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Flash Review 1, 5-2: The horror! 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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