France has long been the cradle of ground-breaking new dance, thanks to a score of provocative performance-makers. It was about time, therefore, that an internationally renowned festival such as Dance Umbrella paid tribute to a country which has produced radical and revitalising choreography over the past three decades.
Former enfant terrible of what has been appropriately referred to as the ‘French choreographic avant-garde’, Angelin Preljocaj is one of the leading figures of post-modern choreography. Creations such as Liqueurs de Chair (1988), which explored rather explicitly dark eroticism and sexual perversions, Noces (1989), a vibrant and somewhat violent sexist reading of the 1923 Stravinsky ballet Les Noces, and a fairly controversial version of Romeo and Juliet (1990) have had a tremendous, though not shocking impact on the notion of dance-making, thus giving him international repute.
Created for Paris Opera Ballet in 1994 — at a time when crossing boundaries between classical dance and post-modern choreography still caused a sensation — Le Parc draws upon Preljocaj’s exploration of love and seduction in 17th- and 18th-century literary works. Through a highly individual interpretation, Preljocaj mourns the state of love in contemporary society, asking, ‘Where are the golden moments’ —and the reference to the Countess’s aria in Le Nozze di Figaro is intentional, for Mozart’s music underscores almost the entire action.
Visually, Le Parc is a triumph of refined movements, luscious costumes and intriguing sets. The action develops through a series of closed dance numbers inspired by different situations and similar to the chapters of a manual for the perfect lover/seducer. Yet no great knowledge of works such as La Princesse de Clèves, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Carte du Tendre is needed to appreciate what is going on. The lovers’ skirmishes, the seductive manoeuvres and the now tense, now comic interplay between the interpreters provide plenty to enjoy. The dancing, moreover, is of an exceptional standard, as one would expect from Paris Opera Ballet, back in London for the first time in 22 years.
Yet, in my opinion, what was originally labelled as the most erotic dance work ever seems to have lost most of its drive. Whether such a lack of impact is to be ascribed to age or to the fact that European post-modern dance has moved on a long way from the formulae of the 1994 creation, it is difficult to say. What is certain is that the thematic novelty of the work wears off within the first 20 minutes, and all that one is left with is a rather pedantic and somewhat tiresome choreographic essay. Only the final climactic duet between superstars Aurélie Dupond and Laurent Hilaire brings the whole thing back to life after, alas, one hour and 30-odd minutes.
Curiously, I had experienced a similar reaction two weeks earlier, when, in the same theatre, I attended the performance of Tricodex, by another enfant terrible of French dance, Philippe Decouflé. Not unlike Preljocaj, Decouflé acquired international repute through the creation of visually provocative works. In his case, however, the provocation stems from and draws upon a theatrically clever combination of dance movements and diverse mechanical/theatrical devices. In Tricodex, as in his first major work Codex, the dancers are turned into cartoonish creatures performing the most incredible and often hilarious feats while interacting with specially devised props. But once the surprise is over, the reiterated, sterile display of bravura soon becomes trite and far too similar to a circus act that drags on endlessly.
Although one cannot take the pulse of French dance from just two performances, the overall impression is that, as far as these two ‘big’ dance-makers are concerned, the post-modern vibrancy of their creations has sadly waned, thus revealing the cracks and weaknesses in ideas that, despite their initial impact, have not stood the test of time. Luckily, there is still a lot to see in this year’s Dance Umbrella.
I would like to end this article with an apology. In last week’s review of La Sylphide, a mischievous gremlin or, rather, a whimsical sylph, crept in and made me say that the ballet in question had ‘re-entered’ the repertoire of the Royal Ballet after 173 years. Obviously, the sentence should have read ‘entered’ and not ‘re-entered’. La Sylphide had never been previously performed by the Royal Ballet, a company that did not even exist 173 years ago.