Challenging himself by taking on two of the most formidable scores of the 20th century, French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj created a program of daring opposites at the Irvine Barclay Theatre on Friday.
To Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Helikopter," a startling end-of-century string quartet played (and recorded) inside four helicopters in flight, Preljocaj brought cool, postmodern abstraction coupled with visionary projection technology.
To Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," a century-defining essay in volcanic neo-primitivism, he reexplored the dark view of sexuality evident in a number of his previous dance dramas.
Few companies could look equally comfortable at these extremes, but the members of Preljocaj's 12-dancer ensemble made the sustained energy output of the task-oriented "Helikopter" as exciting as the visceral and often violent mating rituals depicted in "The Rite of Spring."
An overwhelming rhythmic impetus linked the two scores, but the "Helikopter" rhythms came from the churning of huge rotor blades -- and Preljocaj never tried to match this superhuman power. Instead, like the musicians, his six dancers contributed a graceful obbligato to the Machine Age: a swift, deft affirmation of human resilience.
How do you dance to a helicopter? The same way you live near an airport: You stop hearing it, even if it inevitably conditions your life. In prosaic practice clothes and kneepads, Preljocaj's dancers thus executed a workaday cycle of actions that began and ended with a solo by Claudia De Smet. Making an occasional reference to the helicopters (windmill arms, for instance), they mostly, like all of us, stayed absorbed in the onward rush of activity, not really listening to the sounds that became part of the landscape.
Meanwhile, video designer Holger Forterer transformed that landscape with a series of gorgeous environmental floor projections intricately synchronized with the choreography. Sometimes the dancing seemed to take place in a shallow pool, with each step sending out rippling liquid circles. Elsewhere, the cast moved through a matrix of pulsating computer numbers, or generated a vortex of billowing clouds, or stepped across lines of light that suddenly blew away like sand in a windstorm.
No mere embellishment (a la the motion-capture animation in Merce Cunningham's "Biped"), Forterer's video floor represented the technological wonders of the modern world in contrast to the relentless, mechanical propeller drone overhead. Techno magic and techno nuisance have both become integral to our lives -- and "Helikopter" gave them back to us in high relief.
Laced with gallows humor, Preljocaj's modern-dress "Rite of Spring" objectified another kind of duality: the conflict between seeing ourselves as evolved, rational beings with freedom of choice versus how we periodically behave when enslaved by the instinctual procreative compulsions that link us to the animal world.
You want a jazz-dance celebration of sexuality? Try somewhere else. On Friday, the cycle of treat-me-rough, treat-me-nice encounters began with the six Preljocaj men sniffing panties and, a little later, his six women burying their faces in the men's discarded shirts.
Soon after, bold choreographic abstractions of intercourse took place in front of and sometimes upon a green hillock designed by Thierry Leproust that divided into bed-size platforms. But while enforcing unanimity of impulse -- and especially the sense of everyone eventually swallowed up and unhinged by the sex drive -- Preljocaj initially allowed each couple variations in pace and style. So his dancers seemed to be people, not just a faceless corps, and their descent to acts of nasty humiliation thus became all the more shocking.
Called "the chosen one" in an ironic reference to the sacrificial maiden in Vaslav Nijinsky's original 1913 "The Rite of Spring," dancer Nagisa Shirai found herself cruelly corralled, roughed up (by the women as well as the men), stripped, isolated and displayed as trophy meat in the final body-lashing solo of the piece. But instead of dancing herself to death (as in the Nijinsky version), she survived unshaken.
In easily the most provocative insight in this uncompromising social portrait, Preljocaj showed contemporary women understanding what they're in for in the mating game -- and strong enough to bear it and move on. No illusions, no heroism, no protest. Just one more sweaty roll on that hillock in what passes for modern romance.