By Miriam Felton-Dansky
By Lilly Lampe
By R. C. Baker
By Tom Sellar
By Alexis Soloski
By Molly Grogan
By R. C. Baker
People coming to see the Lyon Opera Ballet without foreknowledge might well be startled. The name sounds like a hangover from an earlier century, but during the 25 years it has been in existenceespecially for the 19 that Yorgos Loukos has been the companys artistic directorthe Lyon Opera Ballet has presented work by cutting-edge choreographers from around Europe and from America.
There were no pretty, sugarcoated works on the program that the troupe brought to the Joyce last week. No foolish ones either. Merce Cunninghams Beach Birds, William Forsythes Duo, and Maguy Marins Grosse Fugue made the stage radiate artistic intelligence and artistryboth in terms of performance and choreography.
Many dance lovers fervently hope that when the Merce Cunningham Dance Company completes the two-year life allotted it following the death of its director last summer, his works will continue to be present and flourishing in our lives. Theres reason to be wary: When a piece is performed by dancers who dont have the makers style in their bones, details and intentions can erode. But if future productions of Cunninghams dances turn out to be as good as the Beach Birdsthat former MCDC dancer Banu Ogan staged for LOB, we can count ourselves lucky.
This beautiful 1991 work is one of several Cunningham dances set to music by John Cage that allude to the Pacific Northwest, where the choreographer grew up and where he and Cage met. Cages spare score for piano and other sounds bears a quotation from Joyces Ulysses: Between the river and the ocean, birds on the beach. . . . Marcia Skinners unitards are white from beneath the breast to the ankle, and their black upper parts continue into gloves. The wonderfully imaginative design increases the image of wings that seem to join at the center of the dancers backs. You can also, if you wish, link the interplay of black arms and white legs with the piano keyboard from which Eric Dartel drops sparse notes into long silences.
Beach Birdsseems to begin in a quiet dawn, with eight dancers scattered about a blue-lit space (Skinner also designed the magical lighting). Theyre barely swaying, but small movements begin to erupt here and there. Someone cocks a head or bends to the side; someone else picks it up. The pianist slowly tilts a rain tube. A flock instinct is at play. When Cédric Andrieux (once an important member of MCDC) enters and makes big decisive moves, the others briefly freeze; suddenly everyone quivers a leg.
Even as the movements become faster and cover more ground, they come in flurries and subside into pockets of quiet. A latecomer (Caelyn Knight) enters with a rush. Theres a sudden banging sound like flotsam bumping a pier. Prancing around Andrieux, rotating him as she does so, she suddenly lays her cheek to his bent back, and he turns his head to nestle it against her neck. Meanwhile, in a corner, Agalie Vandamme jumps and hops again and again.
The dancers perform with wonderfully alert sobriety. Intent on their business, they seem to pick their way through tides and, with long, articulate limbs, explore invisible currents of air. Cunningham, I think, would be delighted.
Forsythe created Duo in 1996, when he was still the artistic director of Ballett Frankfurt. Like Beach Birds, the piece requires its performers to focus on the movement, without playing to the audience. But while Cunningham choreography often presents itself as something to be serenely explored and experienced by the dancers, this duet of Forsythes makes it plain that the performers (Dorothée Delabie and Amandine François on opening night) are executing demanding tasks that they must exert themselves to stay on top of. You could think of the cast of Beach Birds as tackling difficult tasks too, but deeper, almost magical qualities lurk in Cunninghams material.
The costumes for Duo (by Forsythe) pit severity against sensuousness. The two women are dressed in black, and their hair is pinned up sleekly. They wear soft slippers and socks, but their legs are bare below their black trunks, and the top parts of their long-sleeved outfits are semi-transparent. In other words, their bare breasts are visible through this mesh armor. Thom Willemss recorded piano music is very spare, the notes sweet, but Forsythes atmosphere is harsh: A high strip of white lights from the front of the house makes the stage look barren and dark at the back.
The two women move in immaculate unison much of the time. Theres nothing soft or indecisive in what they do. Its as if Forsythe had done some homework on a ballerina avatar, trying to see how he could twist or invert or stretch her traditional skills and make us see movement from unusual perspectives. Partway into their first phrase (repeated and later varied), the women fall backward into a sitting position and twist to lie crumpled on the floor; were invited to study their haunches. When they lift one leg high, its neither quite to the back in an arabesque, nor quite a side extension, but something between the two. As in Beach Birds, the movement comes in flurries and then subsides into calmness (sometimes the two recline like odalisques), but always you feel the rigor of the activity, and the womens breath comes in audible rhythmic whooshes. Delabie and François cut paths every which way across the stage, as if they planned to carve it up and take parts of it away with them.