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Monday, October 28, 2013

Unchaining the Devil

by Susan Yung

Photo: JC Carbonne

Ballet Preljocaj, the name of Angelin Preljocaj’s company based in Aix-en-Provence, France, pinpoints his stylistic roots. Yet his movement, while maintaining the elegant lines of ballet and an inherent structural grace, is hardly limited to the ancient dance form. Thematically, as well, the French choreographer ranges widely, from classic story to pure form. From November 7 to 9, Preljocaj’s And then, one thousand years of peace will be performed at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House. The work takes cues from the Book of Revelation (the Apocalypse of St. John) without becoming literal or linear. It shares DNA, but contrasts sharply with the company’s last BAM presentation in 2010, Empty Moves I & II, a pared-down evening of riveting movement experimentation.

Such variety can be an artistic catalyst. “I need to stimulate my creativity to go to the extreme limit of my style,” said Preljocaj in a recent interview. “Let’s say that I have a kind of laboratory work on one hand, for example, in the work of Empty Moves, to the music of John Cage—I also sometimes like to use all that I learn from this laboratory experience and use it for something more narrative. I think it’s like in the field of science. You have the fundamental research on the one hand, and on the other hand, the fundamental research is completely abstract—numbers, mathematics. Then later come things that can maybe help people, like technology and medicine.” The studio becomes a lab to make building blocks that fascinate on their own, or become the solid foundation on which to stack a story.

Photo: JC Carbonne

The many sections comprising one thousand years propel the dance surehandedly. Tender or brazen duets to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata are interleaved with bold ensemble sections (to an evocative soundscape by Laurent Garnier) in which the company’s 21 dancers are often arrayed in orderly lines or grids. “The idea behind this order is that there is something to hide,” said Preljocaj. “The meaning of apocalypse comes from the Greek: ‘apos’ means to take off, and ‘calypse’ is the veil. The idea of apocalypse is to reveal something which is behind the illusion, behind something very organized, very structured.” The concept could apply to a number of large institutions, be they religious, political, or social. 

While Preljocaj has shown his skill with purely formal constructs, he duly embraces the highly theatrical aspects of performance. Objects become metaphors for larger concepts, in addition to being neat visual and/or aural twists, such as lengths of chain that plummet to the stage. “In the apocalypse, the Devil is suposed to be unchained, and there is a moment he becomes free from his chains. I use the idea of the chains as a kind of metaphor for that,” Preljocaj explained. “Also, sometimes I mix certain ideas, like the chains... In the Book of the Apocalypse, they say that from the sky will come the thunder and the deluge. For me, I imagine this falling of chains really like thunder coming into our world. Also, sometimes certain words or phrases come down with this very soft radicality in our souls, like chains falling from the sky.” Flags of different nations feature prominently in the finale, as do a pair of wooly lambs.

Photo: JC Carbonne

Preljocaj’s work was also seen this fall at New York City Ballet in a shorter-length premiere. He noted, “I like to work with different companies; it’s a source of inspiration for me. All the different companies are really like tribes, with their own traditions.”

His accomplished company/tribe to be sure has its own legacy, growing richer and more diverse each year since its founding in 1984. Prior to Empty Moves, Ballet Preljocaj had performed at BAM several times, each visit memorable in its own way: Romeo & Juliet (1998), whose fascist-state setting underscored the desperate situation of the young lovers; Helikopter and Rite of Spring (2002), a two-part evening showing the choreographer’s sure hand with dance both hypnotically abstract and searingly narrative; and Near Life Experience (2004), which pushed him to the theatrical end of the spectrum while touching on universal themes. And then, one thousand years of peace is yet another intriguing dance-theater chapter in Preljocaj’s growing history at BAM.
Reprinted from Oct 2013 BAMbill.

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