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.”
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.
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.
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