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Jack Anderson

Building Sights: Lincoln Center Festival 2007

Ballet National de Marseille: "Metapolis II"
New York State Theater
July 25-27, 2007; $70, $50
Information: (212) 721-6500

David Michalek: "Slow Dancing"
New York State Theater façade
9 p.m.-1 a.m., through July 29, 2007; free

Reviewed by Jack Anderson, July 28, 2007.

Lincoln Center Festival 2007 presents Ballet National de Marseille performing "Metapolis ll" at the New York State Theater on July 25, 2007. Pictured are Baptise Herbert (foreground) and Golan Yosef (crouching, background). Photo by Stephanie Berger.

By stretching, bending, or variously positioning themselves, dancers can resemble buildings. By seeming to twist or thrust through space, buildings can recall the frozen motions of dancers. Just as choreography arranges groups of bodies into dances, so architecture arranges groups of buildings into cities, and people live, for better or worse, in both dances and cities. "Metapolis II," presented by the Ballet National de Marseille, was a reminder of the similarities between dance and architecture. But it was never more than a reminder, for neither Frédéric Flamand, its choreographer, nor Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who designed it, offered stimulating ideas about urban living.

They did offer visual effects to dazzle dancegoers' eyes, at least until their nagging minds insisted that events on stage possessed little real meaning. And if the work's basic point was that city life today can be meaningless, that message was not preached forcefully enough to become really disturbing.

Events occurred to a collage of taped sounds and live violin music played by George van Dam that ranged from a piece by the Belgian virtuoso Eugène Ysaye to such contemporary composers as Pierre Henry, Olivier Messiaen, and Magnus Lindberg. People pushed, repositioned, climbed, and danced atop bridgelike structures. Lighting changes suggested both the mystery of nocturnal cityscapes and the clear hard lines of brightest day. Video images on the backdrop magnified dancers' limbs to gargantuan proportions or displayed dance steps from unusual angles. Technological magic caused the moving body of a woman on stage to merge with urban scenes on the backdrop. Numerals and alphabet letters fell across the backdrop in what semioticians might consider a snowstorm of signs.

The choreography was of little interest in itself, emphasizing often repeated strides and wide-armed gestures. Some dancers moved with colored signal lights on their wrists; later, dancers ran with lights on their legs. Much mass movement looked stiff. But so did moments when dancers paired in what might have been fumbling attempts at intimacy. It was hard to discern if such awkward sequences were choreographically sincere, but unsuccessful, attempts to express genuine feelings or whether all steps symbolized contemporary dehumanization.

Marcos Marco (center) and members of Ballet National de Marseille. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

Flamand and Hadid never really revealed their attitudes toward cities. One moment near the conclusion when dancers gathered on a bridge to contemplate the smoke of what might been fires or explosions hinted at urban perils. But the dancers looked impassive and there were no suggestions as to whether the disasters had natural or human causes. Elsewhere in the proceedings, looming architectural shapes and mechanical movements might have indicated dystopian malaise. Just as conceivably, they could have represented the fantasies of those modern utopian thinkers whose all-encompassing urban visions have led them to devise grandiose plans that would, in effect, plan the life out of cities.

In one brief sequence, the backdrop filled with glimpses of actual city streets and squares. How refreshing it was to see them after so many abstract forms. The sight of places in which real people might very well live forced me to wonder about the imaginary people in "Metapolis II": where would they shop for groceries? were there any sidewalk cafes or corner bars? where could anyone go just for fun? Did Flamand and Hadid even consider such matters when they planned their show?

One place New Yorkers could go these days to have fun is the Lincoln Center Plaza. The city on the State Theater stage may have been intimidating, but the space in front of it became a warm, welcoming place, thanks to an installation by David Michalek called "Slow Dancing," in which video portraits of dancers unfolded with glacial, but hypnotic, slow motion on three enormous panels.

"Slow Dancing." Left to Right: Wendy Whelan, Bill T. Jones, Shantala Shivalingappa. Photo by David Michalek and Matthew Wakem.

When I left the theater after "Metapolis II," people were gathered watching "Slow Dancing." Some stood, some sat at tables, some sprawled on the ground. A few had brought snacks, others came with dogs. Everyone looked relaxed and genial. Unlike the robotic inhabitants of "Metapolis II," here were city folk happily watching the sights at an urban site.


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