Dance review: Ballet Preljocaj at Irvine Barclay Theatre

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Angelin Preljocaj’s “Empty Moves,” presented at Irvine Barclay Theatre on Thursday night, was a dance quartet for five. Joining an ensemble of four on-stage performers in sound and in spirit was the composer John Cage, who accompanied the French choreographer’s pleasing hour-long dance-deconstruction.

Cage’s landmark recorded score memorialized a 1977 Milan performance of “Empty Words” in which the mushroom-loving minimalist intoned nonsensical text culled from Thoreau’s journals. Behind him was the sound of Teatro Lirico’s audience losing its mind, first as disgruntled individuals catcalling, then, astonishingly, when group chanting arose, like at a soccer match. But Cage plodded on, undeterred.

Reversing the geographical pattern, the European, Preljocaj, brought a challenging work to the infinitely better behaved Orange County. (A French speaker did cry out at the evening’s end, “Come back again, but next time change the music!”)

Dressed in colorful, well-fitting panties, boxers, and T-shirts, two women (Gaëlle Chappaz and Yurie Tsugawa) and two men (Fabrizio Clemente and Julien Thibault) formed a roving quartet, delivering with pinpoint precision Preljocaj’s nonstop output of primarily adagio movement. Entangled duets, group mash-ups, and the rare solo gathered feeling as the movement language constantly replenished, particularly in juxtaposition to the score’s dramatic waves of audience protest.


Preljocaj topped his clever tangles with visual absurdities like a toe pushing a head, or a finger poking an ear. But it flowed as naturally as a walk in the park for the Pretzel family. It also reflected the cool performance ethos of Cage and his partner, the late Merce Cunningham, Preljocaj’s artistic mentor.

Bravely disavowing reliable tricks of the trade, Preljocaj eschewed velocity, for example. The work unfurled in beat-by-beat repositioning to the rhythmic heartbeat of Cage’s intonation. Its slowness exposed its choreographer to harrowing examination. But “Empty Moves” passed beatifically.

“Empty Moves,” like its partner “Empty Words,” disarmed by admitting its own emptiness in its title. The ducks on the panty derriere of Tsugawa, a marvelous, alert dancer, also aided. There was joy in watching the dancers arrive at their thorny end-points. In a sense, “Empty Moves,” condensed on stage our own travel through time and space — and the nutty messes we get ourselves into. -- Debra Levine