Where's the beef?

BalletX and Wilma re-imagine Apollinaire (2nd review)

4 minute read
Tara Keating, Matthew Prescott: Exciting but not transforming. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
Tara Keating, Matthew Prescott: Exciting but not transforming. (Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.)
"When a man wanted to imitate walking, he created the wheel, which does not resemble a leg. In doing this, he was practicing surrealism without knowing it."

So wrote Apollinaire, the grandfather of the surrealist movement in Paris during the turn of the 20th Century. Art and imagination, he seems to suggest, are the driving forces for creation, innovation and the construction of human reality. Quite a liberating and exciting proposition.

Proliferation of the Imagination, at the Wilma, attempts to apply Apollinaire's philosophy to his famous 1917 play, Les mamelles de Tiresias ("The Breasts of Tiresias"). It's the perfect undertaking for the first collaboration between the Wilma and its resident dance troupe, BalletX: This work invites theater, dance, music and visual art to imagine, create, dream.

When I entered the actual performance, I expected unrestrained imagination, absurdity, color. And that's largely what I got.

Lobby sideshow

About 20 minutes before the show, a man and a woman, dressed in what seemed like pajamas, their heads bandaged in gauze, slowly engaged with the music of a singular bass, mandolin and accordion. What started as a sideshow slowly migrated to the middle of the lobby, where the crowd of theatergoers gathered and watched. The performers, holding unearthly expressions and moving with a lilting playfulness, eventually moved the dance outside and then summoned the audience into the theater itself.

Not many people were in the theater that night— it was barely half full. Surprising, I thought, for a show that had such a beautiful advertising campaign. (That's what drew me.) So the intimate crowd entered the theater with a new sense of community established by the unexpected introductory dance performance. Even before the show had begun, the lines between performance and real life, audience and performer had been blurred.

Floating breasts

As for the performance itself— I didn't come away with a very good sense of what Proliferation was about per se. A woman (the female Tiresias) decides that she wants to cast off the rule of men, and her breasts float away (and eventually popped) until she turns into a man. She's followed by a male "shadow" dressed as a woman (sort of an androgynous, emotional alter-ego).

Her husband, who demands that she cook for him (the classic unfair male demand of a woman), proceeds to turn into a very convincing and headstrong woman himself. In his new role, the man (this gets a bit confusing) decides to produce thousands of babies who can become rich, therefore making him rich. But if the women push their attempts at independence too far, the men's cold-hearted industrialism causes the babies to rebel. In the end, all grievances are forgiven and the whole delightful hour of imagination flutters away into oblivion.

Mary McCool and Luigi Sottile both give convincingly unnatural performances as the husband and wife. The dancers are all clearly well trained and fit together like a well-oiled machine. Perhaps the best element of the show was the music, composed by Rosie Langabeer and performed by three instrumentalists who doubled as characters as well. Her pieces evoked 20th-Century Paris with a slightly sinister and playful twist, which added a layer of magic to the performance.

And the message is….

Although the show's elements— powerful and inspired acting, beautiful dancing, a visually stunning set composed entirely of recycled materials— worked beautifully, somehow it didn't quite all add up. Most of the time I found myself confused. Of course the message wasn't intended to be clear— this is surrealism, after all. Still, amid this feast of the senses, I couldn't help wishing that Proliferation provided something more for my poor neglected brain to chew on.

What's so wonderful about Apollinaire and the surrealists is their sense of the sacredness in the absurd, in the imagination. Their pure dedication to the absurd renders the absurd three-dimensional, breathing life into whatever it creates. Proliferation felt more like a modern-day group of artists performing and interpreting an old piece of surrealist art.

These weren't surrealists— these were actors and dancers charged with the task of putting on a surrealist play. And they did it very well. But the work didn't breathe; I didn't feel transformed.

During the final scene, the wife returns to the stage dressed as a fortuneteller and announces to her husband that she has decided to resume her role as a woman and his spouse. I wasn't persuaded. Imagination is a powerful tool, but it must be linked to emotions. Glitter— even the wonderful glitter of Proliferation— inevitably wears thin if there's no substance beneath it.♦

To read another review by Jonathan M. Stein, click here.

What, When, Where

BalletX/Wilma Theater: Proliferation of the Imagination. Choreographed by Matthew Neenan, based on Guillaume Apollinaire’s Les mamelles de Tiresias; Walter Bilderback, director. Through April 24, 2011 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St. (at Spruce). www.balletx.org.

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