Saturday, February 27, 2016

"Pas de Quatre"

Dark Porch Theatre presents
Pas de Quatre
EXIT Theatre, San Francisco
February 26th, 2016

Performance history buffs, ballet enthusiasts and theater lovers rejoice – a San Francisco production sits right at the intersection of your Venn diagram. Closing tonight, Pas de Quatre is a brilliant new dance play written and directed by Margery Fairchild. About ballet and those who live it and love it – the directors, the choreographers, the dancers and the patrons - Pas de Quatre specifically delves into the intersection of private and public and the space between the person and the artist. And it does so by traveling back in time and rooting itself in its namesake - the famous one-act Romantic ballet choreographed by Jules Perrot that premiered in 1845 London.

Photo: Basil Galloway
To start, some discussion on the original ballet. A testament both to the balletic style of the time and to the greatest of its practitioners, with Pas de Quatre, a great feat was achieved. Four of the biggest names in ballet (Marie Taglioni, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito and Lucille Grahn) danced as an ensemble in a choreographic composition. With historical source documents to reference as well as ample writing on the subject, some inferences can be made about Pas de Quatre. Because of the well-known picturesque tableau, we have a sense of the opening moments. Current choreographic endeavors inspired by the ballet, like Robert Joffrey’s Pas des Déesses (1954), give insight into its character - a dance of elegance, grace and aplomb with delicate port de bras, exquisite extensions and floaty ballon. Zoë Anderson, in her fabulous new book “The Ballet Lover’s Companion” delves beyond the specific steps and construction in her analysis. She explains that the ballet (which she references as Le Pas de Quatre) walked a fine line, requiring a healthy dose of egalitarianism, with no one lead or star, yet also needing to highlight and celebrate the individualism of the four dancers. Certainly not an easy task to accomplish. And many scholars concur that for Perrot, Pas de Quatre was not only a challenging choreographic venture but also an exercise in refereeing four strong personalities and at times, erratic, difficult egos. 

Dark Porch Theatre’s Pas de Quatre presents these complicated characters as performers, as dancers, but most important, as human beings. Four women who had embarked upon and experienced distinct personal journeys; journeys that had informed who they were on and off the stage. With expert craftsmanship, Fairchild fills in various pieces of the story through a collection of interdependent text and dance scenes, all which reveal the chasm between reality and illusion. As each character (Perrot included) is unpacked over the sixty-minute duration, one truth is abundantly clear – dualism is rampant everywhere in the narrative of Pas de Quatre.

The piece opens with Taglioni, Grahn, Grisi and Cerrito in a single line facing the audience. They take turns introducing themselves and immediately begin to confront the audience about their perceptions and preconceived assumptions. Different facial expressions communicate the four unique personalities, and as each spoke, her right arm moved from bras bas to a high 5th. So right from the start, we were seeing two forces at play. Four women stood in the same position and attitude, performing the same movement, yet the words they spoke told of how different they really were. And to finish the introductory phase of Pas de Quatre, the viewer also meets Perrot (Eric Kerr), through a humorous drunken soliloquy that told of his own sojourn from dancer to ballet master and choreographer.

A delicious smorgasbord of vignettes unfolded as we learned more and more about each of the players. There were instances of infighting and gossip, bickering and innuendo. Biographical scenes grew out of a traditional ballet class – the ballerinas taking a break from their enshrined physical routine to tell a chapter of their own story. Yet another example of Fairchild’s commitment to dual forces: individualism in the face of defined structure.

Mid-way through the play, Perrot interviews Grahn (Kirsten Dwyer) and then Grisi (Katharine Otis), hoping they will unveil some juicy details. Just phenomenal scenes in both construction and in performance. And they delivered still another level of dualism, that of private and public. Intimate events were being shared, yet in the context of a very open assembly. Next, Taglioni (Christy Crowley) and Grahn donned glasses to offer a wonderful dance history lecture, complete with an examination of the female form in ballet, the evolution of women’s roles and the debut of the pointe shoe.

Taglioni’s own course is told through a set of striking images. Scenes of tortured practice morphing into mastery. As Fanny Cerrito, Courtney Russell gave the most impressive monologue of the evening. While pointing out the discrepancies in viewership and expectation, she performed continual sauté jumps in first position (peppered with a few other steps here and there). Not only did the technique impress, but the monologue itself had an incredibly dramatic arc, moving from quiet restraint towards anger and resentment.

Fairchild continued to engage and surprise the audience as Pas de Quatre came to its conclusion. There was an unexpected shift between these competitors; a genuine sense of sweetness, camaraderie and affection that had not been present before. And in a stroke of genius, Pas de Quatre closed with the tableau that usually marks the beginning of the ballet. Instead of going on to dance, the four ballerinas sank into a pile of tulle on the ground and the piece’s dualistic nature was reinforced once again. A moment of pure balletic beauty that dissolved as quickly as it was created – penetrating and memorable yet impermanent and fleeting. 

Dark Porch Theatre’s production of Fairchild’s Pas de Quatre may have its final performance tonight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this show returns for an encore run. That’s because it’s that good. It’s entertaining and structurally, a terrific dance play. As a genre, the ‘dance play’ is still a fairly new phenomenon. It isn’t dance theater, it isn’t physical theater, it is something different. A new type of collaboration between theatrical elements and movement. While this space is still emerging, Pas de Quatre certainly proves that Fairchild is already one of its most talented specialists.

No comments: