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La Fresque (The Painting On The Wall)
A piece for ten dancers, based on a traditional Chinese tale (2016) [71.00]
Bonus material [20.00]
Choreography by Angelin Preljocaj
Music by Nicolas Godin, with the collaboration of Vincent Taurelle
Video direction by François-René Martin
Ballet Preljocaj
rec. 2017, Théâtre de la Criée, Marseille
Filmed in HD 16:9
PCM stereo (24/48)
Regions A, B, C
BD 25
NAXOS Blu-Ray NBD0094V [91 mins]

Ever since the literally riotous premiere of The rite of spring in 1913, modern choreography has often received something of a hostile press. It was only a few years ago that one well-regarded ballet historian opined that contemporary dance “veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovation – usually in the form of gymnastic or melodramatic excess, accentuated by overzealous lighting and special effects. This taste for unthinking athleticism and dense thickets of steps, for spectacle and sentiment… represents a collapse of confidence and a generation ill at ease with itself and uncertain of its relationship to the past” (Jennifer Homans Apollo’s angels: a history of ballet [London, 2010], p. 541). More than a few audience members, having sat through the latest exhibition of some weirdly abstract choreographic self-indulgence, may well agree.

All may not necessarily be doom and gloom, however, for other critics see at least some characteristics of contemporary choreography in a rather more positive light. Zoë Anderson, for instance, suggests that “When contemporary dance choreographers visit ballet, they can illuminate aspects of style, seeing new things by looking at it from the outside… The crossovers have resulted in exciting and much-loved works” (The ballet lover’s companion [New Haven, 2015], pp. 273-274). She includes the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj (b. 1957) in that particular category and devotes several pages to his 1994 production Le parc (op. cit., pp. 294-296).

Unfortunately, Ms Anderson’s book appeared just a little too soon to include consideration of Mr Preljocaj’s 2016 creation La fresque, which turns out to be one of the more recent ballets in a long choreographic tradition – famously including such classics as La sylphide (1836), Giselle (1841) and La bayadère (1877) – of depicting the interaction of human beings and the spirit world. Its simple and straightforward story tells of a traveller in ancient China who is enraptured by a temple painting of a group of young girls. Miraculously transported into the picture, he falls in love with one of them and enjoys several years of happiness. When, however, he is unexpectedly ejected from the painting and returned to the real world, he discovers that he has actually been absent for just a minute or two. Only when he looks closely at the picture once more does he see that the girl in his dream is now dressed in the manner of a married woman…

Although that story ought to be relatively easy to follow on stage, Preljocaj challenges the audience by his deliberate eschewal of anything in the way of a naturalistic set or realistic scenery. His bare set offers no hint of context at all. The only features adding visual interest are Constance Guisset’s rather beautiful and atmospheric video creations and a few ropes that dangle down briefly onto the stage at one point to offer the dancers some imaginative choreographic opportunities. That generally featureless setting inevitably creates a danger that Preljocaj’s choreography might seem essentially abstract to anyone who doesn’t already know what it’s depicting. How, just to take one of several possible examples, are uninformed viewers supposed to realise that a dancer is literally “stepping into a picture” if they can’t actually see something resembling its frame on the stage?

It may well be, however, that I’m creating a problem here where, in practice, there won’t necessarily be one. After all, anyone encountering La fresque in a theatre will probably have bought an explanatory programme while, if you’re coming to it for the first time via this disc, Naxos’s useful booklet gives a good outline of the story. I do recommend, though, that such information is digested before watching the ballet, for audiences, whether in the theatre or at home, need to know the meaning of what they’re watching if they are to come to reasoned critical judgements on both the choreography and the dancers’ performances.

Preljocaj’s choreography itself is quite episodic, with each carefully-delineated section typically lasting five or six minutes. Thus, an opening scene of the traveller and his friend ends at about 6:30 when three monks appear on stage to welcome them to their temple; at 10:20 the traveller sees a wall fresco depicting five girls who dance enticingly; at 17:10 the traveller steps into the painting to seek out the most attractive of them; and so it goes on for 70 minutes or so. That clear scene-by-scene approach, with the divisions sometimes marked by a sharp visual effect, is a positive feature that certainly helps to clarify La fresque’s narrative structure.

Although it certainly exhibits a degree of the overt athleticism which so dismayed Ms Homans, in general the choreography is attractive and even, at times, rather beautiful. Interestingly enough, Preljocaj slyly subverts our default expectations in that the men’s choreography is often surprisingly graceful and delicate and it is the women who are allocated the jerkier – indeed, sometimes rather violent – physical movements. Given that this performance was directed by the choreographer himself, we may, I imagine, assume that the dancers’ performances in this piece are definitive: They are certainly delivered with authority and display both consummate skill and effective dramatic insight.

The music for La fresque is by Nicolas Godin “with the collaboration of Vincent Taurelle for some sections”. Largely electronic and with added percussion, its main characteristic is rhythmic repetition rather than anything that might be described as memorable melody. Nonetheless, it suits the style of the choreography very well and, in adding requisite atmosphere to the production, serves its own essential purpose. Meanwhile, François-René Martin’s expert video direction demonstrates its effectiveness by never drawing attention to itself while always allowing us to see everything necessary to make the most of this production. Finally, a useful 20 minutes long “bonus” feature shows us the young members of the company in rehearsal and offers a few insights from the inventive Mr Preljocaj himself. It sets the seal on this interesting and enjoyable new release.

Rob Maynard

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