Canadian dance company offers bizarre images of alternative reality

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At a performance by the Desrosiers Dance Theatre, there's no rest for the weary. The Canadian company flings dislocated, bizarre images at the audience so fast and furiously, you don't just watch -- you wrestle. Wrestling may come into vogue. Critics loved Robert Desrosiers' recent ballet for the National Ballet of Canada. ``Brass Fountain,'' its opening piece at Jacob's Pillow last week, offered a glimpse into a whimsical hell. In a red set furnished with a pall of smoke, foppish-looking soldiers in curly wigs and gold braid capered around, blatting on bugles. Dancers in stovepipe hats as tall as real stovepipes (and emitting real smoke) moved with the menace of the corrupt treaty negotiators in Kurt Jooss's famous ``The Green Table.'' Choreographer Robert Desrosiers played taps. Just when you figured he was showing war and oppression, a dancer began to sing an Italian love song. Just when you decided oppression wasn't it, he was hoisted away from the object of his affections by means of a rope and ankle cuffs.

A plot synopsis doesn't tell much. Nor are there any stunning moves to speak of, although Desrosiers streaks around beautifully and another work, ``L'H^otel Perdu,'' has an all-out finale like the end of a 1950s musical -- if it were performed from memory by a punk band on tour at a seedy hotel. The dancing looks subservient to the theatricality, but it's the catalyst in the work.

The dancers, in their period costumes, unfold improbable stories, only to be interrupted. At one point, two women in long white dresses and powdered wigs singing a duet took off the wigs and dresses and attacked each other. A woman in a modern black dress came on with the meek slinkiness of a Hitchcock heroine. Just as she was about to be swept into the 18th-century fistfight, Desrosiers stole the show, hanging by his ankles and singing to her twin.

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The dancers moved in the only appropriate way under the circumstances -- fast and intently but unemotionally, the way people move in emergencies. There was no beginning, middle, or end -- events overtook other events or lurched to a halt. But the dance was consistent, almost to a fault: smooth, speedy leaps and turns punctuated by avid dashes.

Desrosiers's work is antirealistic. A friend remarked on the ``school play'' feeling he got from props like the papier-m^ach'e cow roped to a man's back, swinging out as he whirled and played the accordion. But these pieces are not plays. Dance weaves the quick changes, characters, and props into an alternative reality.

Entering that reality takes a toll. You watch with fascination as the images erupt. But the brutality dished out with such whimsy doesn't go away as you move on to the next scene. Even as you laugh at the women taking off powdered wigs to give each other a wallop, you feel bruised. And when there's an overload of imagery, the emotional coolness makes it all seem tedious.

Desrosiers's impersonation of a mad piano player almost made me forgive the troupe for flinging this load of horror so gracefully in my lap. He got carried away, jumped up from his piano, and danced the music wildly but sweetly, overcome with its beauty. A villain crept under the piano and carried it away. The player got it back. He held it upright in his arms, staggering, while others danced a pas de deux. There was a great nobility there, as hard to explain as anything else that evening. The piano was

obviously fake, but he had convinced me it was real to him, and somehow I admired him for holding it up and holding onto it.

Desrosiers Dance Theatre acts with that same integrity to keep Desrosiers's inventions in the air. In the face of such effort, it seemed the least I could do to take my lumps along with the rest of the audience. But the fact that the one really moving image was of the artist supporting his own vision points to the narrowness of that vision, for all its fervid pictures.

The Desrosiers Dance Theatre will perform at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in November.

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