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Dance Review

Where Love Ends in Violence and Polar Bears

Angelin Preljocaj's striking 'Paysage' sets dysfunction to an effective rock score.


Quite apart from its other achievements, Angelin Preljocaj's "Paysage Apres la Bataille" (Landscape After the Battle) is arguably the most remarkable rock ballet ever choreographed: a spectacular ensemble showpiece that depicts dysfunctional relationships with the pitiless dexterity of Twyla Tharp's "Short Stories" or William Forsythe's "Love Songs," and then evolves over its unbroken 70 minutes into a sardonic neo-Expressionist action painting of Western culture at the end of the so-called American century.

Created in 1997 for Preljocaj's modern dance company (based in Aix-en-Provence, France) and enlisting a dozen of its members as well as 12 supplementary performers from the local community, the work came to UCLA on Friday boasting an overpowering rock score by Goran Vejvoda and deliberately tacky bath-shop decor by Adrien Chalgard: bright shag panels masking the sides of a series of wing-cubicles hung with animal-print shower curtains.

Here, 12 couples gathered for ballroom-style social dancing that quickly turned brutal when three of the men crushed their partners until they stopped struggling and fell lifeless to the floor--while the others danced on as if oblivious or unconcerned. Later, shirtless men flexed their muscles while women undulated seductively, but sex between them proved impersonal and joyless at best.

At worst, the couplings ended in screamed obscenities and acts of violence, as in the sextet showing dancers repeatedly shooting their partners, male and female, by pointing their fingers as if they were pistols--to the sound of very loud and real gunfire.

As the sequences grew progressively surreal, there was one nice, lyrical couple on view--until they were eaten by polar bears. Otherwise, a positive view of male-female relationships occurred only in a series of tableaux that resembled disaster photos: people flinching away from catastrophe or pulling one another back.

Preljocaj typically choreographs in repeating modules or loops of high-impact motion: perfect for Vejvoda's pounding rock 'n' roll and for a view of American-style culture as unleashed raw impulse. The elaborate text for "Paysage Apres la Bataille" identifies this sense of instinctual action with author Joseph Conrad, contrasting it with the sense of intellectualized manipulation in the work of artist Marcel Duchamp.

However, much of the text is in French, and the Royce Hall audience received only minimal translations, leaving the work to make its effect as movement theater rather than through its contextual dichotomy. But in one way the text did communicate to those who couldn't understand the words: When it turned poetic in tone, the language was French, but when people grew unimaginably vile, they spoke English.

In the past, Preljocaj pieces seen on Southland stages have gained power from the tension between his propulsive, flung-out movement style and the constraints of their familiar subjects or scores: the story of Romeo and Juliet (to music by Prokofiev), for example, or the annunciation to the mother of Jesus, or the specter of the rose.

The playoff between Conrad and Duchamp doesn't serve nearly as well in this regard because, as a choreographer, Preljocaj belongs to Conrad body and soul. Only Chalgard upholds the interplay of planes and critique of popular taste associated with Duchamp.

But Preljocaj remains one of the most fascinating choreographers on the contemporary international scene: an artist who can bring his view of dark, irrational humanity to the stage with unstinting force. It is indeed regrettable that his visionary, full-evening "Le Parc" won't be included in the May engagement of the Paris Opera Ballet at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, but will be seen by California audiences only in San Francisco.

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