Editor’s note: We welcome Blake Beckham’s first contribution to ArtsCriticATL. Blake is an invaluable contributor to Atlanta’s dance scene. As a choreographer and performer, she has worked with Emory University’s dance program and with dance troupes across the country. She teaches ballet and modern dance at Agnes Scott College and is development director for Moving in the Spirit. She is also a writer and advises Emory’s Center for Creativity and the Arts. — Cynthia and Pierre
On Sunday, November 7, the Rialto Center for the Arts will present “Empty Moves” by contemporary French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, a prolific voice on the international dance scene who’ll be making his first appearance in the Southeastern United States.
Inspired by the accompanying John Cage score “Empty Words,” the piece reveals the purity and persistence of the moving body while embracing the legacy of Cage and his lifelong partner, choreographer Merce Cunningham, who together dismantled the conventions of concert dance and music. By refusing to seduce their audiences through sentimentality and veiled codes of meaning, Cunningham and Cage blazed a trail for the avant-garde. Preljocaj’s description of “Empty Moves” as “a work that refuses to signify anything” clearly recalls the Cage-Cunningham philosophy, and the piece is very much alive with their ethos.
In Cage’s score, the composer recites text extracted from the journals of Henry David Thoreau that Cage randomly shuffled into an unintelligible stew of language and sound. In a recording from a 1977 performance in Milan, we hear the audience devolve from impatience to frustration and outright anger as it jeers and shouts over Cage’s lulling voice. In this unusual and unsettling sound environment, the Preljocaj dancers assert their persistence with clarion grace.
Clad in bright T-shirts and briefs, the Ballet Preljocaj dancers appear casually sexy and vaguely adolescent. But when the quartet moves, they reveal a maturity that is crystalline in its embodiment. Their steps feel measured, determined and calm. Each sculptural gesture is crisp and intentional. The formally rooted vocabulary clearly evokes Cunningham (with whom Preljocaj studied) in its precision and spatial intent. But Preljocaj is no copycat. He allows his vocabulary to speak on its own terms and unfold in its own rhythms. Within it, the dancers offer us a glimpse at something like pure humanity performed, refreshingly, without layers of affectation.
The relative sparseness of “Empty Moves” presents just one dimension of Preljocaj’s artistic signature. In other works, he’s made use of spectacular sets, epic narratives and daring emotional tension. Imagine “Snow White” with costumes by Jean Paul Gautier. In contrast, “Empty Moves” focuses purely on the fundamental craft of deconstructing and reassembling a movement language. In doing so, Preljocaj confronts squarely a choreographer’s most enduring challenge: to discover the potential of the body’s articulation and let it speak authentically. (Photos by JC Carbonne.)
This performance by Ballet Preljocaj kicks off the “France-Atlanta 2010” project co-sponsored by the French Consulate General in Atlanta and the Georgia Institute of Technology. To deepen the impact of the cultural exchange, audiences are invited to a pre-show performance of Cage compositions by the local ensemble Bent Frequency at 4 p.m., and discussion over wine and cheese at a post-show reception in the Rialto Center.