This was one of those shows where it paid to do your homework. The first thing you needed to know is that, notwithstanding the name, Lyon Opera Ballet is not a ballet company. It is a contemporary dance company and much of their repertory is, well, not ballet. Also, this performance was taking place under the umbrella of the French-American Festival of Performance and Ideas. The purpose of the festival is to showcase contemporary French work. A little more research would have turned up the important nugget that Joseph Melillo, Executive Producer at BAM, chose to book Christian Rizzo’s ni fleurs, ni ford-mustang at BAM precisely because it was challenging. Still, some people who didn't know what was coming bailed out mid-performance and a few hung in just to have the satisfaction of bellowing their displeasure during the curtain calls. 

Lyon Opera Ballet © Stephanie Berger
Lyon Opera Ballet
© Stephanie Berger

ni fleurs, ni ford-mustang is not going to make it to my top ten list but it was nonetheless an enjoyable piece of theater. It is more performance piece than dance piece and has no narrative, though much is suggested through gesture and costumes. Rizzo’s visual images are arresting, beginning with the image of twenty odd pair of sparkly ruby slippers placed around the stage. Each pair of heels was lit effectively by a tiny spotlight. Three other elements completed the scene: a skeleton hanging from the rafters, a dead animal on the floor and a bright, white screen on stage left. The dancers took the stage, one by one, and began an increasingly complex series of movements that eventually had them adding pieces of costumes. As the costumes were added, the gestures became more complex and archetypes began to emerge: an old woman (suggested by a padded suit), a soldier in a red coat, a dandy in a fine braided coat, a girl in a tutu. The addition of a pair of bird masks that the performers took turns wearing and the juxtaposition of the costumes gave a heightened sense of surrealism to the atmosphere. 

Lyon Opera Ballet © Stephanie Berger
Lyon Opera Ballet
© Stephanie Berger

Although there is very little actual dancing, the movement is clearly intended for dancers as it is highly articulated and precise. Although one could imagine this being performed by non-dancers, it would lose a great deal of expression. There are indications of tenderness, when the performers reach out to one another and embrace, and moments of portent when fingers are pointed and large tableaux take shape. The sensibility of the work is most definitely French, and the archetypes, including the surreal bird masks, are visually engaging even if they are not necessarily clear to us.

As the work came to a climax, the performers gradually cleared the stage of all the shoes and the skeleton slowly descended towards the stage. The company changed their costumes for misshapen black unitards with masks and proceeded to dance close together as an ensemble. It was a dark finale, with the emphasis on the movement created by the reflections from the sparkling unitards. The effect was beautiful and mysterious. The music, by Gerome Nox, was techno and at times nerve-jangling, which probably set the teeth of the malcontents on edge. I won't pretend that I really liked this music but it served the piece effectively. 

Lyon Opera Ballet © Stephanie Berger
Lyon Opera Ballet
© Stephanie Berger

ni fleurs, ni ford-mustang clearly delineates the artistic sensibility of its creator who is a musician, visual artist and fashion designer in addition to being a choreographer and now even a director of opera. For certain, at least judging by this piece, he is not a true dance choreographer. This work does not rise to the level of being a ballet. That it could have been done by non-dancers with some intensive work is probably what led to the dissatisfaction of some audience members. Rather than have this be the only piece on the program, Melillo might have considered a spoonful of sugar by way of a more conventional ballet to close out the night. Mary Poppins wasn't far wrong if you consider avant garde performance art to rise to the level of medicine. Successful programming depends on balancing between the need to introduce new work to keep the art form vibrant and giving the audience something that they can relate to comfortably. Not everyone is equipped to handle new ideas. 

Lyon Opera Ballet © Stephanie Berger
Lyon Opera Ballet
© Stephanie Berger

It also pays to soft pedal one's artistic aspirations. The program notes indicate that Rizzo has high artistic goals but you have to be careful about the words that come out of your mouth. Rather than make statements like this one: "Anything visible is the result of what is not visible" which seems copied from the pages of The Emperor's New Clothes, Rizzo might do better to simply say that he thinks about death a lot. All in all, it was well worth seeing. Given a fair chance, it was even compelling.

***11