Karlheinz Stockhausen isn’t exactly a go-to composer for choreographers, and on the basis of this double bill presented by Ballet Preljocaj at the Palais Garnier during the Paris Opera’s winter break, it is easy to see why. From the sound of helicopters rumbling to electronic music that is anything but dance-friendly, the evening is not exactly easy on the ears, and only partially succeeds in setting movement to the German composer’s avant-garde scores.
Helikopter, a 35-minute work created in 2001, is by far the stronger offering. It is set to Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartet, which brings together a string quartet and four helicopters; the first performances, in 1995 in Amsterdam, featured each musician playing from an aircraft in flight. The result is fittingly loud and tortured, and draws a fascinating response from scenic designer Holger Förterer. The first image in Helikopter is of rotors projected on to the stage that accelerate into a whirlwind of electric blue as the helicopters take off. They soon evolve into an amazingly fluid and alive lighting installation that sends video ripples around the dancers wherever they step.
Angelin Preljocaj, a household name in France since the 1990s, adds choreography of cool intensity to the concept. Two dancers start the piece slowly, moving with impassive deliberation. As the choreography grows faster, it seems to expand in increasingly complex circles, horizontal, vertical; turns morph into swinging arm movements, lifts draw clear arcs in the air. The six performers are dispassionate in their exploration of space, swinging like draughtsman’s compasses from one axis to another, and Preljocaj matches the score in this unusual yet clear manner throughout: as the helicopters slow to a halt, so do the cogs in this choreographic wheel, repeating the introduction in silence before walking off.
Eldorado came six years after Helikopter in Preljocaj’s career, and, like much of his recent output, it sorely lacks the sense of inevitability and architectural soundness of its predecessor. The score, Stockhausen’s Sonntags Abschied from the opera cycle Licht, doesn’t exactly help, and its screeching synthesizers are actually less appealing than the helicopters. As the work starts, 12 dancers in unflattering white underwear and transparent tops stand against white panels around the stage. For a mercifully silent few minutes, they come forward in pairs to perform deliberately slow, sculptural pas de deux.
From there on it’s downhill. Preljocaj strives for simplicity of means in choreography, and at its best that simplicity creates emotion, but in Eldorado the result is instantly forgettable. Dynamics are ironed out at every turn, and the vocabulary is far too limited to sustain attention, with a seemingly endless loop of lunges, 45-degree développés and low jumps. All this is delivered with the dance equivalent of a soporifically dull tone, as Preljocaj seems to routinely discourage individual expression in his dancers. A missed opportunity for the only guest company scheduled at Garnier this season; past visits from the Bolshoi Ballet and Merce Cunningham have set higher standards.