There’s a mythic quality to Angelin Preljocaj’s “La Fresque,” both in theme and aesthetic. The 2016 production, recently shown in the UK for the first time, is inspired by a medieval Chinese saga about Chu (Marius Delcourt), a man who delves into a mural and marries its subject before being booted back to reality. There are pounding drums and starry skies, hair coiled to evoke ancient deities. We see pilgrims scaling mountains, seraphim swinging from the heavens, Spartans squaring off for battle. The folkloric angle is right up Preljocaj’s alley: other works with his Aix-en-Provence-based company include “Snow White” and “Siddharta.”
Preljocaj meets his epic tale with dreamy, evocative staging. The opening scene drapes the mantle in rippling emerald auroras that look equal parts Northern Lights and mermaid tresses. Later, scrims rise and fall like Aladdin’s cave closing in. Hair is a central motif, symbolising youth, femininity, power, freedom. It’s woven into props, like long braided ropes, and the choreography, the dancers manipulating their own their locks and each other’s.
The intensity stops here, though. The show’s characters, and the emotions driving them, are noticeably thin. Who is our hero and why should we care about his journey? Is his bride a person in her own right or just a symbolic conquest? Chu’s adventures are regaled through a parade of impressionistic set pieces illuminated with striking, occasionally clashing, blasts of music, from Eastern-inspired rattles and gongs to slamming electric guitars. These sketches grab the eye but don’t always stick the emotional landing.
Still, it’s a lively display, with serviceable dancing to amplify Preljocaj’s surreal vision. The steps aren’t always forceful enough to match the dramatic set-up, but there are some hypnotic group routines with slicing swings and scoots, and a few cartwheeling tangles, including an aerial scene that sends the women of the cast sailing across the rafters. This latter exhibit just about makes up for the ill-judged African number featuring witch doctor masks and arms lobbed like elephant trunks.
The centrepiece is a pulsing glimpse of the mural that entices Chu into its fold: five satin-clad women whipping their manes to a pounding techno beat. The vibe is penetrating, but so is the male gaze. Who are these temptresses? Perched on a platform, backs arched, they’re sirens, nymphs, witches, lionesses—anything but individuals who need and want, think and feel.
To be fair, we see a few peeks into the mind of Chu’s object of affection (Margaux Coucharriere), who reaches for her lover with elegant, lyrical grasps but later tenses as she prepares for their wedding. Dressed in white, long hair flowing, she’s a virginal object to be adored—a conventional trope in ballet. But this is no “Swan Lake;” the language is decidedly contemporary. It seems like a missed opportunity not to forge a more dynamic love story with it.