Now in its fifth season, RhetOracle Dance Company, with Artistic Director Nate Hodges, continues to take on big ballets and big themes. His most recent work presented on the Irvine Valley College Benefit Concert Series is a remake of the four-act classical ballet La Bayadère as a gritty, sex and alcohol-soaked tale of obsession. His mise-en-scène is not the temple compound of the 1877 original, peopled with warriors, Brahmins, Rajahs and exotic dancers, but The Temple, a raw Louisiana dive and watering hole, where the working class denizens of a noisy bar breathe a déclassé life into a contemporary vision for GoGo dancers, acid heads, barflies and a gas line explosion that destroys everyone. Ballet audiences that know historic versions of La Bayadère from the Kirov and more recent international productions by Makarova and Nureyev will recognize the parallels. But this wouldn't be the first time that a classic headed to the South for inspiration. Dance Theatre of Harlem was successful with its creole version of Giselle (1984) set in circa 1840s Louisiana. Call it farfetched and more than a little daring, still, Hodges delivers a savvy and clever retelling that stands on its own while referencing the original classic with a deft if irreverent hand.
While the idea is clever it's the jazz inspired movement that makes Bayadère both engaging and accessible.
This Bayadère gives us a compelling story cribbed from the original but scored for a musical collage (mostly Blues--John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Etta James, Nina Simone, The Black Keys and others) and danced using an affecting hybrid of jazz and theater. Sam, a former manager of The Temple Bar, the GoGo dancer, Nikki, and Gemma-Belle (the current owner's daughter) are the players in Hodges' disaster-bound love triangle. They replace the warrior Solor, the temple dancer Nikiya, and Solor's betrothed, Gamzatti, of the original. And while many notable choreographers have produced condensed versions of iconic novels or remakes of classic ballets in abbreviated contexts, Hodges goes whole hog here with a four act libretto that fills in all aspects of the original narrative. You get the impression that he loves a good story, and the more of it, the better.
While the idea is clever it's the jazz inspired movement that makes Bayadère both engaging and accessible. Hodges and his twenty member company inhabit a comfortable idiom of acting and dance working in tandem that looks believable in the context of a dance hall bar like The Temple. The action evolves in a series of vignettes with solo sections for Sam, Nikki, and Gemma-Belle interspersed with larger sections and full company ensemble sections to provide a thoughtfully paced and visually appealing sense of staging. Hodges has dedicated himself equally to riffing on the ballet itself, including a modernized version of the iconic opening of the Act II Kingdom of the Shades, while delivering on the entertainment value of his intentionally skewed storyline. This production's Act III, which revisits the original Kingdom of the Shades, has some of the most compelling choreography of the evening, including a hip remake of the Shades famous Act II entrance . The act begins with Sam, danced by Christopher Liu, on a drunken, drug induced binge. He confronts a vision of Nikki and a corps of female dancers who prevent him from following and reuniting with her. The scene with eerily glowing lighting, designed by Matt Schleicher, acted as the production's genuine center of gravity.
The classic story ballets have used mime as an intrinsic part the story telling and as a mechanism for showing personal interaction. And while Hodges and his cast have followed suit with this production some of the miming comes across as hurried, confusing or without real consequence. The story telling moves ahead with more surety when the characters dance. Exactly how these characters might communicate when the choreography is not supplying them with a purpose remains an unanswered question.
One who did supply all you might want both in dance and gesture was Jason Gorman in his role as the ever effusive party animal and socialite, Brian Priest. He was particularly effective in his Act IV ensemble piece, Manish Boy (Muddy Waters) and kept the lights on at the bar in the Act II poison drink scene that spells Nikki doom. Christopher Liu was also excellent in his demanding role as Sam. His natural movement quality was always believable as was his acting in the Shades section, where hallucination and obsession collided powerfully. The men in general stayed grounded in athletic floor work and broad physicality. They avoided the occasional anachronisms of the ballet vocabulary which, even in small doses, siphoned authenticity from the women's roles. Strong performances were also offered by Bryana Verner as Nikki, Jillian Dean as Gemma-Belle, and the GoGos, danced by Courtney Ozovek, Meghan Klemz and Jia Huang. The costuming was by Hodges and Liu. The smart and balanced sound design was by David Aldrich. The set designs were by Lynn Hodges and Anthony Zaragoza.
Humor and disaster share the stage in the final act with the ensemble piece Stop the Wedding (Etta James) which offers a kitsch laden play on the wedding day bash as well as the previously mentioned Manish Boy ensemble. The explosion and the final union of Nikki and Sam bring us back to the full scale tragedy as they embrace, at last beyond the confines of the Temple and its scrappy social world.
RhetOracle's La Bayadère was produced in cooperation with the IVC Performing Arts Center and the IVC Dance Department. It is the first installment of a partnership intended to focus attention on local artists and bring companies into contact with students and new audiences. This La Bayadère sets the bar high for the growing number of vibrant regional contemporary dance companies in Orange County.
(The performance took place on Saturday 10 September 2011 at the Irvine Valley College Performing Arts Center)
Photos © Tim Agler