La La La Human Steps
McCarter Theatre Center
Princeton, New Jersey
February 14, 2012
“Altro Canto Part 1,” “Opus 40”
Les Ballets de Monte Carlo
The Joyce Theater
New York, New York
February 15, 2012
by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
The enigmatically named La La La Human Steps is celebrating its 30th season touring a piece with the least – and most – enigmatic of titles, “New Work.” The program calls it an analysis of two tragic love stories, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” You wouldn’t get many clues from the standalone angst in Édouard Lock’s production. What you see are ballerinas on the verge of nervous breakdowns.
La La La Human Steps, founded and run by Lock and based in Montreal, is a contemporary group but also employs ballet-trained dancers and pointe work. “New Work” premiered last year; Diana Vishneva originally headlined but for touring her part has been divided among two dancers.
The mournful score by Gavin Bryars is played live by a quartet of piano, cello, viola, and saxophone who are behind the dancers. The musicians are part of the design; the dancers make their appearances through them. The score often sounds like a Renaissance Consort; though it’s not from “Dido and Aeneas,” you can pick out quotes from Purcell’s magnificent aria “The Plaint.”
“New Work” is in darkness the entire time, the black punctuated by spotlights. Everyone’s in black as well; the women in bustiers and the men either in dark suits or topless. It’s not easy to see the action. The smallest ballerina, Talia Evtushenko, begins on the ground, and gets up sputtering out steps, racing to and from her partner.
Lock portrays the women as neurotic drama queens and the men as shadowy cads. In the stressed-out, tightly hyperactive duets, a man takes a woman by the shoulders and wraps and unwraps her, winding her around in soutenus at blistering speed. Without a program note you might have little idea what Lock was talking about beyond generically miserable relationships. The choreography pushes on nervously and relentlessly; you can hear the dancers panting from exhaustion.
Two, long columnar screens at the front display short films. One is of a woman in a simple white button down shirt; in the other, she’s dressed the same but aged. The films, though brief and poignant, barely intersect with the dance even as an echo; they only serve to throw you off the track.
“New Work” sees ballet as a dark, exhausting art form. The women are all on pointe, but the technique is restricted to the basics. There’s no modulation; they’re either up on their toes or they’re down. After about an hour and a half, the full cast returns to the stage, followed quickly by a blackout. It’s as if Lock started when the music began, kept going until it ended and finished by running out of gas.
The show’s most awe-inspiring aspect is the near-impossible, relentless speed at which the dancers move the entire time, but there isn’t much more than that. “New Work” is all external. Lock uses the trappings of emotion and of classical technique, but not their cores.
The present-day, non-Russe version of ballet in Monaco is directed by French choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot. He is a contemporary ballet choreographer using ballet and pointe technique but also for a different goal.
The company brought two large-cast works. “Opus 40” is an “ode to youth” to a selection of Meredith Monk songs; at one point her vocalizing seemed as tantalizingly intricate as Indian bols.
Maillot’s take on childhood is less a depiction of it than an interpretation and commentary through adult eyes. In simple, bright costumes, the men course about the stage and the women gambol.
“Altro Canto” has striking costumed by designer Karl Lagerfeld. The dancers wear either short gathered skirts with white tank tops, or bustiers with jeans, but gender doesn’t determine which outfit.
The choreography, to Monterverdi selections, is straightforward music visualization; a darker cousin of Mark Morris’ “L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” There is tender partnered dancing for a quadrille of eight men but the impetus seems cosmetic, more about mood than meaning.
The exception is the company’s prima, Bernice Coppetiers. Gaunt with a flame-colored bob, she recalls Wendy Whelan physically, and like her she has the intensity to magnetize a stage. Her presence gives sense to all the movement, even the over-familiar.
In “Altro Canto” Maillot re-poses “The Unanswered Question” by having her walk held aloft by the men, and she fearlessly jackknives in their arms like a dolphin pitching into the waves. In “Opus 40” she opens with a solo where she repositions and adjusts her arms and torso. She is able to make it seem like wonderment. A long section with three men follows. You aren’t sure what to make of the fact that someone puts his hands on her breasts in both of the evening’s pieces.
Maillot goes for volume; the works are long and use many dancers. But his viewpoint isn’t always compelling; “Opus 40” has a pedantic view of childhood – atmosphere without conviction. “Altri Canti” takes a slanted, lugubrious view of Monteverdi. The music is wallpaper for a mood Maillot fixates on.
Like Locke, Maillot is skilled at creating ambiance onstage, with more clarity. But both choreographers focus on external atmosphere without penetrating deeper. What’s onstage doesn’t add up to a world.
copyright © 2012 by Leigh Witchel
Top: Photo by Édouard Lock. Talia Evtushenko and Márcio Vinícius Paulino Silveira in “New Work”
Bottom: Photo by Marie-Laure Briane. Bernice Coppetiers and company men in “Opus 40.”