It’s foolish to say absolute things such as, you either love it or you hate it. Something has to be fairly extreme to elicit that kind of starkly divided and impassioned reaction and that happens only rarely. When you leave the known and unexpectedly find yourself without familiar landmarks it can be quite upsetting. Beginning with the recorded accompaniment of John Cage’s Empty Words, I think that some audience members were lost. Cage famously reduced Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience to an abstraction by rendering it in phonemes, randomizing it in some obscure manner using the I Ching, and then he read it before a live audience. It was recorded in Milan in 1977 and it was a seismic event. The audience’s reaction to Empty Words began with restlessness, gradually grew to irritation, and then suddenly exploded into a cacophony of pure outrage. In the recording, the audience howls at Cage, they scream and curse, jeer and mock. The eruptions are spontaneous and it ultimately constitutes a counter-performance that stands in defiant contrast to Cage’s relentless recitation. The end result is Abstraction vs. Anarchy. As you listen to the Milanese audience whistling in derision and shouting at Cage, you sit and watch Preljocaj’s work performed by four dancers who are alternately blank, happy, antic and bemused. At times the choreography is intertwined with the recording and at others it is completely unrelated. I felt giddy watching and listening to this show and for reasons I’m loath to examine, I found the Milanese’s enraged reaction to Cage’s Empty Words hilarious. Am I warped? I can’t discount the possibility.

© Jean-Claude Carbonne
© Jean-Claude Carbonne

Pure abstraction can be distressing to the human mind because we instinctively seek patterns and organization. Things that make no sense are acutely stressful. That explains the reaction of the audience in Milan but what explains the people walking out on Ballet Preljocaj’s show? Were they so affected by Cage’s theatrical experiment just by way of the recording? At its purest essence, dance is about movement, space and time. A body moves through space, it describes shapes, and it all happens in time. The forms vary widely and the audience brings its own expectations when it sits down to watch a show. Fortunately the majority who stayed on loved the show. I know I did.

Preljocaj had his four dancers begin in a specific place on the stage. They each took a small marker of some sort and stuck it on the floor to remember their starting places. Then they launched into a series of movements that were admittedly occasionally mind-numbing but more frequently were captivating excursions into sharing kinesthetic energy. One light push from one dancer’s hand to another’s foot and a new cascade of events began. They used one another’s balance points as fulcrums, they moved over, under, through and around each other in what must be an exhausting evening of dancing. For an hour and 45 minutes they were in near constant motion with brief breaks for water which was choreographed into the piece. It’s an impressive athletic tour de force with nothing bravura about it. They are mostly basic steps strung together in phrases that are arranged and re-arranged. At times it was also monotonous and my attention wandered. When it did, I looked around at the audience wondering what they were making of it and I watched people skulking out, trying to be inconspicuous as they left the show. I felt sorry that they were unable to share the pleasure that I was feeling. I thought about the performance in Milan back in 1977 and wondered what it was like to be at that show and how John Cage felt being the subject of so much verbal abuse. Then I came back to the Ballet Preljocaj and picked up a new thread of the dance.

The four dancers were all fine but not excellent. If I had to pick a favorite, mine would be Nuriya Nagimova whose happiness kept leaking out. She just couldn’t hide how much fun she was having. The technical edge would go to Yurié Tsugawa who was rock solid and unfailingly precise in everything she did. Baptiste Coissieu and Fabrizio Clemente, the two men, were good but technique isn’t what made this piece go. It’s a work of ideas and while you appreciate what each performer brings to the piece, they could be replaced by anyone with solid technique and stamina and it would still be effective.

Empty Moves is a dance piece with a lot of interesting parts to it. It was put together over a period of ten years and now has parts I, II and III. It is a mammoth test of endurance for the dancers. It takes place alongside a recording of a crazy John Cage show that took place in 1977. It’s about nothing in particular other than itself. It’s definitely abstract and yet it is still playful and humorous. I definitely recommend it but you have to come to it with an open mind, ready to see something completely different.