Although the city of Lyon, France, has supported ballet in some form or other since 1687, when a music academy was established there, the Ballet de l’Opéra de Lyon truly became its own dance company only in 1969. Since then the troupe, whose members are classically trained, has established a cutting-edge reputation by performing works by such contemporary choreographers as Trisha Brown, Nacho Duato, Mats Ek, William Forsythe, Bill T. Jones, Jiri Kylián, Ohad Naharin, Lucinda Childs and Karole Armitage, among others. This February, the company took part in Montreal’s High Lights Festival, bringing its all-Ravel program to Place des Arts: Kylián’s Un Ballo, Tero Saarinen’s Gaspard and Meryl Tankard’s Bolero, the last two created especially for the company.
Kylián has said of Un Ballo that the piece is simply “a dance for music, nothing more.” Seeing the work, I was further reminded of what Balanchine once said in defence of abstract works: when you put a man and a woman together on stage, what more do you need? In Un Ballo, instead of one couple, we have seven pairs who, for the most part, are given equal weight. In the beginning, three pairs take turns partnering in centre stage to Ravel’s minuet from Le tombeau de Couperin while the other four couples stand at the back and watch. When the music switches to Pavane pour une infante défunte, all seven spread out across the stage and perform in unison the same pas de deux. Above them, numerous candles are suspended halfway between the stage and the ceiling. In the glow of the candlelight, the women, in long, full corseted black dresses, and the men, in black vests and knee britches, seem like ghosts from a more courtly past. The overall effect is grand and intimate at the same time.
As in many Kylián works, the women wear soft shoes and the steps performed by them and their partners are in contemporary inflected lyrical balletic style. At one point, the women step into arabesques, and as the men lift and then lower them into fish dives, the women’s knees and feet flex. A very simple alteration of a typical series of classical movement, and still the moment excites: the bending of the women’s limbs counters the more elongated swoosh even audiences inexperienced in ballet would expect.
Unlike Un Ballo, Tero Saarinen’s piece, which is set to Ravel’s piano work Gaspard de la nuit, is much more un-balletic in its choreography; bodies and feet are mostly limp—with a few exceptions, in particular during a male solo. Gaspard is full of atmospherics: fog and shafts of light penetrate a murky stage sparsely populated by two men and three women.
The piece gets its choreographic momentum from a basic pattern of rocking weight shifts from foot to foot, repetitively performed by all the dancers. One by one, they eventually break out and move more freely. (The women remove their stiff A-line dresses, which miraculously stand up on their own, and finish the piece in thin tunics.) Overall, the piece has the feeling of a mind trying to break free of a monotonous thought sequence. By the end, the dancers fall back into the opening pattern. Yet, one man (the first to break out earlier) heads toward the source of a shaft of light while the others stand clumped together and look on. While the middle section has a range of solos, duos and trios, the predominant tone is choreographic minimalism—fine in itself, but it felt as though it ran its course before the end of the music.
The moody darkness of Gaspard was lifted with the evening’s finale, Meryl Tankard’s Bolero. Tankard gives the well-worn score an unexpected whimsical edge instead of the erotics we have come to expect. This is a multimedia piece, with Rorschach-like red blots projected on three large white panels; the ever-changing shapes have a mesmerizing effect, like the abstract opening of Disney’s Fantasia. The dancers themselves perform behind the screens, their shadows moving and spinning across, growing larger or smaller in the process. There is a sort of parade of characters: bourréeing mechanical dolls, dramatic flamenco dancers and comical headless men. In between these vignettes are passionately moving men and women. At the climactic finish, all the dancers reappear in a head-spinning jumble. Why Tankard chose some of these images is beyond me, but the overall effect is just plain visual fun and delight.
Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. Read her examination of the career of the great twentieth-century choreographer George Balanchine (“How to Follow Mr. B?”) in Issue 9, on newsstands now. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.