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Conformity, unmasked

Knuckling under to societal pressures is boldly explored in two works -- `Noces' and `TooT' -- by a Montreal troupe.

October 09, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Russian music, barefoot dancers, clown-white makeup, scenic units continually repositioned: The two works presented by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday bore a strong family resemblance even though they were created by choreographers from different countries.

And the links went deeper, since Stijn Celis' "Noces" and Didi Veldman's "TooT" explored a sense of conformity (innate in the former, imposed in the latter) and the feeble last stand of individuality in societies ruled by overwhelming mass energies.

"Noces" boasted a forceful live performance of Igor Stravinsky's score by members of the company orchestra and the Pacific Chorale led by David Briskin. This is urgent, complex, startling music, and it has inspired a number of brilliant choreographic interpretations -- by Bronislava Nijinska, Jerome Robbins and Angelin Preljocaj, for starters.

Without becoming literal, the Celis version respected Stravinsky's quasi-narrative structure (depicting the personalities involved in a peasant wedding) but capitalized on bold, galvanic corps dancing that perfectly physicalized the composer's fearsome rhythms -- a dozen men in suits performing a cycle of jumps-in-place with spectacular exactitude, a dozen women in bridal dresses all executing the same hip-swinging two-step as if their lives depended on it.

And by no coincidence, their lives did depend on it, for Celis' "Noces" turned out to be a mating dance in which the women (usually placed on the left) lured the men (on the right) to carry them off. But not before the rearrangement of long wooden benches allowed him to stage the action from a number of different angles, like a filmmaker shooting in the round.

The Preljocaj "Noces" may be more trenchant in its portrayal of male possessiveness. Moreover, Celis' sequence, midway through, showing the crowd repeatedly forcing Anik Bissonnette and Marcin Kaczorowski together, looked awfully similar to the central act in Maurice Bejart's "Rite of Spring." But no matter. He, Stravinsky and the Canadians generated an irresistible force field on the stage.

Set to music by Shostakovich (on tape), "TooT" began with a procession of white-clad Euro-clowns and initially seemed to parody traditional circus whimsies. Gleaming, curved platform units served as a circus ring and later were piled up to form a wall that allowed dancers to hide and suddenly reappear for a squirt-gun battle. It all seemed clever but trivial -- for a time.

Veldman's program note mentioned the pressures Shostakovich faced when composing under Stalin -- and, by extension, how everyone must knuckle under to societal priorities. These ideas surfaced explicitly in her choreography when Anthony Bougiouris appeared with a bullhorn to direct the "TooT" dancers and keep them in line.

Every glint of individual expression was immediately squelched. "Are you having fun?" he thundered at Robin Mathes, who dared to be different. "We don't do that here."

Mass rebellion soon ended his reign, but after the revolution (aka the fall of communism), the survivors were left with only whispered fantasies ("I wish I could fly," "I wish I could forget") and illusory freedoms.

Danced by Marie-Eve Lapointe and Herve Courtain, a duet for a woman festooned with red balloons who dissolved in the hands of the man who wanted her, set the seal on the broken promises of the post-Soviet era -- and a self-effacing dance parable that reconceived the most titanic historical schisms as a sad little circus sideshow.

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