Ballet Preljocaj's Arabic orgy, Ojai's (sort of) opera and more

"Les Nuits" at the Music Center. Photo: JC Carbonne

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a pageant. Angelin Preljocaj has given us one more outlandish extravaganza and this time the French choreographer-turned-corporate calls his show at the Music Center "Les Nuits," after "One Thousand and one Nights."

It's yet another would-be fairy tale, the last one being "Blanche Neige" (Snow White). This time the frame story concerns Scheherazade escaping the Sultan's death blade by distracting/seducing him with exotic narratives, one after another. But Preljocaj, deep into his mode of dark, existential undercurrents, wields a wand that suggests depraved humanity -- not just abuse of the so-called weaker sex and certainly not its supposed triumph.

There's a scene with male couples, for instance -- feigned beheadings/throat-cuttings in unison; another one, dimly lit, with marauding mujahidin in all-black and head masks, who interrupt the opening montage: a drawn-out, slo-mo orgy with half naked, turbaned women, lounging about amid plumes of smoke, their arms moving in a snake-like tangle to an Arabic-pop-beat sound track. (At least no Mahler to defile this time.)

Sex (simulated, of course) sells. Always has. But nudity has become sort of commonplace. Trust Preljocaj to rely heavily on both. And to assert his glee with perversity too. (Where else but in his company would you see a stage-wide lineup with tall, well-proportioned women wearing long gowns and those with very bowed legs sporting above-the knee dresses?)

So what we have is a leisurely, sprawling rollout of disparate stage pictures taking up about 90 minutes -- with each season Preljocaj produces a more elaborate but less interesting series of superficial vignettes that settle on acrobatics (not dance), that show off bodies and focus on fetishes fit for Vegas. You can just imagine his self-satisfaction in spotlighting a seated woman, her naked back to the audience, undulating so that every ligament, tendon and muscle provide an anatomy lesson.

Does he "incorporate" haute couturiers and commercial composers for this latest offering? You bet. Does he preside at home base over a large, multi-faceted organization built just for him by big-name sponsors and luxuriously housed in Aix-en-Provence -- from which he tours the world in ever-more prestigious venues? For certain.

Barak Ballet

But then there's his opposite, the Barak Ballet, a local start-up that's just dance, original dance, real dance. At it's essence, we're talking about the heroic venture of Melissa Barak, who for nine years performed with the New York City Ballet, choreographed work for it, and now heads her own company, which depends on the financial kindness of strangers.

So what distinguishes it, besides having all the artistic and administrative attributes rolled up into a single person?

Well, Barak happens to be a very talented dance-maker herself. She also has an eye for tracking down other choreographers' works that rely on substance, not shtick. She smartly recruits superb dancers during their home company's off-seasons. Her choices of music and costume design and her smoothly run performances that click along like clockwork are exemplary.

At the company's recent Broad Stage performance of various ensemble pieces and duets everything was based on advanced ballet technique, showing off dance at its highest level of beauty while exploring contemporary movement motifs and connecting keenly to respective musical sources. Sounds like a Balanchine model, yes?

Among the works was Frank Chaves' "Sentir em Nos," a couple's fierce interpersonal struggle likened, but subtly, to a bull-fighter and his foe; Barak's "For Two," a lovely lyrical duet that actually pauses to take breaths between ultra-sensitive encounters and Darrell Grand Moultrie's dramatic "Voices of Six," with its inserts of small but powerful expressionist gestures.

As for the well-established wing of local dance enterprise, Los Angeles Ballet reprised Balanchine's beloved "Serenade," which, no matter how often it's seen, reveals new facets -- so ingeniously made and sealed together with Tchaikovsky's innocently beseeching score is it. This time, though, when the girl falls in the third movement the lighting stayed too bright, lessening its emotional depth and impact.

Also returned to the bill was that 19th century hallmark of Romanticism, Bournonville's "La Sylphide," which the company again danced to perfection. I saw the cast with Allynne Noelle, so cheery and outgoing as to remove the sylph's sense of elusive spirit, but so committed to the role's detail otherwise that she overcame that flaw. Ulrik Birkkjaer, as the smitten James, flew about with apt passion and managed the devilish entrechats, those jumps-in-place with crossed-feet pointing down like arrows, with urgent precision.


Out of town to our north, at the 68th annual Ojai Music Festival, man-of- the-hour Jeremy Denk put together a marathon weekend of propositions -- all of them predictably probing. From the works he chose, to the musicians he enlisted, there was a sense of adventure that festivals ideally have, this one being devoted to new music about old music or new music "classics" or even an actual premiere, such as Denk's brainchild, an opera based on, of all things, Charles Rosen's "The Classical Style," a scholarly tome so acclaimed it's been translated into many languages.

Denk, inspired to lavish his wit and powers of conjecture on it, wrote the libretto and, together with composer Steven Stucky, came up with "The Classical Style, An Opera (Sort of)," which garnered world-wide attention -- both for the novelty of the idea and the fact that it's the MacArthur "Genius" Award-winning pianist-writer putting it down on paper.

Jeremy Denk at Ojai

Sad to report, though, the performance remained unseen by many at Ojai because the re-vamped Libbey Bowl has poor to negligible sightlines for anyone under 6'2." So there was virtually nothing I could see on the stage. Only in the LA Times, days later, were there photos of what appeared there.

But hearing was not a problem, however limiting that sole prospect may be for a quasi-buffa opera like this. And the unraveling plot was comic -- what with Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven the main protagonists, all caught up in arguments over the declared death of classical music with additional characters personified by the Tonic, Dominant and Sub-Dominant chords. Yes, there were lots of insider jokes and quotes from other composers' works. And Stucky did a capital job of putting it all together.

What turned out to be pure transporting poetry, though, was Denk's piano recital linking works by Schubert and Janacek. First, he explained how the two composers represented cultures crashing in on each other. And then, like an excavator of small, precious relics he played them, revealing degrees of whimsy all the way to oblique shadows of sorrow. His touch, the control, the sensitivity spoke volumes.

At the other end of this spectrum were his Ligeti preludes, those dense, ridiculously complex pieces that Denk also played masterfully weeks earlier when he performed with the LA Chamber Orchestra at Royce Hall.

Many events followed -- from 8 a.m. to midnight all weekend long. One standout was the Uri Caine Ensemble with its "Mahler Re-Imagined," a traversal of the composer's well-known themes, from the Adagietto, to "Frere Jacques" to "Ging heut Morgen" brought to their echt origins and sounding like cool jazz or Jewish wedding music or Klezmer rambunctiousness. While it did go a bit too long, who doesn't love the stuff of a festival?

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