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Theatre

La Belle au bois dormant/Sleeping Beauty @ Place des Arts

Posted by Stefan / May 9, 2009

ballet.jpg
Writing about ballet is like dancing to the gentle hum of old people quietly triumphing over death. Or something like that. The crowd, composed primarily of aging monuments to better days, was as artfully cast as the performers. Many a stern gaze (designed to convey thoughtfulness and gravitas) was fixed, and many a pearl necklace un-ironically adorned the shoulders that bore the weight of another era. Strewn among these botox laden masses, the occasional young person could be spotted. I saw sideburns and plastic rimmed glasses that would have made Elvis Costello (who, incidentally, was in the building watching his wife perform next door) proud. This pattern of old juxtaposed somewhat uncomfortably against new was mirrored in the modern reimagination of Sleeping Beauty. Given the theme and tone of the evening's production, I left convinced that choreographer Mats Ek aimed to reach the pre-Buick and prune juice set. The production's ultimately conservative message, however, remained palatable to the regulars.

With Sleeping Beauty, Ek has rendered a darling family classic chic. Gone is the familiar fairy tale, and with it the invitation to suspend disbelief. Instead, the Swedish choreographer brings rebellion, violence, and drug abuse to the stage, casting the otherworldly grace of his dancers against the brutality of human misery. Beyond the comically exaggerated motions and the syncopated prancing, the dancers tell a richly developed story. While it's hard to call something so fantastical realist, scenes of dangling syringes, domestic abuse, and murderous rage plant the art unmistakably in our imperfect world.

The first act satisfied my expectations of modern ballet. Forget the tutus and sincerity - the dancers wore varied costumes and exuded playful cheekiness alongside surprising sensuality. Ostentatious but never gratuitous (Ek was surely trying to tell the audience something by depicting soulless, pneumatic fornication), it never felt too stuffy for our proletarian taste. As expected, I spent much of the time marvelling at the physical prowess of the tiny creatures on stage, wondering whether the ability to effortlessly glide makes walking seem improbably dull. I zoned out as I pictured the fiery female lead soaring across her kitchen to procure milk from the fridge, while her jaded roommates looked on with envy. Though this caused me to miss part of the story, at intermission I was assured that things were going smoothly on stage, and resolved to focus more intently after the break.

Spoiler alert: in the second act, shit gets Brechtian and fast. His delicate sensibilities ostensibly pricked by a lascivious sex act, the story's hero (who's a kind of an anti-hero, really) takes the stage from amongst the crowd and berates the audience for watching such filth. "Vouz avez payer pour ca?", he demands with mounting frustration. Not satiated by his poignant reprimand, he produces dancers to show us all what real ballet is about. From there, things really get weird, as the princess and her scofflaw lover ultimately meet bittersweet redemption and demise at the hands of the unhinged participant-observer.

The story ends with a powerful statement on conformity, the substance of which was largely lost on me. Though engrossed and engaged, I'll plead inexperience and want of caffeine. That, and it's hard to accept earnestness from characters who perceive inner turmoil as an opportunity to launch into dramatic contortions and goofy acrobatics; think Sydney Crosby going in for a triple axle before taking a shot in the closing seconds of a playoff game. In trouble with destiny? Don't sweat, just soft-shoe and jazz hands your way out of danger.

The production's self-conscious post-modernism won't please everyone. Purists, toward whom Ek directs much vitriol, are sure to be irked by some of his more bizarre artistic choices. Conversely, those less familiar with ballet might just leave confused. That being said, given my limited experience with dance, I was relieved by the dissonance of the second act. Even the laughably indulgent sequence involving a bilingual Chef and a dead salmon (and no dancing) added a certain charm. While not quite a break dancing crew at the Lionel Groulx metro, the creative talent behind Sleeping Beauty inject youthful relevance to a medium dominated by its storied (and oft caricatured) past.

Picture from Place des Arts.

This production runs until May 16 2009.

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