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A CurtainUp Berkshires DanceReview
Vers La Flamme (Towards the Flame)
By Elyse Sommer
If the CurtainUp Berkshire page had a frequently asked question, surely "why don't you cover Jacob's Pillow?" would have to be included. The two-fold answer to that query is 1. Lack of time 2. Dance criticism and theater criticism are akin but not alike. Yet, as we see more and more crossover from one creative genre to another, the lines between theater and dance may increasingly blur. Last season theater goers saw Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake in a Broadway House, and Anne Parson's theater dance piece A Simple Heart (based on a Flaubert story) at the Off-Broadway Classic Stage Company. Both were reviewed by dance and theater critics.
That brings us to the four-day run of Vers La Flamme -- conceived and directed by Martha Clarke, a woman whose name is synonymous with avant-gard works. Jacobs Pillow visitors expecting leotards and toe shoes should note the substitution of "directed" for "choreographed" and be prepared for the unexpected.
What Ms. Clarke has delivered here is a hybrid between silent film, theater and dance (dance movement and gestures, to be more precise). The theme is Russian. The source material, five of Anton Chekhov's best known short stories featuring typically Chekhovian ordinary mortals, is paired with the more mystical and dreamlike music of Alexander Scriabin (gorgeously performed by American pianist Christopher O'Riley.
The flame the dancers move towards and away from is passion so the fact that there's frontal nudity and distinctly graphic couplings should come as no surprise. (What surprised me was Clarke's announcement during a post-performance discussion that this piece would move next to the New Victory Theatre in New York -- a venue known for its kid-oriented fare, which this decidedly is not!).
The six principals are seasoned dancers who prove themselves to be equally adept actors. Dancers are always called upon to express emotion in facial expressions and gestures as well as their movements. Here, however, they are enlisted in roles most closely akin to the silent movies recently front and center in these parts in the musicalized story of Mack Sennett and Mabel Norman (Mack and Mabel). Felix Blaska's occasionally donned bowler hat is particularly reminiscent of Charley Chaplin and the scene in "The Darling" when he steps into a mound of earth and is drenched in rain is a cross between the comi-tragic little tramp and the downtown New York hit La Guarda in which everyone, including the audience, gets wet.
If all this sounds like a grand romp, it is and it isn't. Despite the outstanding performances and staging, an hour and twenty minutes of all this grouping and re-grouping tends towards repetition and sets your mind wandering to the question: "Is this high art or the Emperor's Clothes masquerading as high art?" Does it warrant this full-length treatment?
I think Ms. Clarke has hitched her wagon to two decidedly high art talents in Chekhov and Scriabin -- but the work that emerges from this unique marriage is more interesting than high art. And it would be decidedly more enjoyable if kept to an hour at most. As for the Emperor's Clothes -- the question is not without justification but with Jane Greenwood, designing those clothes, who cares. They swish and rustle grandly and sweep magnificently, as do the dancers who wear them.
To give further credit where credit is due, Ms. Clarke's own Pomeranian Sophie acquits herself admirably, apparently with an assist from William Berloni who is listed in the program as Dog Trainer. She also has one of two "spoken" parts, a bark -- possibly dubbed by recorded sound since Pomeranians tend to bark at a higher pitch. The other scrap of dialogue is a pained shout of "Olga" by a cuckolded husband in "Enemies."
For readers unable to catch the Jacob's Pillow run, the above-mentioned New Victory performances are scheduled for September 15-19th. And for those of you who do catch this or any of the rest of this season's shows, get to the Pillow early enough to enjoy a picnic supper at this beautiful rustic retreat. The free Inside/Out performances in which Nature is both set and lighting designer provide a wonderful opportunity to introduce youngsters to the dance. A visit to the website (listed with the production notes) will give you an idea of what the place is like. It's a not-to-be-missed part of any visit to the Berkshires.
LINKS TO SHOWS MENTIONED:
A Simple Heart
Anton Chekhov backgrounder
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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