When the Georgia Straight reaches French dance icon Angelin Preljocaj, he’s ensconced in Aix-en-Provence, the paradisiacal corner of southern France where he bases his company in the purpose-built Pavillon Noir National Choreographic Centre. It seems the same region of the world that gave rise to artists like Paul Cézanne and Vincent van Gogh is a perfect incubator for his cutting-edge contemporary movement as well.
“It’s a very pretty city, very quiet and very sunny, but what I also like is the fact that the people here with me working are really here to work. When I do an audition people come from all over the world to work for me here,” he explains over the phone. “We really work very quickly. Here, yes, it’s like a painter in his atelier.”
Born to Albanian parents, Preljocaj danced for greats like Merce Cunningham before becoming a choreographer in demand by companies from the Paris Opera Ballet to La Scala to the New York City Ballet. What sets him apart is the fact that he is as likely to stage visually striking, highly theatrical story ballets as he is avant-garde, abstract works like Empty moves (parts I, II, and III), which four of his Ballet Preljocaj dancers will perform at the Scotiabank Dance Centre this week. It turns out the affable artist relishes retelling the story of Casanova or Snow White (the latter a kinked-out 2008 version with costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier) just as much as he enjoys deconstructing movement to the spoken words of renegade John Cage, as he’ll do here.
“The story ballet and the abstract: I cannot live without one aspect,” he says with characteristic passion. He compares it to the mathematical research that’s necessary to build technology. “I really need to make abstract research and fundamental research on movement to be able to work on something more narrative. I don’t want to be literal when I work on a fairy tale.”
In the case of Empty moves, it’s a project he’s been researching, and carefully building, for the past 10 years. And he’s not done yet: Cage’s recording Empty Words has four sections, and in a few years, Preljocaj intends to make his final installment, too. “It’s very rare to have a piece where I’m taking time to think and work and think,” he comments. “It is a very Cage-ian project,” he adds, referring to the American composer’s interest in time, space, and chance.
In the recording, made in Milan in 1977, Cage takes the writings of Henry David Thoreau and systematically abstracts them until they are just sounds. As he perseveres with his performance, the Milanese audience gets increasingly frustrated, yelling out at him above the score and telling him to go back to America. Preljocaj chuckles at the appropriateness of this reaction, considering Thoreau’s politics. “When you go back to the text, Thoreau says, ‘Don’t accept what the state tells you,’ and this audience in Milan was in a state of revolution,” says Preljocaj.
With Empty moves, Preljocaj seeks to honour the way Cage broke down language by deconstructing dance vocabulary. Initially, the technically polished dancers are calm, as Cage remains throughout his performance. But after the first hour of the ever-flowing, physically demanding choreography, Preljocaj sees something else happening. “The bodies are tired but I love what happens at this moment because it gets so close to the truth of the body. The dancers can’t play more than what they have to do; they get closer to the purity of the movement because of their tiredness. When the body is tired it looks like the space is more resistant, less fluid.”
Preljocaj cops to being fascinated with the concept ever since he got a grant to study Noh in Japan in the late 1980s. “The most important thing I learned was how to modify the air,” he says. “So my obsession in my research is also how to make the space moving between the dancers and to give the sensation of space moving with the dancer.”
Whether viewers here will feel that sensation and see the disintegration of dance movement on-stage, or just lose themselves in the flow, remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: it’s a rare chance to hear the Cage performance—not a musical piece, Preljocaj agrees, that you would necessarily sit at home and listen to. “It’s an artistic experience you can only share in a theatre.”
Ballet Preljocaj performs Empty moves (parts I, II, and III) at the Scotiabank Dance Centre on Thursday and Friday (September 25 and 26).