Review by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Photo: Steve Murez
At the end of La Valse Infernale
, a satisfying, virtuoso snippet of traditional ballet choreographed by Raul Zeummes—with long-limbed, bun-headed ballerinas spinning and posing on point and men bounding skyward—that builds into a frenzy of leaps, jumps, arabesques and whiplash-fast pirouettes, a viewer could be forgiven for wondering, “Where’s the ‘neo’ in this self-described neo-classical dance company, making its U.S. debut at the Pillow?” Except for some novel lighting and hand gestures, the piece seemed to be well mired in the classical tradition of its parent company, the Paris Opera Ballet, which is the oldest dance troupe in the Western world. And so the audience settles in for an evening of fine, classical ballet.
But then again, there was that quick flash of a fellow with a cane and a long purple jacket in an oversized hat at the rear of the stage before the dancing began – what was that about? And hey, what’s going on in the aisle? Is that an usher making strange bleating noises? She's wearing the usher uniform – white button-down shirt, black slacks – but her face is covered in white pancake makeup, she’s holding some mechanism that’s beeping like a Geiger counter, she sure walks strange, and now she’s wrestling a guy in the audience for a shiny red valise, climbing onto the stage, and opening it… And that guy with the cane just came in from the wings, limping heavily, inspiring fear in our fake usher and snatching a banana from her hands…
Soon after this bit of theater the second dance begins: For Hands
, by Richard Siegal, a brilliant quartet of contemporary ballet, all intricate, asymmetric, grounded angular coupling with interlocked bent elbows and knees, and a striking, repeated move in which the male slides his partner along the floor and folds her into him while she holds a jaunty pose, both feet firmly planted. Oh, wait, there’s that guy in the hat again…
It turns out he is the “The Trickster,” portrayed with authoritative presence on opening night by choreographer and company director Samuel Murez, and we are off and running on a terpsichorean adventure full of surprises and delights, not to mention superlative dancing, inventive choreography, evocative lighting and soundscapes, and enthralling stagecraft. Casting off his cane and limp, The Trickster performs a languid, acrobatic solo and then reveals himself as part magician, part master of ceremonies, all ringmaster, and somewhat malevolent in Épiphénomènes
(photos above and below, by Cherylnn Tsushima), as he orchestrates a love match between Jack and Jill, danced by Ludmilla Pagliero and Takeru Coste, then tears her heart out, beckoning two gravediggers to drag the corpses to the side of the stage.
Another pair of dancers—Lydie Variehes and Alexandre Carniato— appears in the same squares of light where Jack and Jill began their story and it seems as if The Trickster is going to have his way with another hapless couple. But The Trickster limps off and these two self-destruct on their own, in Murez’s powerful duet, Chaconne
, composed of bold coupling and unfurling, drawing each other close and pushing each other away.
The evening is a delectable, diverse smorgasbord of styles and creative choreography, including me2
, Murez’s loose-limbed, masterful dance performed in whiteface to the English/French poem Me Too
by Raymond Federman; Processes of Intimacy
, Murez’s faux peek behind-the-scenes at the rehearsal process for a balletic duet, set to a stylized recording of Murez’s stage directions to which Pagliero and Coste (in photo, above, by Cherylnn Tsushima) start and stop; the solo Les Bourgeois
, excerpted from the ballet Brel
by Ben van Cauwenbergh, surely the equivalent of Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs
, in which Francois Alu performs a boozy, woozy solo reminiscent of Baryshnikov’s turn in One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)
; the captivating quintet Excerpt from Limb’s Theorem
by William Forsythe; and Trois
, by Zeummes, a hysterical trio with brio in which three male dancers try to outdo each other with superhuman leaps, jumps, and spins, clownishly pandering to the audience for the loudest applause. The piece only works so well because, like all company members, the dancers are so darn good: strong, precise, charismatic, and steeped in technique.
The dances cleverly flow into each other thanks to somewhat creepy but witty interstitial appearances by the white-faced, wild-haired grave-diggers and long-fingered, hunch-backed mime-like dancers, who end the program with the energetic, full-company romp me9
, which brings down the house. It seemed as if the audience would not stop applauding, and the company, made up of powerful young performers who are not just technically skilled dancers but also talented actors, returned the love, staying in character as they took their bows and continued to morph, regroup, and bow at the edge of the stage, again and again.
Photo: Steve Murez
3e Étage (3rd Floor): Soloists & Dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet
Now through August 7
Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Ted Shawn Theatre