Beauty and the Beast

Angelin Preljocaj's ballet company dips its toe in art, literature, and history -- with stunning results

Ballet and intellectuality often seem to fit together about as well as George W. Bush and a good book. On the one hand, you've got ballet's anachronistic courtly pretension, with women in hooped gowns bowing beautifully, and men like so many Napoleons wearing smug facades of noblesse oblige. On the other hand, you've got ballet's air of upper-class disdain for inquiry, especially inquiry into the legitimacy of one way of life over another. That's when classical dance can begin to look like the Russian aristocracy in the Battle of Austerlitz -- well dressed, superior, and graceful, but ultimately foolish.

Fortunately, the anachronistic face of ballet is only one of many fronts the dance has shown in the last 100 years. In fact, since the Diaghilev era in the early 20th century, artists have strived to revolutionize the art form. French-Albanian Angelin Preljocaj, director of his own Ballet Preljocaj, is in the vanguard of young choreographers using ballet with the soul of an intellectual, the ingenuity of a matador, and the ferocity of a prizefighter. He does it, in part, by mixing ballet unselfconsciously with any other dance form he likes.

Six years ago, Preljocaj stunned -- and, in some circles, outraged -- the Bay Area with his Wagner-sized production of Romeo and Juliet, commissioned and performed by the Lyons Opera Ballet with both live and recorded music. In its ironic use of movements as disparate as Russian ballet and Broadway dance and with its Orwellian set, the production had more kinship with Brecht than Balanchine. In its political and social sweep its peer was Shakespeare. At its center, as at the heart of the play, was desire -- the sort of volcanic appetite that threatens to shred the tight weave of the society that binds it.

No Tutus Here: Ballet Preljocaj stages a battle between instinct and intellect.
J. C. Carbonne
No Tutus Here: Ballet Preljocaj stages a battle between instinct and intellect.
No Tutus Here: Ballet Preljocaj stages a battle between instinct and intellect.
J. C. Carbonne
No Tutus Here: Ballet Preljocaj stages a battle between instinct and intellect.

Details

Ballet Preljocaj. Feb. 8-11 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. at Tickets are $28-35; call 392-4400 or visit www.sfperformances.org.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard (at Third Street), S.F.

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Beginning Thursday, the 44-year-old Preljocaj brings his company to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for the second time in three years, premiering another dance of yearning and conflict, this one titled Paysage Apres La Bataille, or Scene From a Battle. It is a précis, in a sense, of Preljocaj's central artistic concern: How much of human creativity derives from the intellect, and how much from instinct? This time his sources are Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness -- the work of a Polish-born Englishman -- and the ideas of artist/philosopher Marcel Duchamp, the Americanized Frenchman. His vehicle is the human body.

"The instrument of dance is the body, and the body is traversed by a lot of sensation," says Preljocaj during a recent phone conversation from New Mexico, where the company was performing last week. "That means the body is always in confrontation with its own desire, its own tyranny. This is the fragility of dance and the great power of dance. Everyone has a body and therefore can feel it."

For Preljocaj, the battle between instinct and intelligence is ever-present and ceaseless, and dance, as he sees it, "is the referee between the forces." But sometimes, it is the choreographer himself who becomes the arbiter for society, as Preljocaj did in the mid-1990s. During that time, France experienced an alarming rise in support for the neo-fascist National Front Party, with its policies of social intolerance and its support of anti-immigrant violence. Municipal elections in Toulon, where the Ballet Preljocaj resided, threatened to result in a victory for the NF, whose policies would have directly affected the artist and his company. Preljocaj let it be known publicly that should the NF win, his company would leave town.

"For me, it was very clear," he says. "I couldn't be in contact with these kind of people. They are against the meaning of everything I do. I said, "If they will be elected I will leave.' They were elected, and I left." The company now resides in Aix-en-Provence.

The battle that arrives on stage Thursday is less specific and historically charged than the conflict with the National Front, but Scene From a Battle enters that disturbing primitivist territory where political extremism and raw sexuality root and thrive. On stage are huts covered in synthetic fur (designed by Adrien Chalgard), and a party is under way -- until violence breaks out and the dancers' fake guns are made frightening by the sound of real gunfire in the score. Dancers dressed like orangutans undress and become objects. Others wear loincloths or business suits. With his encyclopedic knowledge and use of movement styles, Preljocaj has his dancers mix idioms -- deconstructed ballet, post-Cunningham modern, expressionism, and social dance -- with each articulating something specific about society, instinct, and intellect. According to René Sirvin of Le Figaro, his "tableaux captivate us right up to the finale."

"I was really very passionate about ballet," says Preljocaj, who was trained in classical dance. "But when I saw Merce Cunningham in the Pompidou Center, I was really shocked, because I understood nothing of what I saw, and didn't understand where he wanted to take the dance. At the beginning I didn't know there was something but I felt there was something there, so I went every day for a week and began to see the specificity of the movement. It was like the sky began covered with clouds. The second day there was a little clearing, a bit of blue, and each day a little more."

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