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When classics move in new directions

Today's choreographers throw curves into vintage ballets as they seek out new meanings. But in so doing, they often are determined to maintain links to the past.

October 20, 2002|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Sometimes it seems that every dance season is crammed with daring new versions of war horses: male swans, gay swans, bald swans -- anything for novelty. However, new versions of old works are scarcely a recent trend in the dance world. Such repertory classics as August Bournonville's 1836 "La Sylphide" and the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov "Swan Lake" adapted and outlived earlier ballets of the same titles, and today only dance historians know much about their sources.

The newest ballet remakes, created by a generation of mostly European choreographers, are different: They want audiences to remember the originals. Many of them prove daring about nudity and sex. Others put classically trained dancers through deliberately anti-classical moves to blur the line between ballet and modern dance. But the biggest change may be their sense of historical precedent. These ballets build on the past and acknowledge it every step of the way.

The presence of such forward- and backward-looking works on a number of American stages this season could well influence our more insular style of dance drama in the future. But, for now, they represent a kind of repudiation of the auteur theory in dance, a declaration that innovation always springs from heritage.

Know the past to remake it

Sometimes the reminders can be very simple: bits of the original 1912 Vaslav Nijinsky pantomime in emerging French choreographer Thierry Malandain's "Afternoon of a Faun," for instance, or the use of a classical tutu on bald, contorted male and female swans in Swedish iconoclast Mats Ek's anything-but-classical "Swan Lake." Sometimes it can be elaborate, as in the "Moth Maiden" 19th century parody that British eclectic Matthew Bourne inserts into his "Swan Lake."

You can find both strategies in Angelin Preljocaj's "Spectre de la Rose."

Back in 1911, Mikhail Fokine's original "Spectre" -- created for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes -- depicted a young girl dreaming that a rose had turned into a handsome fantasy cavalier. This situation grows ominous in Preljocaj's version, and another kind of fantasy coexists with it. On one side of the stage, the controversial 45-year-old French choreographer creates a slow-motion rape duet, dominated by a strange rose-covered male. Meanwhile, on a stage within a stage, dancers in fancy dress parody antique classical conventions as if they were ballet automatons. It's an update, all right, and it incorporates moves from Fokine, but, like much of Preljocaj's work, the mix is intended to be unsettling.

"There is a dark part in sexuality," he says, "and it is not usually shown in dance because of the idea of the beauty of the body and the emphasis on love stories."

He admits that it can be dangerous to impose his own ideas about sex on a ballet from a more conservative age, especially a ballet considered a masterpiece, "but it's also exciting. My work is really about contemporary [movement] research, but I like to show that I am the child of those who came before me. I believe you have to know what has been done before -- even to destroy it. If you don't know, you can do nothing truly new, only accidental repeats of what you haven't seen."

In his "Spectre," Preljocaj says, Fokine has been "remixed to express movement at the beginning of the new century. Like now in music you can take some samples and compose a new piece. I think the most important thing for an artist is to give the taste of a new period in the history of art."

Preljocaj's other remakes include "Les Noces," "Parade" and, most recently, "The Rite of Spring" (which his company will perform at the Irvine Barclay Theater on Friday and Saturday) -- works, like "Spectre," that allow him to pay tribute to the Ballets Russes. Preljocaj calls it "the first contemporary dance company in history. Because they worked like us. Diaghilev took young people completely unknown like Picasso and Stravinsky and today their works are considered the greatest masterpieces of the age."

"It's the same today, and what I want to say to the audience is, 'Just be careful, be awake, because maybe right now there is some other new masterpiece of contemporary art being born.' And it can be very nice to be there at that moment."

Thierry Malandain is the new kid on the remakes block, at least to American audiences. His Ballet Biarritz has thus far appeared only in Florida and makes its New York debut next month. Malandain, 43, has not only created his own Ballets Russes tributes -- versions of "Spectre," "Bolero," "Afternoon of a Faun" and "Pulcinella" -- he ran a two-week Ballets Russes festival in Biarritz, France, a month ago where you could have watched four choreographers' versions of "Spectre," including Fokine's.

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