Posted by: strugglesome | April 15, 2011

The Spectre of Sex Appeal: BalletX and The Wilma Theater present The Proliferation of the Imagination

Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

It’s a little known fact that Guillaume Apollinaire, short-lived but extremely celebrated (at least during his lifetime) French playwright and poet, coined the term surrealism in the preface to his revised version of Les Mamelles de Tiersias. The production premiered just a year before Apollinaire died of influenza (people used to die so romantically, didn’t they?), and 6 years after Apollinaire was accused of stealing the Mona Lisa, which is objectively wildly cool. The story goes that Apollinaire passed the buck to his good friend, a lesser known artist by the name of Pablo Picasso, but given what we know about Paris during this time period I’m sure the two just split a bottle of absinthe and a pair of can-can dancers and made up. Like most of his time, Apollinaire was obsessed with new forms, new art methods, and a complete desecration of the past. The Constructivists declared an end to painting, the Futurists wanted to destroy the Uffizi, and the early surrealists used the principles of cubism in drama, or at least Apollinaire, who was associated with the Cubists, did. And if The Proliferation of the Imagination, a newly devised work created by BalletX and The Wilma Theater and presented by the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts is anything, it is an attempt to be true to Apollinaire’s legacy in these respects, and while it may not always completely hang together as a piece of performance, the effort is as ambitious as it is admirable.

Photo by Alexander Iziliaev

We could now start with the plot of Apollinaire’s piece, but given the nature of this work I doubt very much that it would do anyone any good. It may take its name and theme from Ovid’s tale, but that’s about it. Suffice to say that married couple Therese (an excellently two dimensional Mary McCool) and her unnamed Husband (a hilarious Luigi Sottile who is surprisingly good at walking in heels) are having some marital issues, and end up switching genders, making babies, ruling countries and reconciling. As one does. As Sotille and McCool clomp ridgedly around the stage, showing off Maiko Matsushima’s excellently angular outfits which are gloriously reminiscent of Oskar Schlemmer’s works, the dancers of BalletX swirl gracefully around them, specifically Tara Keating and Matthew Prescott as their gender bending shadows.  Though Keating and Prescott move beautifully, teasing each other and displaying their unique flare for movement with style (Keating is especially lovely in a hat that ought to make its way into the Royal Wedding party somehow), their freedom of motion only highlights the rigidity of McCool and Sottile; the actors are effectively divorced from any opportunity of movement, and the piece neatly divides dancers, musicians and actors all the way up until the end. And to give credit where credit is due, not only do McCool and Sottile enter fully into the spirit of this piece, but they gamely grimace and grin as Lamb wiggles and spins, her legs moving like elastic bands in a dazzlingly virtuoso performance, moving to Langabeer’s excellent score like a jellyfish crossed with a prima ballerina. Jaime Lennon and Anitra Keegan are less captivating as the dueling pair Presto and Lacouf, their goose-stepping and grand battement style duel overlaid with a pre-recorded conversation about whether we are in Paris or Zanzibar, which honestly feels like a missed opportunity. Part of what surrealism aimed to do was to embrace free association, exploring new ways of combining concepts and ideas to reinvent artistic expression. The juxtaposition of conflicting or unrelated elements became paramount, as Pierre Reverdy wrote of the idea of “a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be — the greater its emotional power and poetic reality”. The chance then to use this interaction to discuss this contrast, this random grouping of two cities, the glorious absurdity of confusing Paris with Zanzibar (I mean, Zanzibar wasn’t even a French colony!) is one of those wonderful surrealist elements that could have been used better in this work. It’s rare moments like this when the piece feels more like an essay on the surreal then the surreal itself.

But to be fair,the focal point of this piece is really about gender, and therefore it can be forgiven the choices it chooses not to make. Less forgivable is the under use of Steven Dufala’s fascinating set, which almost feels like it’s been avoided rather than actually used. The interactive set piece of a moving kiosk is cleverly done, however, and if it’s function seems a bizarre mix of authority figure and sex toy, well, just chalk that up to the surrealism. In light of the gender issues coming into play here, the questions of power and position as the male prerogative whereas women are only good for making babies (or are they….) directors Matthew Neenan (co-artistic director of BalletX) and Walter Bilderback (Dramaturg for The Wilma Theater)  have taken on a Herculean effort in this work, shaping a whole out of the many elements of this work and allowing it to retain the flavor of the absurd and the surreal while not being completely nonsensical. The piece does still feel a little segregated, dancers in one place, actors in another, which makes sense given that this is the first collaborative devised work that BalletX and The Wilma have ever attempted, but frankly there is such a satisfaction in the final moments of the piece because they actually allow McCool and Sottile to join in and move. And if in the end it’s better for both Therese and her husband to retain their manhoods, and the power that comes with them, well, we can’t really blame them. Just under a hundred years may have passed but for much of the world women still make babies and men still govern nations and genders still bend, to the horror of many. The most important thing, is to “be aware of it”.

The Proliferation of the Imagination will run from now until the 24th of April. Tickets are available here.

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