The inspirations for Angelin Preljocaj’s La Fresque are both ancient and modern. Ostensibly, it is based on a 700-year-old Chinese fairy tale about two pilgrims who – arriving at a monastery – come across a mural (la fresque), depicting five women. One of the men (named Chu) is transfixed by the image of a woman in the painting and becomes absorbed into her world. They marry before the man is set upon by envious Klan-style black knights from the fresco’s inner sanctum and thrown out of the painting. Chu then discovers that he has lived this alternate life while only seconds have passed in the mortal world.

Yurié Tsugawa in <i>La Fresque</i> © Jean-Claude Carbonne
Yurié Tsugawa in La Fresque
© Jean-Claude Carbonne

Preljocaj’s modern twist arises from creating this work in 2016, at a time when the Pokémon Go craze was at its height (young people searching for images of the cartoon creature made possible via their mobile phones). He seized upon these distant parallels of virtual reality in creating this full-length work that is neither ancient nor modern and both narrative and abstract.

There is nothing obviously Chinese, nor anything remotely medieval, about the work, which was a surprise given its antecedents, although there is a psychological undercurrent of mysticism and allure. Azzedine Alaïa’s costumes are an eclectic array, ranging from naïve-art conical face-masks; a kind of faux Lederhosen for the pilgrims; and a fascinating wardrobe of dresses with swishing full skirts, complementing the women’s long hair tossed vigorously to achieve a fuller tapestry of movement. It was Alaïa’s third collaboration with Preljocaj and sadly his last as the Tunisian couturier died in the year following the premiere. His impact is significant since the dress designs provide an indelible continuum of seductive mystique that flows through the heart of the work, both erotic and strangely spiritual.

<i>La Fresque</i> © Jean-Claude Carbonne
La Fresque
© Jean-Claude Carbonne

The score is by Nicolas Godin – one half of the musical duo AIR – and provides a remarkably rich and diverse array of sequences – from modern and retrospective pop; electronica mixed with classical forms. Merging Baroque and pop is not entirely novel but Godin achieves it with elegance and feeling. The set design by Constance Guisset is simple but effective, enabling the mural to appear from behind an upstage screen; complemented by Guisset’s own celestial video projections; one scene played against a Planetarium backdrop of the full sky at night, reminiscent of the fantasy scene – overlooking LA – for Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, immortalised in the popular psyche by the poster image for La La Land, released at the same time as La Fresque.

Speaking of movies, I became aware that I had seen an interpretation of this fairy tale before, since it constitutes the bare plot for The Woman in the Window, the 1944 film noir directed by Fritz Lang, in which Edward G Robinson falls in love with a woman’s portrait in an art gallery window, setting off a train of events leading to murder that all turns out to be a dream.

<i>La Fresque</i> © Jean-Claude Carbonne
La Fresque
© Jean-Claude Carbonne

The work is bookended by scenes that are literal in the sense of the fairy tale, opening with the pilgrims discovering the mural (after a fine and joyous male duet of pinpoint unison), depicting a tranquil and intimate scene of five women at rest, and closing with Antoine Dubois being (literally) kicked out of the fresco. The scenes in between are largely abstract accounts of episodes within the parallel world, involving a degree of aerial work (Preljocaj also used this to great effect in Snow White) and a pair of sentimental duets for the uncredited lead couple. The ten dancers are as superb as we have come to expect from the Ballet Preljocaj ensemble, dancing with great precision in the harmonious group work and handling the aerial technique with aplomb. Preljocaj’s choreographic style references many influences – the German expressionism of Mary Wigman through his association with her pupil, Karin Waehner; the naturalism of Merce Cunningham; and lyrical duets heavily accented by classical movement.

<i>La Fresque</i> © Jean-Claude Carbonne
La Fresque
© Jean-Claude Carbonne

Women’s hair plays an important part in the journey. In the opening tableau of the fresco, each of the five women has her hair long and loose, signifying that they are maidens, but when Chu looks back at the painting from which he has been expelled, the woman in white that he loved has her hair drawn up in the symbol of marriage, embellished by the red flower that Chu had given her. Perhaps one disappointment was the speed at which the transition into the painting occurred. If this feat of magic were possible so easily and quickly, I’d be off to make the Mona Lisa smile faster than you could say “Eurostar”!


***11