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Ballet Biarritz — "Le Portrait de l'Infante" and "L'Amour Sorcier (Amor Brujo)" by Thierry Malandain

by Lori Ortiz
June 24, 2008
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
212-242-0800
Diego Velasquez's well-known painting "Las Meninas" inspired Ballet Biarritz choreographer Thierry Malandain's ballet- derived, modern dance "Le Portrait de l'Infante." Reading the extensive program notes would tell you that.

"Las Meninas" is a portrait of Felipe IV's young daughter Margarita, surrounded by servants, a large dog, and a dwarf. The artist is depicted painting the group on a large canvas in the foreground. The king and queen are reflected in a background mirror. It's largely interpreted as an affirmation of the art of painting. Malandain's interesting dance, at the Joyce through June 28th, affirms the expressive power of beautiful movement.

The dance has its own narrative, set to four Maurice Ravel selections. The music, too, is more or less inspired by the painting. "Le Portrait" captures us with quality dancing, and aside from that, it draws us to reexamine Ravel and Velasquez. It recapitulates the painting's grandiosity, unjustifiably perhaps.

Sixteen very expressive and limber movers, in bright, metallic gold costumes, hold our interest. The set consists of three oversize figures made by sculptor Manolo Valdéz. They tower over the dancers, who move them around or emerge from behind their skirts. The dark, stone-patina sculptures, representing women in buttressed 17th century dress, are matronly, monstrously large, and blank. The faceless lumps are intended to reflect humanity, but they absorb any light that's shed on them. Their stoic, architectural stature contrasts the vibrant dancing. This is a reference to the painting, in which royal stiffness is juxtaposed with natural instinct.

There's nothing natural looking in the dance, though. With minimal décor, maximum drama is achieved. The powerful, expressive movement offers some sense of regality, and Spanish intensity. (Biarritz, France is in the Basque region, which is half Iberian.) The group's togetherness is highlighted in several striking marches across the stage. They look like regiments. They are light-footed and limber, yet rigorous in duets, trios, and a quartet, all in Jean-Claude Asquié's excellent lighting.

A male duet has Frederik Deberdt and Arnaud Mahouy doubled in love. Their fists pledge allegiance, suggesting throbbing hearts, as they leap in unison. The dance's highlight is perhaps their perfect mirroring. Through partially mimed movement, it's clear the character has met himself. Afterward they rock together, sitting facing each other with arms and feet clasped. Finally Mahouy, on his back, dismisses the standing Deberdt with a flick of his leg. "Portrait's" ending is just as strikingly definitive.

In fact, all the movement is clearly defined, especially flexed feet and robotic walks that punctuate. There are acrobatic steps, and innovative lifts that often illustrate or express emotional vicissitudes. Another awesome passage is playful, yet visceral. Nathalie Verspecht is mostly on all fours, arching and undulating her torso like a stretching, feral animal. The notes tell us she's morphed into a dog, as in the fable from Ovid's "Metamorphoses." She's wonderfully convincing. She's the large, resting canine in the painting, no doubt.

After an intermission, "L'Amour Sorcier (Amor Brujo)" began with a group fall on a floor covered with too-green leaves. The scene is a sobering reminder of art's artifice.

The Spanish flavored "L' Amour" has music by Manuel de Falla. It's inspired by the same legend as the film "El Amor Brujo." The modern dance facsimile quotes flamenco with bits of palmas and stampas. In a coda, the women re-appear in long-trained and ruffled batas de cola.

The excellent principal couple, Miyuki Kanei and Cédric Godefroid, undress and duet in the barest of undergarments. Otherwise the women wear frilly dresses and for the men, trousers and jackets, which they remove. At one point the women pull scarves from the men's jackets and do a scarf dance. However, the traditional character bits are nods, tapas. The essential Spanish duende is missing.

In this return engagement, Malandain is one of three French choreographers invited to celebrate the Joyce's 25 years. He shows the outstanding dancers to advantage. The works recall Nacho Duato, and they are enjoyable— until you try and make literal sense of them.
Biarritz

Biarritz

Photo © & courtesy of Olivier Houeix


Biarritz

Biarritz

Photo © & courtesy of Olivier Houeix

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