The Frenchman Angelin Preljocaj may be popular at home and abroad, but he is also refreshingly odd – as his contribution to New York City Ballet’s autumn season makes clear.
The choreographer possesses a French predilection for propulsive dramas with heavy themes and an American postmodern tendency to let a dance unfold in leisurely, often analogical fashion – but not usually both at once and in the same dance. With Spectral Evidence, however, he brings a light American touch to bear on a ghoulish subject: witchcraft. The result is feathery, like a dream upon waking.
For his ideas about the demonic, Preljocaj took his cue from John Cage’s breathy vocal music – a droned ballad, an aria for clotted lungs, the smack of a kiss and so forth. It brought to mind the Salem witches. Spectral Evidence is no balletisation of The Crucible, though, even with Olivier Theyskens of fashion house Theory plastering gory red patches on the women’s flouncy white nightgowns. (Why must fashion designers always dress ballet dancers as if it were Halloween?) The dance features no hysterical atmospherics. It arouses no terror or pity. Rather, it envisions the spectral as an evanescent, whispering sort of sensuality within and around us like air.
The chamber ballet began with its four women rising into view from behind heavy blocks on which four men sat staring out at us. The women wreathed themselves around the men’s black silhouettes like smoke. The men carved rectilinear figures in the air with sword-straight arms and leapt in circles, charting direction like a compass. But the women were not all spirit nor the men always hard-edged. Lifted overhead, the women resembled a creature’s striving upper half, like the centaur’s human torso sprouting from its animal bottom. I have rarely seen lifts so vibrant on both dancers’ part.
Still, the men, particularly soloist Robert Fairchild, ended up looser than they started. As if at the bacchanal from which Cage always seems one step away, Fairchild mouthed the e.e. cummings lyrics to a Cage song while weaving and wobbling with unkeeled joy.
Spectral Evidence gave off a similar unforced, off-kilter vibe – so rare at New York City Ballet as to amount to a visitation from another world.