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Jack Anderson

Preljocaj Persisting


Empty Moves. Photo by Laurent Phillippe

Ballet Preljocaj
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
Nov. 28-Dec. 3, 2006
Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., $40
Tickets: (212) 242-0800 or www.joyce.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, Dec. 2, 2006

Angelin Preljocaj may be an idea-driven choreographer. His two works at the Joyce were certainly dominated by ideas. Even his company's name reflects a certain idea about dance, one now common in Europe. In America, the word "ballet" in a company's name can indicate that, however far that company strays from classicism, it nevertheless remains grounded in traditional technique; in Europe, however, "ballet" can be a synonym for theatrical dance in general. Therefore, a European "ballet" troupe may present something which to American eyes resembles modern dance. Ballet Preljocaj, from Aix-en-Provence, is a company of this sort.

Its fine dancers are classically-trained. Yet at the Joyce no one wore toe shoes and Preljocaj's steps were eclectic. And why not? Historically, ballet has always absorbed many ways of dancing. And toe shoes have been balletic footgear only since the early 19th century. Some choreographers today may even rely too much upon pointe steps while ignoring other effective ways of moving.

As for Preljocaj, who was born in France of Albanian parents, he knows his ballet. He also knows modern dance and has studied with Merce Cunningham, whose influence was apparent in the New York premiere of "Empty Moves (Part I)," the first segment of a two-part ballet to be completed next year. Like Cunningham, Preljocaj favors an erect carriage and nimble footwork, and he has set his piece to a tape of "Empty Words," in which John Cage, Cunningham's longtime collaborator, reads from Thoreau before a Milan audience in 1977. Cage's pace is slow, and he so deliberately prolongs and distorts the sounds in Thoreau's words that their literal sense is lost.

Four dancers in T-shirts and shorts (Isabelle Arnaud, Céline Marié, Yan Giraldou, and Sergio Diaz, the night I attended) keep clustering and pairing off for duets filled with embraces. The embraces are intimate, but many steps for both couples are in unison and the entire dance is unruffled, its passions neither mounting nor diminishing. "Empty Moves" acknowledges emotions, but stays emotionally cool.

Cage's reading helps make it a tribute to persistence. The tape preserves not only his recitation, but also the Milanese response to it, as an initially receptive audience grows increasingly restive. Sporadic shouts are heard and little bursts of applause (presumably in a spirit of mockery), then more shouts and some whistling (often a sign of disapproval in European theaters); finally, there is uproar. Yet Cage reads on, undeterred, and the dancers keep dancing.
Cage's reading and Preljocaj's choreography provide "Empty Moves" with images and ideas of perseverance: you could say it theatrically symbolizes how dedicated artists or thinkers may resist being deterred by hostility. Still, it moves unflappably along for almost half an hour, and once its basic ideas are clear, no surprises ensue. As a result, although I was happy to admire the craftsmanship of "Empty Moves (Part I)" and I'm curious to discover what "Part II" may look like, I must confess I'm not eager to see only "Part I" again soon.

Noces. Photo by JC Carbonne

But "Noces," from 1989, retains much of its boisterous excitement. Preljocaj's interpretation of Stravinsky's ballet-cantata about a peasant wedding has its own ideas, for it views courtship and marriage as struggles. These are not new ideas, but Preljocaj makes them vivid. Discarding peasant garb, Caroline Anteski, the costume designer, puts the cast's five couples into stylish modern dress. There are also five dummies in traditional wedding gowns, and the couples are both drawn to and repelled by these gowns, sometimes cuddling them, sometimes rejecting them violently.

Much of the time, the men act tough, sometimes even brutish. Yet the women are just as fierce. Although predatory men often chase fleeing women, at other moments women keep jumping with reckless abandon into men's arms. Everyone gradually grows more exhausted and disheveled looking in this battle of the sexes. Because it has often been a battle of equals, its combats may express Preljocaj's ideas about marriage. But the ballet concludes with the couples walking slowly and calmly off together, an exit that may convey another idea about marriage.


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