We live in an era of never-ending entertainment, mediated by the screens surrounding us constantly. Choré, performed this weekend by Les Ballets de Monte Carlo at Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts and choreographed by Artistic Director Jean-Christophe Maillot, sent me back in time to the beginnings of the Hollywood musical film, with its roots in social dance and pantomime, and it was as all-consuming, addictive, and provocative as today’s media.
The 2013 ballet, in its American premiere, was separated into five sections that put the audience in the dancing shoes of Hollywood’s melancholy, absurd, and at times violent side. We were given a behind-the-scenes look at the effect of horrors of the period–specifically Hiroshima and the horrors of World War II–on its entertainment. Set to music by various artists, including Danny Elfman, John Cage, and an original composition by long-time company collaborator and Jean-Christophe’s brother Bertrand Maillot, the 75-minute dance flashed before our eyes. Among the first four sections, each was equally as memorable as the others and as essential to the whole. As for the last, titled ‘After dance, there is yet more dance,’ the darkness subsided completely and abruptly, erupting after a full-company bow into a semi-silly epilogue that seemed incongruous with the rest. Maybe this was Maillot’s point; that the entertainment of the era required such a departure from the state of things to work. Or perhaps such release–tapping into the joyful abandon of dance when unseen bodies are melting away in some unknown corner of the world–is fundamental to being human.
Choré began with two women, or what I took to be two versions of the same woman. They entered side-by-side from downstage right, their arms crossed stylistically in front of their bodies, conveying a shared poise. The woman downstage, whose profile was closest and most visible to us, wore a simple floor-length dress in a muted grey; the other wore a black gown and her body–face, neck, arms, hands, fingers, legs, and pointe shoes–was obscured entirely by the color black. At first, looking at her face, I had the impression of a beekeeper’s mask, but on this woman the dark netting followed the contours of her face, right up to her dark hairline. When the pair reached center stage, only the woman in black–the first woman’s possible shadow–pivoted and continued upstage, where she met a black-suited man sitting in a chair, whose visible skin was similarly encased in black. A thick black theater curtain hung heavily upstage, further obscuring the silhouetted couple.
A male dancer in a mahogany-brown suit entered and began to partner with the first woman. Soon other couples entered, the choreography veering between musical theater-inspired classicism and spontaneous moments of acted-out violence. Dancers switched partners at whim, making the dance not about love but about coupling in a general way, about simply following a choreography intended for two. The shadowy pair was the section’s principal couple, and weaving in and out of the rest with showy ballroom steps that often faced upstage, they seemed to say: a life in the spotlight can eclipse its dimension. Fame exacts its price.
Writing this, I am aware that Maillot must have wondered if his vision could be possibly misread as blackface, a practice that was certainly occurring in Hollywood at the time Choré refers to. But neither to Maillot’s credit nor discredit, race and discrimination didn’t seem to be his point. Rather, the contemporary work integrated dancers of all backgrounds into roles that would have been occupied almost exclusively by whites in the films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. One later passage did leave a professional woman–a “madcap director’s” assistant expertly played by Mimoza Koike–bereft of her dignity, when the pinstripes of her pencil skirt were forcibly unzipped to her hips and her body was first shaken violently by a colleague, then left in a crumpled heap on the floor. This repeated violation did literally free Koike’s legs to move, however, and it seemed to spark an anger that was beautifully rendered in a solo to the unsatisfying, underworldly sounds of Cage.
In the second section, we entered the creative genius of a director at work with his muses, ensemble, assistants, and multi-functional props. He fell in love first with his lead actor, who displayed his white tights-clad physique and acting chops–portraying first overzealous happiness and the next moment doubled over with sobs. He is to play an aviator. Then the leading lady entered, wearing a giant brown plush gorilla hand like a fur coat over a silky white slip: she was Ann Darrow in King Kong’s grip, deconstructed–now, we gather, she is to play the Generic Love Interest. (In the program notes, an elaborate newsprint-inspired insert described each section in turn. Reading it afterwards, I learned of a plot line in which the female lead was forced by war to return to a home country that the pilot was assigned to bomb.)
Gasps were audible when large mirrored panels descended as a backdrop, and we caught a glimpse of ourselves before it rotated towards the floor to depict a bird’s eye view of what was happening there. This was a very clever way to break the fourth wall, and to bring The Audience–an important aspect of cinema–into the work. The genius of the mirror was that layers of painted backdrops had been laid underneath it, and as they were peeled away one by one, an ensemble of dancers and the lead couple masqueraded over optically illusive staircases, the female lead now in a skirt of fake white legs finished with pointe shoes, fanning out like an octopus’ tentacles when she spun. There was an overhead view of city skyscrapers with a vast plunge to one’s death if one weren’t careful, but it didn’t matter–the ensemble, with its feathered fans, produced a mushroom cloud that clearly concluded the scene.
Following that was an abstract realm of pure sound and sensation. It was in this third section, while the director’s assistant gave her assertive, angry solo, that other dancers wheeled metal structures into the space which seemed to amplify or sustain Cage’s music. They wore striped black-and-white unitards–narrow stripes, thick stripes, circular stripes–and were sensual, reverberous, nearly stripped-of-gender graphic shapes, hardly human. Seeing the assistant interact with them gave me the sense that she was in an unknown, hallucinogenic-produced world, in which she needed to figure out how much control she had–an appropriate metaphor for the country’s entry into an inexplicable war.
The transition into the penultimate scene was as haunting as the scene itself: one dancer’s unitard was stripped away as he backed out of it and its loose, lifeless shape was carried off, deflated. Behind a scrim, the metal sound-structures were rotated and laid flat to become platforms, while two female dancers were suspended above them in aerial harnesses. What followed when the scrim opened were two crowd-hushing pas de deux during which the male dancers, standing atop the platforms, promenaded the suspended, barely-moving female dancers in an impressive display of counterbalance. This tender “Landscape of Ashes” reminded me that the victims at the center of a public’s unapologetic and unquenchable need for entertainment are, in fact, humans.
When we consult our oracle-screens, we hardly appreciate the effort undertaken to produce all the content that’s become so inseparable from our lives. But with dance of a certain production quality (cough-Europe!), there’s a persistent question hanging in the air: how did they do that? Live production is by definition deprived of post production, the ability to ‘filter,’ the opportunity provided by the command-Z or delete key in our digital lives. All special effects–however archaic this may seem–are created in real time before our very eyes. Choré was about so much more than ballet. It was a feat of timing, of music, of lighting, of production, of concept, of costumes–designed by Cirque du Solei’s Philippe Guilotel, of stagecraft. And dance, it seemed to protest, cannot do its work without all these tools at its disposal. Similarly, it is unable to ignore earth-shattering current events. As I departed into the lackluster night compared to Maillot’s vision, I wondered, how could live entertainment have been supplanted by habits so isolating and fake? Don’t we need it now, more than ever?