When brainstorming ideas for his 2010 production of And then, one thousand years of peace, a co-production with Moscow’s revered Bolshoi Theatre, the French-Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj stumbled upon reading the Apocalypse of St John. Immediately drawn to the ideas of the book, and finding it apt to the context of the collaboration between two powerful nations that have shared histories of violent conflicts with cataclysmic implications (French and Bolshevik revolutions, respectively), Preljocaj proceeded to engage with the text not so much by staging it literally: rather, he attempted to evoke the sensations stirred by his (and his collaborators’) reading of it. “It’s not point-by-point,” the choreographer said in a recent interview, “it is more my sensation of the book than the reality of the work. This is what I tried to put onstage. Like the impressionist painters; they do not paint the landscape, they paint their sensation of it.”

© Jean Claude Carbonne
© Jean Claude Carbonne

Judging from the opening night performance of And then…, the apocalyptic scripture was immensely inspiring to all involved, and the show puts on a prodigious display of evocative visuals as well as inspired, committed and flawlessly executed choreography performed by a pitch-perfect ensemble of 21 dancers. The structure of this evening-length work, as well as the thundering score by Laurent Garnier, is highly cinematic – though the progression of the scenes in not linear, Preljocaj creates a compelling sense of narrative by threading large ensemble sections with contained duets, akin to a rhythmic alternation of epic wide shots with intimate close-ups in a film.

Curiously – but perhaps not surprisingly so, considering the subject matter that inspired Preljocaj’s work – the sequence of images that are unfolding before me connects me with my well-stocked mental repository of the sci-fi dystopias: I see touches of the Wachowski Brothers, George Orwell and Ridley Scott threading through these enigmatic stage compositions. Still, the world I am experiencing on the stage is not nearing a cataclysm, it is reeling from it, somehow deafened and muted by the violence that roared through it. The aftermath of over-producing, over-consuming, and over-automation is clearly overwhelming to the denizens of this society. Not surprisingly there is a sterile, detached feeling to it, from the very first image in which an all-female ensemble crawls underneath sheets of clear plastic, followed by the entrance of a group of men in suits who engage in a series of duets that are ambiguously touching, as attempts at tenderness are undermined by the barrier that divides these couples: imagine acts of lovemaking in a full-body condom. Indeed, through much of this work there is a line drawn in the sand between men and women, or couples of any gender, for that matter. Recalling Orwell’s 1984, there seems to be no room left for emotions in this world and the existence is rather utilitarian. The intimacy, then, is manifested is evasive glimpses, it is slipped in, furtively, in the midst of actions that appear imminently purposeful – as evidenced in a powerful duet between the two dueling men, where the tension of battle culminates in an ambivalent kiss. Otherwise, in an equally utilitarian way, sex seems to be available for sale – but don’t expect much connection here either, as a group of identical looking blonde automatons gyrates against a metallic wall, reminding me of the replicants in Blade Runner.

Fortunately, this future, as crippled as it is, is not all dreary, as the loss of meaning also implies innocence regained. The detritus of the past seems to be repurposed with inventiveness and a fresh set of eyes – as a newborn would, say, put a mobile phone in its mouth, not having the burden of knowledge of its real function. This notion is evidenced throughout, as in a tightly choreographed ensemble section performed in chairs, where men and women diligently dance with books, going through the paces of turning pages, flipping the volumes, folding books over their forearms – these characters’ movements are elegant, but they don’t seem to possess the knowledge of the original purpose of the objects they are handling. Similarly, later in the piece, a stunning trio is performed by women wearing impossibly tall headdresses constructed out of metal bowls and cutlery. But probably the property that is most stunningly (and most humorously) recycled is a flag. Flags, I should say, as the scene I refer to involves an entire ensemble whose faces (and parts of the body) are wrapped in and obliterated by flags of various nations, as they go on to rearrange themselves in a series of frozen, stylized, orgiastic tableaus that take the expression “make love, not war” to a whole new level.

The flags make a comeback in the final scene of And then… when they get dipped in water in a bank of sinks at the upstage wall, only to be strewn across the entire stage floor, becoming a quilt of sorts – purged from the history (and the blood) and becoming a field upon which, finally, two tiny lambs are made to tread upon. It is extremely refreshing to see that, in Preljocaj’s meditation on the apocalypse, there are traces of light to be found at the end of the challenging journey.