Dance : Lyon Opera Ballet Celebrates Its Diversity


Some of the greatest classical ballet companies dance at their best in only one style. We’ve seen the Bolshoi, for example, utterly fail at Bournonville and the Kirov wreck Antony Tudor. Below these ensembles, however, lie the chameleon companies: the Joffrey for starters, with its ability to look equally credible across virtually the entire 20th century repertory.

The Lyon Opera Ballet also specializes in diversity, contemporary diversity from choreographers belonging to the world of modern dance. By now, American audiences are far more used to seeing the members of this 32-dancer ensemble either barefoot or in body-disguising costumes than in toe shoes or tights--remember the Lyon “Cinderella” with everyone masked to look like porcelain dollhouse figures?

Elaborate body disguise from the choreographer of that “Cinderella” formed the climax of the company’s mixed bill Friday at the Wiltern Theatre, with all three works initially presenting images of fallen dancers. In Maguy Marin’s whimsical “Groosland,” stagehands wheeled in the 20 dancers on lorries and then laboriously stood them up in a formal tableau. With the first notes of Bach’s second Brandenburg, however, they sprung into antic life--all of them wearing padded costumes by Montserrat Casanova designed to make them look enormously, endearingly fat.


As the women flitted through “I’m so delicate” passages and the men flexed and strutted through “I’m so hunky” displays, Marin’s joke expanded and deepened into a kind of referendum on conventional notions of the body beautiful and, in particular, the concept of the ballet dancer as an icon of physical perfection. For the finale, every character stripped to the buff, with the women’s body suits fairly detailed anatomically but the men’s leaving something to be desired. Call “Groosland” an apotheosis of Rubenesque pulchritude, danced with typical Lyonesque refinement.

And, of course, that same refinement gilded two other works in which the dancers appeared undisguised. At the beginning of Bill T. Jones’ plotless “Green and Blue,” the fallen figure of Marketa Plzakova was used to spatially offset the presence of three men facing upstage in a spotlight. The trio served as the anchoring force of the first half, linking all the restless, temporary visits by other members of the eight-dancer cast and dominating the stage with Jones’ supple, imaginative use of the arms and upper torso. Plzakova served as the calm center of the second half, supporting the propulsive virtuosity of Andonis Foniadakis and complementing the ensemble’s short energy bursts with her longer, more lyrical phrasing.

Using sections from Mozart quartets plus a distant, deliberately out-of-phase vocal bridge, Jones created a fluid showpiece that sometimes threw too much hectic group motion against the music but inventively juxtaposed classical and modern vocabularies. Wobbly leg spasms immediately followed by ballet extensions, twisty shoulder action ornamented with textbook port de bras: This was multidisciplinary, end-of-the-century music visualization, a venture given maximum sheen by the silvery pastels of costume designer Janet Wong and the giant hanging lanterns of Bjorn Amelan.


Unlike Jones and Marin on this Lyon program, Susan Marshall didn’t raise the curtain on any fallen dancers but rather evoked the memory of one: Arthur Armijo, a longtime member of her company, now dead. Taking a Philip Glass string quartet with elegiac associations of its own, she made Stanislas Wisniewski a surrogate for Armijo, welcomed by the 11 other dancers in “Central Figure” but somehow not really there, a la the female lead in Alvin Ailey’s tribute to a dead friend and colleague, “Memoria.”

In addition, overtones of “Our Town” colored this deft, sensitive suite, since Wisniewski often seemed to be recollecting its dances and dancers from another place or time, frequently joining the activity but sometimes just observing. Perhaps the memories belonged to the character portrayed by Pierre Advokatoff, a friend, mourner and surrogate for Marshall herself. The rise and fall of drop curtains designed by Donald Baechler punctuated “Central Figure,” creating a sense of time passing and also planes of existence: people belonging to another dimension. It is a work with far greater emotional power than the more recent Marshall-Glass collaboration, “Les Enfants Terribles,” performed in the same theater a week earlier.

* Lyon Opera Ballet dances works by Bill T. Jones, Jiri Kylian and Maguy Marin on Tuesday at 8 p.m. at the California Center for the Arts, 340 N. Escondido Blvd., Escondido. $20-$45. (800) 988-4253.