by Jim Jones -
Special to the SGN
SEATTLE CONTEMPORARY DANCE
THIS IS NOT THE LITTLE PRINCE
AT SEATTLE CENTER
Through June 15
The premiere of the final dance of Whim W'Him's ninth season began with a first: a pre-show presentation by the company's artistic director, Olivier Wevers, who obviously felt that some explanation was needed so the audience could fully appreciate This Is Not the Little Prince. That explanation included not only a summary of Le Petit Prince, one of the best selling and most widely translated books of the twentieth century, but a brief sketch of the life of its author, Antoine St.-Exupery, as well as a refresher on the style of the paintings of Rene Magritte.
This Is Not the Little Prince, choreographed by Wevers, attempts not only to interpret the text of the famous children's story, but also the life of its author by means of the technique of the Belgian surrealist. I also detected some nostalgia for Wevers's francophone heritage, if not for the happier time of childhood. But he made it clear to us before we entered the theater at the Cornish Playhouse that his dance is neither a literal nor allegorical representation of the book, but rather an attempt to evoke the mood of the two world wars that formed the backdrop for the paintings and the story.
The set, designed by Michael Mazzola and built by Michael Mrizek, features a cloud of objects, mostly off-white luggage (but also what appears to be a model of the house on Long Island where St.-Exupery wrote his most famous work), floating above the stage, as various objects tend to float in the blue skies of Magritte's most famous paintings. A similar pile of objects - again mostly luggage, all off-white - occupies the entire right third of the stage, leaving the rest free for movement around the set's centerpiece, a long white table, which serves as writing desk, door, obstacle, hiding place, platform, and finally, as the well that saves the life of the narrator in Le Petit Prince.
The sixty-seven-minute piece (without an intermission) begins with St.-Exupery, danced by Karl Watson, being serenaded on the accordion by Jim Kent, who is wearing a costume that resembles lederhosen, meant to suggest the childlike figure of the little prince. The live music then merges with the vibrant soundscape created by New York-based composer Brian Lawlor, which includes motifs from movie scores, musicals, and pop songs, from 'The Flight of the Bumblebee' to Leroy Anderson's 'The Typewriter' to 'Rocket Man' (particularly timely because of the recent release of the Taron Edgerton musical biopic about Elton John).
As Kent and Watson begin to dance, using the white table as a runway and landing strip for the gliding movements simulating takeoff, flight, and landing, which recur throughout the entire piece, another important theme of Wevers's creation emerges - one also mentioned in the pre-game show - the artistic life, especially the way the times in which an artist lives are transmuted into art. It is this theme that best displays Wevers' intelligence and insight, because he obviously realizes that art does not solve the world's social or political problems, nor cancel out the pain caused by them, but at best transforms their effect on the artist into beautiful shapes, images, words, and movements, providing a kind of compensation for their impetus.
Which reminds me of the previous high point in the ten-year career of Whim W'Him, the magnificent Approaching Ecstasy, a dance extravaganza featuring music composed by Eric Banks for settings of the poems of the twentieth-century gay Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, performed by The Esoterics and the St. Helen's String Quartet. This Is Not the Little Prince rivals - and perhaps exceeds - that piece in its handling of profound themes based on a complex text in a form of dance that conjures up the soul-stirring joy that can sometimes erupt from the swirling uncertainties and oppressive circumstances of life.
Speaking of joy in oppressive circumstances, Whim W'Him's current presentation is not without its lighter moments. At one point late in the production, an orange-haired figure in a goofy white crown that resembles a stop-motion photo of the splash of a water drop, a figure tethered hand and foot to elastic white ropes, enters to a mash-up of typically bizarre un-Presidential utterances. This figure, of course, is meant to represent an inhabitant of one of the six planets the little prince has visited on his way to earth from his asteroid home: on which a narcissist demands praise and recognition for being the most admirable person on a planet of which he is the sole inhabitant.
The biggest crowd-pleaser of the performance is a segment in which four dancers imitate the action of a typewriter to the music of 'The Typewriter.' The enthusiasm sparked by this delightful interlude turned out to be ironic, when Wevers revealed in the post-performance talk-back that his intention in creating the sequence stemmed from his belief that such saccharine forms of entertainment are a (perhaps necessary) way of distracting people from the pressing problems of existence, and that ultimately such light-hearted fantasies are less meaningful and less satisfying than art that looks such problems square in the face. Nevertheless, as artistic director he strives (perhaps a bit reluctantly) to keep the whim in Whim W'Him.
The perfectly calibrated monochromatic costumes, designed by Mark Zappone, also featured two bits of relief. The first came early in the piece in a tango-like sequence in which Mia Monteabaro appeared in a flowing burgundy knee-length dress to represent both the Rose of Le Petit Prince and its author's wife, Consuelo. This sequence, depicting the passion the two felt for each other, was paralleled a bit later by an erotic interlude performed mostly on the writing desk, but Consuelo's partner in this later episode was not her husband. In real life, both partners had many lovers, and one of Consuelo's was Denis de Rougemont, the eminent author of Love in the Western World, a book that traces the tragic influence of the Tristan and Isolde legend on European romance.
The second splash of color, though significantly muted, came in the form of transparent nylon masks that covered the entire heads of the four dancers who performed the typewriter sequence, allowing an ambiguous note to pervade even that boisterous section of the work.
The phenomenon of ekphrasis - the representation of one work of art in another work in a different artistic medium - is not uncommon in dance, and Olivier Wevers enjoyed spectacular success with it in Approaching Ecstasy. This Is Not the Little Prince (a misleading title in some respects, since the dance is so obviously a representation in another medium of St.-Exupery's text) mines the same vein: dance as biography, dance as social commentary, dance as a meditation on the creation of art. If it looks a bit like a Magritte painting, no surprise: all dance is a bit surreal, representing life as graceful movement of which life is rarely capable. In the kind of extended ekphrasis represented by Whim W'Him's current offering, both as a choreographer and as an artistic director, Olivier Wevers seems to have found his métier.
After the show, one of the audience members commented that he felt that he had just witnessed a true work of genius. Fortunately, This Is Not the Little Prince runs for two more performances at 8pm June 14 and 15, so you can see for yourself whether the fairy tale comes true. And perhaps, like Approaching Ecstasy, This Is Not the Little Prince will, unlike almost all the short dances performed by the Whim W'Him company, be reprised in the more distant future. One can only hope to find the well in the desert.
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