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Hip to Tchaikovsky

La La La Human Steps' 'Amjad' dresses the composer in arty black.

April 07, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

WE can refuse history, but we can't forget about it, even with the new technologies. Those are Luciano Berio's words. They were also the theme of the late Italian composer's Norton Lectures at Harvard 15 years ago. Last week, I was sure I had long ago proved Berio wrong. Having shuffled dying swans and such into the category of ritual rather than renewable art, I not only, good Modernist that I am, refused Tchaikovsky's ballets but also had put them out of my mind. Would good reviews have made American Ballet Theatre's "Swan Lake" at the Music Center an event? Not for me.

But although it was described as a deconstruction of "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty," the U.S. premiere of La La La Human Steps' "Amjad" at Royce Hall on Friday night seemed safe enough for a Tchaikovsky irregular. For nearly three decades, Edouard Lock's Montreal company has been accelerating dance steps with a high horsepower unknown to earlier dance technology. A pop sensibility has often informed the company's choice of music. At the end of his life, Frank Zappa worked with Lock. An occasional foray into opera has been La La La's way to make Rameau rock.

The composers for "Amjad" -- a 95-minute work performed on a bare black stage -- are hip. David Lang is a founder of the new-music collective Bang on a Can. Gavin Bryars is a first-generation British Minimalist. Blake Hargreaves is a Canadian composer who knows his way around an electronic music studio and reggae.

The "Amjad" lighting is also hip: mostly harsh spots. The costumes, all but one black, with the men sometimes bare chested, are -- you guessed it -- hip. The dancing is daft and dazzling. Coupling is ambiguous and many-faceted. Film projections on three spherical screens of knotted foliage, pearls and filmy cloth added atmosphere of some sort. Amjad is an Arabic name appropriate for either gender.

I don't know Lock's intention. The UCLA Live program book was without information. La La La Human Steps’ website isn't all that helpful either, although it does contain some examples of the superb score. Maybe "Amjad" is a modern choreographer's way of expunging demons.

The dance will no doubt mean something different to each observer, depending on how far up front Tchaikovsky's ballets reside in his or her brain. For me, it functioned like the kind of insidious dream your subconscious sometimes designs to link you to your ancient history.

For immediate survivors of ABT's "Swan Lake," it could have served as refreshment. For many modern dance aficionados, it might act as a refresher course.

First the music -- my bias but also the clear starting point for the nature of the dance. No indication was offered of who did what in the arranging of Tchaikovsky's music for a piano quartet that was seated onstage and amplified. Different dances had different styles. Some parts of the score were transcriptions with only subtle harmonic or musical alterations. Some were transcriptions with major musical alterations -- changed harmonies, new accompaniments for melodies. Some were radical alterations, a single phrase generating a movement in a classic repetitious Minimalist style. Electronics were occasionally used, and brilliantly.

The sound design was uncredited, but care was taken with it.

As with the music, Lock's choreography was full of subversive plays on Petipa. Dancing on pointe was common, but Lock paid little tribute to tradition. There is seldom repose in his work. When stationary, the company became La La La Human Semaphores. The arms of the nine dancers were as astonishing as their legs. Rapidly quivering arm movements in harsh light created the effect of wings moving in the air.

Everything in the choreography and the narrative (or, more accurately, narrative suggestion) is a jumble. The swans were obvious. Princess Aurora (Zofia Tujaka), tall and striking, wore the one white gown and was bathed in blue light. Bare-chested Bernard Martin was covered in a red glow. Something yucky (beating hearts maybe) was illuminated on a pair of screens. That was about it for color.

But we supposedly dream in black and white, and with dreams you can do anything you want. So "Amjad" is long, basically formless and, for all its variety, repetitious. If an interesting step or arm movement whizzed by too fast, there was always a second and a third and a fourth iteration. Much the same could be said of the music.

I liked that. Attention-grabbing stunts became over time a kind of new tradition, and as the Tchaikovsky arrangements began to lose their novelty, the score seemed to take on an impressive seriousness. "Amjad" has to be long. A quick hit on YouTube makes it look cute. A good sit in the theater is a better way to overcome a refusal of history.


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