Angelin Preljocaj is no Johnny One Note. The ballets he’s made for his company (based in Aix-en-Provence) and other groups range from dark dramas to austere yet sensual explorations of movement and form. His Noces (1989), first seen here in 1997, is set to the score for multiple pianos and voices that Igor Stravinsky wrote for Bronislava Nijinska’s magisterial 1923 ballet. Although Preljocaj doesn’t follow Stravinsky’s arranged-marriage plotline, he reflects Balkan traditions he grew up with in which the bride plays no part in the prenuptial festivities.
The opening image in this provocative and gripping Noces does subtly acknowledge the Stravinsky-Nijinska theme: A small woman, covering her eyes with one hand, is guided and soothed by a taller woman. But mostly five couples wrangle on and around five benches, flirting, coupling, and hauling one another about. The short, belling-out skirts of the women’s velvet dresses (by Caroline Anteski) get rucked up over their white panties, and the men’s shirts come untucked in the fray. Jacques Chatelet’s lighting responds to dramatic climaxes in the recorded music (played at an ear-splitting volume).
A third party joins each male-female contention. The performers bring on the life-size dummies who’ve been lolling half out of sight in the wings: blank-faced rag dolls without faces, hands, or feet, dressed as brides. The first woman to grab one fondles it, then stuffs it hastily under her bench so she can join the party. People caress the dolls, brutalize them, hurl them until the air is filled with flying white tulle victims, and finally, hang them on the tipped-up benches.
At one point the women walk with heads reaching forward and wobbling slightly, like lambs searching for their mothers, but only rarely does Preljocaj identify them as anything but angry, passionate humans,complicit in the nasty games they play. At the end, though, after the women have repeatedly jumped onto the benches and dived off onto their partners, bringing both of them to the floor, the opening image is repeated. Each woman puts a hand over her eyes, and her man guides her into the blackness at the back of the stage.
Empty Moves (Part I), co-commissioned by the Joyce, was created in 2004, but is only now receiving its New York premiere (along with a new second part, it will be shown at the Montpellier Festival in June 2007). As in Preljocaj’s earlier Helikopter, you can see the residue of the choreographer’s studies here with Merce Cunningham in the 1980s and his subsequent work with former Cunningham dancer Viola Farber in Angers, France. In Empty Moves, performed on opening night by Isabelle Arnaud, Celine Marie, Yan Giraldou, and Sergio Diaz, Preljocaj employs most of the formal possibilities four dancers present—unison dancing, contrapuntal pairs, clusters in which everyone moves differently, and so on. Clean, linear steps and poses contrast with more impulsive-seeming ones: everyone rolling on the floor; couples snuggling together; women upended over a kneeling man’s thighs—their butts, clad in skimpy trunks, presented to the audience.
The four simply dance the fascinating choreography with elegant attentiveness. Preljocaj’s great idea was to juxtapose their serenity with dramatic and disturbing sounds: 28 minutes from a recording of John Cage’s 1977 three-hour performance in Milan of his Empty Words (Parte III). Cage’s voice drawls and gargles words from Thoreau’s journals, playing with tonalities and lapsing into long pauses until linear meaning evaporates. The audience of art students grows increasingly raucous—laughing, clapping, booing, arguing, yelling invectives—while Cage continues unperturbed. At the end of the dance, Preljocaj winds the choreography back to its beginning, but there’s no closure for Cage’s audacious performance; a hand on the volume knob fades it out.