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Flash Review 1, 5-2: The horror!
Preljocaj Goes Eurotrash
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
Just about the first advice people
give you if you're an American planning a visit to France is, "Whatever you do,
don't ask for ketchup or order hot dogs." So my dancer companion and I were a
little puzzled Sunday night at the France Moves fete at the poshy Tribeca Rooftop,
when a waiter proudly furnished before us, as if they were foie gras, a plate
of not just hot dogs, but pigs in a blanket. The only possible explanation I could
come up with is, maybe they're trying to give us what they think would appeal
to our crass American tastes. That's also the only possible explanation I can
come up with for why Angelin Preljocaj, about the most conscious and conscientious
French choreographer who's been seen on these shores -- this is a man who quitted
his company's residency in a local French town after the Fascist racists took
over the city government -- would turn out the head-scratcher, sometimes stomach-turner
seen last night at the Joyce Theater in its NYC premiere.
The conceit of "Paysage apres la
bataille" (Landscape After the Battle), according to the press release and program
notes, is the juxtaposition of, or encounter between, if you like, Joseph Conrad
and Marcel Duchamp, and their different perspectives on art. Preljocaj seems to
have gotten the Franco-American Duchamp, in the side slats decorated with shag
in pink and orange and with leopard and other kitschily-colored shower curtains.
(Designs by Adrien Chalgard.) But Conrad, or at least the work referenced in the
program notes -- "Heart of Darkness" -- had a moral to its meanness, a reason
for the work's brutality. In the original, the character of Kurtz was, among other
things, a metaphor for the brutality of colonialism, and how it can corrupt the
colonizer. The theme was played out more contemporarily by Francis Ford Coppola,
in a Vietnamese-Cambodian setting, in his 1979 film "Apocalypse Now."
But the seemingly endless section
of this Preljocaj dance in which dancers shoot, shoot, and shoot each other again
(their hands forging guns), cursing all the while (Example: "What the FUCK do
you think you're doing?" a man screams at a woman. Even more revoltingly, it's
the one Black dancer who is given the most vulgar dialogue. ) has no apparent
purpose other than revulsion. I'm not saying violence on stage has no place, but,
if you're going to present murder by gunfire on a stage in New York City with
its 1,000 or so murders a year, and in the U.S. where children are now shooting
children, you better have a damned good reason for it, however oblique. But Preljocaj,
who has shown he can fashion beauty out of bleakness (read
my Flash of his "Annonciation" on Paris Opera Ballet -- I'm a FAN, really!),
and who has a track record both on and offstage as an artist of conscience, here
has failed to provide any sort of meaning to justify this assault on our senses.
During the violent passage, which
seemed relentless in length and cruel spirit, I thought of one of my earliest
artistic mentors, the playwright and my cousin Martin Epstein, now teaching playwriting
and musical theater at New York University. When I was an actor coming of theatrical
age in 1976 or so, in San Francisco, the Eureka Theater produced a play, "When
You Comin' Back Red Ryder" (by Mark Medoff of "Children of a Lesser God" fame)
that became the hit of the town, establishing the Eureka as an artistic force
in the Bay Area. We finally brought Martin to it. At the moment when the fugitive
holding a bus boy and waitress prisoner fired his gun, however, Martin walked.
As I recall, it wasn't the violence in and of itself that Martin objected to;
he has used extreme action to great effect in his own plays. Rather, it was the
extreme gratuitousness of its employment. That's my problem here. I in fact was
ready to walk; it was only an unwillingness to abandon my dancer companion that
kept me in the theater.
What I did do, in silent registration
of my objection, was to close my eyes. It was only the concern that this abstention
might make me vulnerable to the anti-Croce defense ("How can you review something
you haven't seen?") that forced me to re-open my eyes eventually, just in time
to see a group of women, in short-skirted business dress suits, black stockings
above which you could see their thighs, and high heels, groveling around on the
stage, in movement that could only be read as horny sexual tempting. They might
as well have been in cages. (The evening had started with three women being more
or less killed by their dancing partners.)
Even without the apparent violence
and demeaning of women that pains here and is Preljocaj's greatest offense, the
work would still be facetious if not offensive. Much of the score is clubby music,
and while the movement is certainly original, there's a cheesy feeling to the
whole. It's as if a bunch of the Ballets Preljocaj boys were going out to a club
after rehearsal and asked their director to choreograph a routine for them. Most
embarrassing was a three-chair, six-men routine that also went on and on. Cool?
Maybe. Concert dance? No. Too long? Yes, yes, yes. If I want to see this sort
of circus, I couldn't help think with the proximity behind me of a Pilobolus director,
I'll go see Pilobolus. (And I don't mean this as an insult to Pilobolus -- they'll
do it great, and they'll do it right, and they'll do it in an appropriate context.)
This evening was in a way more upsetting
than the Joyce program offered earlier this year by Karol Armitage, simply because
Preljocaj should know better. In heart and talent, he is unquestionably gifted.
As kind as I can be is to say we should allow even our idols -- and Preljocaj
is one of mine -- their occasional failures as they seek to challenge themselves
with new directions. And that perhaps -- considering how much truly deep Preljocaj
work is out there (he premieres a collaborative production of "Rite of Spring"
Sunday, and even once made a "Parade"!) -- the real door where questions should
be laid is that of the programmers who selected this particular piece for France
Moves. WHY? In the context of the other France Moves concerts of Philippe
Decouffle, Boris Charmatz, and even Maguy
Marin (I loved the work, but it was definitely lighter than previous Marin
works seen here), the only explanation I can come up with is that perhaps the
programmers are catering to what they perceive as our low denominator American
tastes. "Give 'em hot dogs, they don't like snails!"
Perhaps -- perhaps -- the violence
and sex make sense if one looks at the program notes. But frankly, a ballet shouldn't
depend on program notes for explication, only amplification. The explanation should
be contained -- however hard to find, and it needn't be easy -- within the borders
of the ballet itself. Considered apart from his smart words in the program notes,
and notwithstanding the onstage quotes from Duchamp, "Paysage apres la bataille"
is a landscape littered with little more than mindless violence, gratuitous sex
(or sexual innuendo), and silly club-style vamping to vapid club beats. I'm not
opposed to the employment of depictions of violence or nudity or sex on stage
-- if it serves some sort of purpose, even a highly abstract one that I don't
fully understand, I'm game! (See my reviews of Needcompany, by clicking here
and here.) But what I saw last night is just
mindless. Angelin Preljocaj, a choreographer with considerable conscience and
more than considerable talent, seems to have abandoned that conscience and prostituted
that talent to the worse kind of Eurotrash, creating a diversion full of little
more than cheap sex, cheap violence, and cheap dance thrills. (I hasten to add
that the emphasis here is on SEEMS TO HAVE. It's possible that his intentions
were honorable, and that his craft simply failed him. It does happen, even to
the best and best-intentioned of artists.) It breaks my heart to have had this
kind of unexpected violent reaction; of the France Moves line-up, Compagnie Maguy
Marin and Ballets Preljocaj were the attractions to which I was most looking forward,
and from which I expected to find the highest art and greatest intellectual stimulation.
Ms. Marin (who, incidentally, is able to provocatively explore themes of violence
and sex without being vulgar) did not disappoint. Mr. Preljocaj, however, has
a lot of explaining to do for this tawdry exercise.
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