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Ballet Takes to the Streets, and Vice Versa

Ballet Takes to the Streets, and Vice Versa


From Tahrir to Taksim, protest has swept the world in recent years. In his first ballet, French visual artist J R captures that chaos on stage.


NYCB in JR's 'Les Bosquets' | Photo by Paul Kolnik

Throughout the winter season, one of the most-talked about works featuring the New York City Ballet was not a dance but rather an elaborate art installation that carpeted the foyer of the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center. The French visual artist J R had embedded nearly life-sized photographic images of the dancers sprawled in what, from above, revealed itself as the outline of a particularly eerie eye.

But that was all meant to stay front-of-house. After all, photography freezes movement and distills it into a single idea; choreography, meanwhile, elongates an idea into a blur of movement and the two are very different skills. So it was something of a shock when NYCB invited J R to create a living, breathing piece of dance on the company--his first ever.

As a result, Les Bosquets, which premiered this week, doesn't have the DNA of contemporary ballet as we've come to expect it. And thank goodness for that. There's an earnestness in Les Bosquets that's charming and refreshing.

J R is perhaps best known for his series of portraits of youth in the projects of a Parisian suburb, circa 2004. The black and white headshots, blown-up and plastered around town, provided a poignant and menacing backdrop to the country's 2005 riots. That moment of violent rebellion provides the narrative foundation of Les Bosquets, so already we have a major departure from modern ballet norms.

Rather than hide in the safety of ancient myths (like Liam Scarlett did with his recent NYCB premiere), J R brought the grimy, complicated parts of our modern world into the theater and on pointe shoes (artistic director Peter Martins is credited with translating J R's concepts into a ballet vocabulary).

From the beginning, to war-like drum beats, women are carried across the stage with their legs pointed forward like guns or bayonets; later they stomp in formation like riot police or rush from one end of the stage to the other like protesters fleeing tear gas. (Strobe lights in the front cleverly heighten and multiply this effect.)

NYCB in JR's 'Les Bosquets' | Photo by Paul Kolnik

From Tahrir to Taksim, protest has swept the globe in recent years. To try to represent that in the hallowed halls of Lincoln Center seems, on the one hand, almost glib and even insulting. On the other hand, why shouldn't ballet respond to the politics of the real world?

Theme aside, J R's other great disruption of ballet convention is the casting of Lil Buck, the Memphis jooking phenom, who gets top billing with NYCB soloist Lauren Lovette. He fills the stage with a vitality and confidence to match some of NYCB's most exciting members and his unique blend of fluid and fragmented movement tells J R's tale better than any other physical component of the ballet.

He and Lovette don't exactly engage in a duet but their shared searching looks convey a youthful, questioning innocence--as caught in video close up (which nods to J R's earlier photography), it walks a tightrope between gimmick and tragic. You could say the same of the work as a whole but the sincerity and modesty of the effort ultimately triumph.

Les Bosquets doesn't quite mark J R as a "choreographer to watch" but by approaching the ballet without the weight of that form's history and expectations, he yanks the NYCB into exciting new territory with a captivating and relevant piece of art. And here's another revolutionary element about Les Bosquets that is simply unheard of in the world of dance: at eight minutes long, it's way too short.


Lil Buck and Lauren Lovette of NYCB in JR's 'Les Bosquets' | Photo by Paul Kolnik

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Brian Schaefer