Love inside a painting: Angelin Preljocaj’s La Fresque

Ballet Preljocaj at the National Taichung Theater, Taiwan
April 21, 2018

David Mead

Following on from his Snow White (2008) and Siddhartha (2010), Angelin Preljocaj continues his folkloric narratives with La Fresque, subtitled after its inspiration, the eponymous medieval Chinese tale, The Mural (畫壁), from the collection Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (聊齋誌異) by Pu Songling (蒲松齡), first published in 1740.

With its digging into the supernatural and blurring of illusion and reality, La Fresque has echoes of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. With its complexities, that story has proved problematic for choreographers over the years. Here, the tale is simpler.

La Fresque tells of two travellers, Chu and Meng, who find shelter in a temple. There, the monks shows them a fresco depicting five women. Chu is so fascinated by one of them that he stares at her for a very long time, so intensely that he is transported into the world of the painting to meet her, but after marrying her, he is driven back to his own world by guardians of hers.

Ballet Preljocaj in La FresquePhoto Constance Guisset Studio
Ballet Preljocaj in La Fresque
Photo Constance Guisset Studio

There isn’t a huge amount of narrative, although what there is, is told clearly. Once in the painting, Chu and the girl get a couple of duets and there is some fine ensemble work, but, with a few exceptions, the connection between dance and story gets lost, references being more symbolic. Those moments include a dance for the women, which can be read as them (in many colours) preparing her (in white) for her wedding. Although she doesn’t object, there is a slight sense of foreboding. Perhaps she knows the end can only be tragic. The wedding itself is marked in a duet simply by two bouquets of red flowers.

The opening duet for the two men, a scene of blissful happiness, sets the mood. There is no set, the fresco is created by a curtain that is drawn back revealing the women sat on a seat a little upstage. It’s a neat device that allows Chu to simply walk into the picture. Elsewhere, the production relies much for mood on Constance Guisset’s scenography, primarily her impressive projections that evoke the ethereal nature of what we are to see, and that variously suggest long hair (appropriately), swirling mists or ghosts, and, in a rather saccharin scene, a starry Milky Way. They just about stay the right side of things, illustration the dance rather than taking the eye from it.

Ballet Preljocaj in La FresquePhoto Jean-Claude Carbonne
Ballet Preljocaj in La Fresque
Photo Jean-Claude Carbonne

Preljocaj’s choreography is pleasing and tasteful, although more lyrical than is often the case. Typical of Prelocaj’s work, there are multiple stylistic references including court dance, Chinese dance, ballet, Cunningham and his own contemporary touches. Masks hint at German expressionism. The dance is pretty much non-stop, so much so that it comes as a surprise to realise the cast only numbers ten.

One of the highlights comes early, a methodical, highly structured, almost mathematical headbanging dance with hair flying by the women in the picture. The thrashing of the women is in contrast to the men previously. When Chu meets the girl, their dance is a contrast again, almost in slow-motion. A courtly dance is followed by an effervescent number to an electro-beat. Best, is a dance using silks that suggest the girls are hanging by their hair, and that are later used by the men and women for aerial work.

Ballet Preljocaj in La FresquePhoto Jean-Claude Carbonne
Ballet Preljocaj in La Fresque
Photo Jean-Claude Carbonne

There is not a huge amount of character for the leads to get their teeth into but, as the girl, Mirea Delogu danced with great poise, while Jean-Charles Jousni was a pleasing Chu, confused, astounded and full of wonder.

La Fresque may be an old story, but Nicolas Godin’s music is about as contemporary as it comes, a mix of electronica and urban noise. On the whole, it matches the dance well. Tunisian fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa’s costumes sit nicely between the two worlds.

On waking back in his own world, Chu sits with his friend in front of the mural. The women are motionless once more. But there’s a difference. The one who caught Chu’s eye now has her hair tied up, decorated with a red flower.

It’s not particularly deep, nor a particularly challenging watch, but La Fresque is a rather poetic journey that’s full of interest, French style and polish, and a more than engaging 90 minutes.