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Lyon Opera Ballet - 'Second Detail,' 'twelvetwentyone,' 'Un Ballo,' 'Jardi Tancat'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

September 25, 2004 -- Mondavi Center for the Arts, UC Davis, CA

It seems ludicrous to imagine the Lyon Opera Ballet as a typical opera ballet, the kind of troupe that marches on for a few minutes in “Aida” or pops in for a quick polka in “The Bartered Bride.” Like so many other modern operas ballets however, the Lyon Opera Ballet is a phenomenon in its own right, with an identity and a well-deserved reputation quite apart from its parent company.

Under the direction of Yorgos Loukas for the last 16 years, the Lyon made its only Bay Area stop at the lovely Mondavi Center in UC Davis. As a side note, the center itself is worth seeing, but, it can be quite a trek to get to there from San Francisco. Still, the Mondavi Center can be congratulated on putting together enough must-see programs in its first two years, that audiences happily endure the frustrations of sometimes four hours in traffic to get there.

Our tribulations, however, are probably nothing compared to those of a touring dance company. The Lyon suffered a setback at the start of their eight-city North American tour when the rich oriental rugs and stools used for Jiri Kylian’s “Symphony of Psalms” didn’t make it through customs – literally, lost in a sea of red tape. The company was forced to replace the work with Kylian’s “Un Ballo” and Nacho Duato’s “Jardi Tancat.” Also replaced on the program was Russell Maliphant’s “Critical Mass” – they premiered his “twelvetwentyone” instead. After all the changes were said and done, only one of the announced works remained, but it is to Lyon’s credit that, by and large, they were able to make you forget that this was a program that was about 66% different from what had been originally planned.

Opening the evening was William Forsythe’s “Second Detail,” and if you could get past the bleeding in your eardrums from the pounding Thom Willems score, you might have found it an enjoyable, even exciting opener.

There is, almost immediately, activity everywhere onstage. Dressed in Forsythe’s trademark practice clothes – this time in tones of grey -- the company quickly gets down to the work of pushing the extreme angles of those hyperextended fourth positions and speedy, brittle shifts of weight.

Lyon’s dancers are a more eclectic group than those of Forsythe’s former home troupe, the Frankfurt Ballet, but Loukas’s roster boasts several powerhouses, who move from the center out. With all those flying body parts they imply the frantic, barely controllable energy of the modern world. It’s a look that fits the idiom of the Lyon company, which itself seems the very model of a dance company for the 21st century, self-assured, driven, and kinesthetically fearless.

Individual dancers also make the most of their strengths and limitations to get at the heart of the choreography – one conquers the steps through musicality, another through use of lengthy extensions, still another via sheer physical endurance and strength. Iratxe Ansa Santesteban, a compact redhead, might not have had the cleanest pointe technique onstage, for instance, used her speed and determination to make her lines stand out from anyone else onstage. Her duet with Antonio Ruz successfully evoked tightly-reined bodies, taken over by their parts.

The moodiest, and yet most memorable piece of the evening though, was Maliphant’s striking “twelvetwentyone” which has you wondering what’s next from the moment the curtain goes up on barely discernable figures moving in a black pit of space. Maliphant creates the first of several unreal, yet effective, theatrical effects with banks of lights that rise over the tight grouping of men as they roll on the ground with unnatural ease. Try this at home: roll from side to side on the floor a couple of times, and then ask yourself how these men could ripple so silkily across the stage, with no thudding or flopping, to such snaky and menacing effect.

The look of the costumes for ‘twelvetwentyone” is casual, but the feeling in the air is earthy and tense. When pale disembodied arms appear out of the blackness moving like darts against the little zwips of a recorded score by Mukul, the movement is organic, but also a little creepy. We see the women moving in the dark behind the spotlit air, and we know what’s going on but Maliphant builds a compelling illusion, and when he repeats the phrases fully in the light, they turn out to be just as interesting.

Given the last-minute change in the program, one can’t fault Lyon for a somewhat less than tidy execution of the group sections of Kylian’s “Un Ballo.” The sharply focused details that makes Kylian’s work such a pleasure were missing -- angles were occasionally at odd with each other, and the partnering not quite as assured as it had been in “Second Detail.” However, in the individual duets and in flashes throughout, the seven couples did capture the romanticism of the Maurice Ravel music along with the formalism and flirtation of couples at a ball.

More successful was their performance of Nacho Duato’s “Jardi Tancat,” which has a look similar to his other folk-inspired works like “Rassemblement” and “Arenal.” And like “Arenal,” “Jardi” is also set to songs by Maria del Mar Bonet.

Duato’s choreography is made for a group of people who literally breathe together, and as with “Un Ballo,” it probably needed only a bit more rehearsal. Still, the three couples threw themselves into the Diego Rivera-like vignettes with abandon, offering up such heartfelt dancing that an audience member next to me sat in wonderment, with her hand touched to her lips throughout the whole ballet. I’d venture to guess she wasn’t the only one riveted.


Edited by Editor

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