"The Beast Within," a 70-minute apocalyptic divertissement from Montreal, came to the Carpenter Center at Cal State Long Beach on Friday as the final public performance of the 1997 CSU Summer Arts Festival. Choreographed by Ginette Laurin for her brilliant 10-member ensemble O Vertigo Danse, it shows a vaguely Victorian writer (Anne Barry) scribbling on the air and unleashing a cavalcade of eccentric character-dance showpieces in strenuously nihilistic French dance-theater style.
All of the cliches of the genre are here, starting with Neo-Expressionist silent screams and sequences that depend on the women endlessly lashing their long, long hair. The piece boasts an intense, eclectic score by Jean Derome, a Magritte-inspired set (suspended chairs in front of a cloud-scape) by Guillaume Lord and costumes by Luc J. Beland executed in funereal black and gray with suitably horrific touches of red.
But "The Beast Within" is, for starters, mis-titled: There's nothing within Laurin's choreography. Everything about it is projected to the fifth balcony, so slickly externalized that it makes the flashiest Broadway show dancing look introverted. Laurin may be fascinated by emotional disorder as a subject for dancing, but she was initially trained in gymnastics and remains fatally enslaved to its priorities. Relentlessly her dancers hurl themselves into high-velocity midair catches and body slams until you stop thinking about what it all means and perceive it as sheer athletic spectacle: the Montreal Olympics, Laurin-style.
Every so often, however, her superb dancers remind you what might have been possible with more purposeful choreography. Near the end, for instance, great Canadian stylist Sylvain Lafortune suddenly brings "The Beast Within" back to human scale with an anything-but-bestial solo about small frustrations and rueful self-deprecation. Soon he's in a duet with Marie-Claude Rodrigue, restraining her attempts to float away and lifting her invisibly, as if she were disembodied: pure feeling. The encounter is intimate, beautifully modulated, rich in implication--and it doesn't last long before another corps assault bludgeons the audience into submission.
As with "La Chambre Blanche," which O Vertigo Danse performed at the Wadsworth Theater three years ago, "The Beast Within" suggests that the company itself is Laurin's great contribution to contemporary dance. Fearless, tireless and multiskilled, it embodies an ideal of late 20th century prowess never remotely matched by her fashionably dark, compulsively overwrought extravaganzas.