Review: Saving The Best For Last

May 31, 2017 | By Bruce R. Feldman

Matthew Bourne's Early Ballets Delight. Peter Brook's Epic "Battlefield" Astonishes. At The Wallis Beverly Hills.

The current performing arts season at The Wallis Beverly Hills may be winding down, but it is going out on a high note.

Indeed, The Wallis saved two of its most expressive offerings for last. Two weeks ago the theater hosted a triple-bill of choreographer Matthew Bourne’s intriguing, quirky early ballets and just a few days ago concluded a brief run of Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière’s ritualistic theater piece, Battlefield.

Matthew Bourne’s Earliest Adventures

The Bourne dances from 1989 and 1991 have rarely been revived, by Bourne or anyone else. That’s a shame as they will delight Bourne fans familiar with his later, more sharply realized full length works, as well as provide a valuable glimpse into the choreographer’s formative years when he was absorbed with British manners and movies, French chanson, and other elements of popular entertainment from the 1930s through 1950s.

Doubtless, that’s not exactly the kind of thing other up and coming dancers of his generation were thinking about. Yet it is perhaps precisely what makes his body of work so appealing today to refined dance audiences, those who regularly attend the ballet and theater. They get the references Bourne makes to Noel Coward, Edith Piaf, the film Brief Encounter, movie musicals. They’re comfortable with them and smug in knowing that they understand them. Other choreographers, Bourne’s contemporaries, are less famous because they trade in modernism, abstraction and rebellion, not customer satisfaction.

Read: The unorthodox British choreographer Matthew Bourne talks about the origins of his provocative "Swan Lake," his late start in dance and how MGM musicals have influenced his work

The trio of dances presented at The Wallis was highly enjoyable, but they also primarily are curiosities. Watch With Mother – which starts with a recording of a routine from the English comedienne Joyce Grenfell, of all things – is about a group of snooty British school children. They’re dressed in short pants. They play games and tease each other. They’re naughty and funny. That’s about it.

In The Infernal Gallop, Bourne attempts to send up the French with all the usual Gallic clichés, including sailors in striped maillots and the Can-Can. It was, again, an unlikely subject for a choreographer just starting out and easily the least rewarding of the three ballets.

By far the most gratifying and ambitious of the evening’s rarities was the two-part Town and Country. The ballet is all over the place. In the town section Bourne pays homage to Brief Encounter. Atmospheric vignettes are set at the railway station and at the movie matinee. There’s a maid and butler who play the ukulele, a gay romance and a heterosexual couple bathing nude in bathtubs on stage. Out of town, Bourne gives us shapely milk maids, leaping athletic bumpkins and a hilarious clog dance that looks like something Bourne imagined Gene Kelly might have done on screen. The whole thing is a kind of hodge-podge of seemingly conflicting ideas and allusions. But it works and, after all is said and done, is quite wonderful, if inexplicably so.

While the three ballets are a jumble of mixed choreographic indulgences, the dancing overall is superb, cohesive and precise. Every member of the company is a strong dancer and, importantly, a gifted actor. Bourne ballets are not abstract. They tell stories; the dancers each must play the part of a specific character, or at least a personality type, as they would in any traditional dramatic work. It is to the dancers’ credit that they often succeed in diverting the audience’s attention from the perplexing, vaguely indecisive nature of these first Bourne works.

Peter Brook Is Still Going Strong

At 92, Peter Brook isn’t inclined to waste his time, or the audience’s either. Battlefield is just 70 minutes. It’s succinct but powerful, substantial, elegant, at once timely and timeless.

Thirty years ago, Brook’s most famous play, The Mahabharata, showed that it was possible to create epic theater for Western audiences out of Hindu myths. Battlefield attempts no less, though it is considerably briefer than the nine-hour version of The Mahabharata that debuted in 1985.

Rather than a sweeping panorama with multiple characters and events, this time around Brook and author Jean-Claude Carrière reduce one episode in The Mahabharata to its bare essentials. Four actors and a single musician – a drummer, Toshi Tsuchitori – on a bare stage tell us everything we need to know about the epic battle, concluded when the play opens, that tears apart the Bharata family.

Many have died after years of devastation, leaving just one son to become king. It’s a worthless victory. The playwrights raise questions about the point of war and whether it is possible to achieve inner peace. Of course, the play is a parable for our times, made all the more impactful at least here in America by the deep distrust and acrimony that divides us.

A big production with a sizeable cast, elaborate sets and ornate costumes can be thrilling. So can a play pared down to its essence, stripped to its core to reveal universal truths. That is the genius of Peter Brook.

In Praise of The Wallis

To say that it’s been an eclectic season at The Wallis would be an understatement. That’s not a bad thing. On the contrary, the wide-ranging mix of contemporary and classic drama, dance and music is something for all Los Angeles to celebrate. Those of us who live on the West Side and don’t have to make the two-hour drive to The Music Center to attend a play or concert are especially appreciative.

The theater, under new artistic director Paul Crewes, has just announced its 2017-18 season. Look for details here.

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