeley routine. Quite fabulous.

The “war” sequence places most of the cast in head to toe black-and-white convict-striped unitards, shades of Alwin Nikolais’ breakthrough designs. Dancer Mimoza Koike, the efficient secretary harassed by her superiors on the movie set, is now in shredded skirt, alone and horrified, the audience’s representative to war’s disasters. The aftermath is a surprisingly still, a denuded landscape of two couples on platforms, the women flying on aerial harnesses. Perhaps they are angels.

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Mimoza Koike, photo by Alice Blangero

The ending is an incongruously and abruptly happy sequence of boogeying and shimmying. And there is color for the first time, the entire cast walking on with punctuation marks of orange, green, and yellow jackets, shoes, and so on.

For his score, Maillot commissioned music from Bertrand Maillot (the choreographer’s brother), Yan Maresz and others, and used various existing compositions from John Cage and Danny Elfman.

The irony, I suppose, is that the actual dancing in “Choré” was the least interesting part of the production. Maillot has given his highly accomplished and enthusiastic dancers  run-of-the-mill group phrases, a chirpy solo here, a string of fouettes there. Koike was the night’s standout and it was lovely to see Bernice Coppieters (who has otherwise retired from the stage) come back; unfortunately her part as the “star”  was largely forgettable.

Next up at Segerstrom Center: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, April 7 through 10

  

Liam Scarlett was in the corps de ballet at England’s Royal Ballet when he made his first major work, “Asphodel Meadows,” for his home company. The ballet was a big hit; the year was 2010. A string of important commissions followed from Miami City Ballet, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, among others. For a fellow in his 20s, his was an astoundingly precipitous rise.

Fast forward to Jan. 27, 2016. His second work for San Francisco Ballet premieres, and I saw it this past weekend at the War Memorial Opera House. Called “Fearful Symmetries,” it is set to John Adams’ orchestral work of the same name, which, with its pulsing beat and urgency, is a logical draw for choreographers; NYCB’s Peter Martins has his own “Fearful Symmetries.”

Scarlett approaches the music with a feral, throbbing lustfulness. The 16 dancers, clothed in skimpy black by costume designer Jon Morrell, stand face front and shimmy their shoulders with a dare-me-to confidence; or their backs are to us and they wiggle their butts. Or they face one another and rub against each other in the manner that would get you taken to the high school principal’s office.

I don’t want to mislead: Such provocations are a kind of a tease. The dancing is thrilling, full of bravura partnering and blatant classical athleticism. But it’s also simplistic. The dancers enter and exit mostly from the back. They appear and vanish into a cloak of black lighting (designs by David Finn), which intensifies the piece’s fever and mystery. Whole sections unroll in ordered group unison. At the end, as Adams’ music gets softer and slightly more gentle, a couple in balletic white (or pale blue) enters, and embarks on a brief, more traditional partnering adventure. What was this? The antithesis of the stalking gangs we’d just been watching? A duo who merely dreamed up the previous 25 minutes and we were witness to their thoughts?

“Fearful Symmetries” was the final ballet on a program that also included George Balanchine’s 1967 “Rubies,” one section from the full-length “Jewels,” and 1988’s “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” Mark Morris’ brilliant take on quirky, folk-like piano works by Virgil Thomson. The three ballets made for an amazing evening, even if you didn’t happen to like everything. Here were strong choreographic statements from different generations of dance-makers, to music by innovative composers, and performed with focus and power by first-rate dancers.

“Drink” is a clever, cerebral, and visually stunning piece that is a playful mind-game of joyful complexity (the antithesis of Scarlett’s piece). Led by Vanessa Zahorian, Taras Domitro and Sofiane Sylve, the dancers attacked “Rubies” with joyful and calibrated abandon. Both pieces were memorably served. Other standouts were Pascal Molat (stepping in for Gennadi Nedvigin in “Drink”), and in “Symmetries,” Joan Boada, Lorena Feijoo and Zahorian, again.

All I want to know is why aren’t Southern California’s presenters bringing San Francisco Ballet here to dance for us? We need them.

 

L.A. Dance Project has, indeed, proved to be an L.A. company, performing locally more often than any other company that I know of. Here’s my review of their latest show, this past weekend.