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Ballet Preljocaj La Fresque at Sadler’s Wells | Review

Ensemble robes © Jean-Claude Carbonne.
Ensemble robes © Jean-Claude Carbonne.

Premiered in Aix-en-Provence three years ago this work choreographed by the French choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj is presented as a beautiful dream, pleasing to watch.

The title, La Fresque, refers to a fresco. This is a watercolour picture painted rapidly onto wet plaster on a wall or ceiling so the colour permeates the plaster as it dries with the painting becoming an integral part of the building.

The narrative to this dance work is flimsy based on folklore that is Chinese in origin although mostly not in execution here. Two male travellers take refuge from the rain in a small temple where they find a delightful fresco of five young women wearing their hair long and untied, signifying they are unmarried. One of the travellers is smitten by the appearance of one of the girls and is as a consequence transported into the temple painting. The girl is equally drawn to him and they subsequently marry at which point warriors from inside the picture cast him out. When afterwards he looks again at the fresco he sees the girl he has dreamt of has her hair tied up in a chignon, indicating she is married and no longer free.

This is a scene in the odyssey of a young man, described by way of a painting of an unobtainable young woman who is attached to a place where he does not belong and which she cannot leave. Change is effected in the art and by the art. Also by sight alone regardless of reality.

If you had not read the programme for the show would what is shown on stage, five women on a raised platform suffciently describe a fresco? Possibly not.

The dreamlike atmosphere of the show is created from the start by set and video designer, Constance Guisset, who sends haunting light effects floating across the height of the Sadler’s stage, tendrils of connection forming a net of capture.

The music composed by one half of duo AIR’s, Nicholas Godin, provides atmosphere and a vital counter-point and dynamism to the often lyrical choreography, employing a wide range of styles from electro-beat to courtly baroque.

The dancing which is done barefoot is strong on graceful shapes and ensemble connection combining different choreographic styles, often from ballet or Merce Cunningham but also from other sources such as what looked like Thai temple dance steps for the warriors.

The duets between the lovers are beautiful and surreal, mutuality of desire is described and at times the female dancer appears to float in the dark though supported by her partner, which is stunning. Floating in love is a theme. The duets are insubstantial in time and number however compared to the powerful ensemble dancing and this contributes to a lack of connection between the audience and the lovers and their.

Everything is gorgeous on stage including the costumes by Azzedine Alaia which perfectly complement the movement and mood of the dancing. We’re being shown an old tale of a pleasant young man who engages with a beautiful young girl he cannot spend his life with. Beyond the unusual medium of a fresco to distinguish their differences this appears to be a familiar story of attractive young people being separated by their context. About men being travellers while women are not free, contained by their place. This is difficult to translate into twenty first century relevance. The crafted beauty of the work is the jewelled box in which these themes are apparently contained.

About two thirds of the way through the show there arrives the concern no deeper themes have arrived than the frustrated story of a flimsy love affair.

By the time the show has ended however it has managed to raise questions about the seductive effect of contemporary imagery beyond the traditional medium of painting described in the old story. This metaphor is present but perhaps underdeveloped. The final scene is however acute in asking the audience whether imagery in popular culture and social media may be offering illusions and connections to which we may become overly attached. Possibly changing us too.

4 stars

Review by Marian Kennedy

Award-winning French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s Ballet Preljocaj returns to Sadler’s Wells following a seven-year absence with its interpretation of the traditional Chinese tale, La Fresque or ‘The Painting on the Wall.’ The piece marks the start of Sadler’s Wells’ French season, in partnership with the Institut français’ FranceDance UK, and receives its UK premiere from 30 September – 2 October.

From August – November, dance from France and francophone countries features across the UK, with 50 performances across 9 major cities. Sadler’s Wells is one of the 16 partners of FranceDance UK and presents four works as part of its Autumn season, starting with La Fresque,

Continuing his exploration of fairy tales, Preljocaj drew inspiration from Pu Songling’s The Mural first published in 1740 as part of the Strange Stories collection. The eponymous medieval Chinese story explores a place of transcendency as the characters enter another dimension within the painting.

La Fresque features costumes by late Tunisian-born couturier and shoe designer Azzedine Alaïa, set design from regular collaborator and French designer Constance Guisset, while music comes from one half of the indie-electro band Air: Nicholas Godin.

Preljocaj founded Ballet Preljocaj in 1984 and has been invited to create works for numerous other companies including Paris Opera Ballet, Berlin Ballet and New York City Ballet.

Listing information
Ballet Preljocaj
La Fresque
Monday 30 September – Wednesday 2 October
Sadler’s Wells, EC1R 4TN


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