Ballet X and the Wilma Theater collaborate as a part of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts to create a theatre/dance/music/comedy production which was supposed to encourage us to think out of the box but instead seals us inside it. Inside some clever quirky sexual innuendo and pleasurable music was the underlying message – gender roles in every society are not meant to be reversed.
Walking into the lobby of the Wilma Theater Friday night before the show took me back to the subways in Paris. Patrons gathered around as musicians played then a dancer lured us to our seats. From this point on the atmosphere was set.
The show was inspired by the French play Les Mamelle de Tiresias and kept true to its original plot – a woman becomes frustrated and insists that she and her husband switch sexes. The audience at the Wilma burst into laughter, just as Therese burst her balloon made breasts. In the end the she realizes that this role reversal is not as simple as it may seem.
Proliferation of the Imagination takes this concept to the next level – depicting men as incapable to care for children, as the Husband character kicks not-so-life-like baby dolls across the stage, forcing women to stay in their submissive child rearing roles. The final song stated “stay the same” referring to the lives of men and women. While I expected an open-minded feminist influenced perspective, to my great disappointment I observed an old fashioned mentality which many of us do not live by today in terms of the acceptable roles for men and women. If you can’t rely on the artists of our society to embrace breaking conventional gender roles then who’s left?
In regard to receiving the storyline of this colorful show, it was like reading a book while listening to someone else read the book on tape and watching the movie version simultaneously. Each dramatic character was shadowed by his or her dancing counterpart. While any one medium would have been a vivid depiction, the repetition of the plot through written words, live narration, interpretive dance, and drama was an overload to the senses.
Ballet is historically performed to tell a story, each gesture representing a different thought. Ballet X’s Matthew Neenan uses this vocabulary effortlessly and with great beauty each extension of the leg higher than the next. Choreographically the dancers have one foot in ballet and the other in modern dance, literally (in one scene each dancer wears one pointe shoe while the other foot is bare.) The more abstract or “modern” excerpts of choreography marked by the use of following the weight of gravity and contraction of the torso was tougher to swallow, not due to a lack of technique but due to the theatricality of the show’s vaudevillian essence. This style of contemporary movement needs no accompaniment.
The musicians though were a highlight to the show playing many familiar French as well as classical tunes and providing us with live sound effects like rustling paper next to the microphone in a “Prairie Home Companion” sort of way. Having a live score created an intimate atmosphere and carried us from one scene to the next.
The costuming by Maiko Matsushima was cartoon-like and blunt as if a Picasso portrait and a Warhol piece had offspring. Drew Billiau designed the colorful lighting, and Steven Dufala created the movable set.
With some simplification and trust that the audience can understand under the table messages, this show would have great potential – until then it’s good for a few laughs and some bright moments of music and dance.
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