THE Desrosiers Dance Theatre of Toronto is getting a great deal of critical attention. My guess is that within a year it's going to be one of the ``hottest'' dance groups on the touring circuit. That may be good for Desrosiers, but I'm not convinced that it will be good for dance. It isn't difficult to understand the excitement generated by Robert Desrosiers's theatrical choreography. When I saw the company perform at the University of Connecticut as part of its United States tour, it was obvious that this is a very ``French,'' very stylish, and very theatrical dance-theater ensemble.
It's the kind of performing group that you know you're not supposed to admire, but somehow you like it all the same. That familiar paradox brings to mind another controversial choreographer, namely, Maurice B'ejart, the masterly demon of the theater, whose influences are indisputably at the heart of the Desrosiers Dance Theatre.
In the 1970s, B'ejart was a huge success in Belgium (where his Ballet of the Twentieth Century was long headquartered), but, unlike Desrosiers, B'ejart was persistently shot down by most American critics, who detested his flashy theatricality and narrative epics. He didn't fit into the then fashionable devotion to abstraction and minimalism that was the choreographic legacy of Merce Cunningham.
Regardless of the critical butchery, B'ejart was a great hit with the American public in the 1970s. It's not difficult to predict the same kind of popular success for Robert Desrosiers in the '80s, a decade during which theatrical fashion has greatly changed from what it was in the days of B'ejart's prime. Less is no longer more.
Desrosiers has devised a marvelous sense of wretched excess which grows, no doubt, from a remodeling of that ``refined banality'' long associated with French chic. Desrosiers's theater is one of the last gasps of so-called performance art, which has evolved into an elaborate fusion of absolutely everything - including the kitchen sink. Desrosiers has devised a choreographic sensibility that makes B'ejart seem rather old fashioned. Desrosiers's idea of the theater is every bit as flamboyant as B'ejart's, but with enough decadence and with enough punk Day-Glo to make Desrosiers's work seem very much of the moment.
Signs of public interest
The Desrosiers Dance Theatre was established in 1980 in Toronto. Since then the company has gradually surrounded itself with a paradoxical reputation for both innovation and popularity.
For instance, during its three-week season in Toronto in 1986, it averaged 93 percent capacity houses. That kind of hefty public interest is a rarity for adventurous dance groups. Yet such popularity has not dimmed the enthusiasm of the critics, as it did a decade earlier for B'ejart. Apparently many critics are no longer alienated by populist attitudes in the arts. And that change of heart has worked wonders for Robert Desrosiers.
The critical success of his dance theater company in Canada led to performances in Paris, New York, and Hong Kong, and appearances at two of the major centers of dance in the US, the American Dance Festival, and the Jacob's Pillow Festival.
More recently, four weeks were devoted to a tour of Australia, where the company won the same enthusiastic reaction from the notoriously conservative Australian concert audience as it did from the sophisticated audiences of New York and Paris. Clearly, Desrosiers has something that's working wonders for him.
The program I saw consisted of two long, major works: ``Brass Fountain'' (1981, '84), and ``Concerto in Earth Major'' (1987). I was strongly impressed by the first of these dances and rather disappointed by the second.
Despite some very interesting sequences, ``Concerto in Earth Major'' lacks a unifying conception and badly suffers from the kind of philosophical naivet'e that is implicit in its sophomoric title. Concerned with polarities and polemics (which seem to be favorite themes for Desrosiers), ``Concerto'' makes an unconvincing pitch for social consciousness, as visualized by a confrontation between the primal world and the civilized world.
Desrosiers himself dances the role of Doubleman, a figure cleverly costumed and choreographed to have opposing profiles: one animal-like and the other in full tuxedo. If Desrosiers had played his evocation of ``primitive rituals'' for laughs (as Paul Taylor often does with great brilliance), then perhaps this work would have been able to overcome its air of Jungle Habitat. But as it stands, the best that I can say for it is that the dance provided an outstanding solo for Sonya Delwaide, unquestionably the most impressive dancer in the troupe.
``Brass Fountain'' is a highly Frenchified evocation of Moorish mannerisms and the ``primitive'' passion that the French always identify with Spanish gypsies.
Though this major work is driven by many dark visual influences drawn from the paintings of Goya, it is ultimately a slick and decorative opus: rather like a Spanish ``Gait'e Parisienne'' gone completely mad.
The plot is greatly preoccupied with death - something else the French usually envision when they look into that ``dark continent'' they call Spain. The original music is an effective collaborative pastiche, though it relies rather heavily upon that latest form of ``elevator music'' known as New Age sound.
A liking for both choreographers
On the other hand, there was considerable originality in the use of live singing and instrumental music performed by the dancers and superimposed over the pre-taped score. The costumes and setting were very haute couture; while the choreography itself was more clever than brilliant. Regardless of my suspicion that Desrosiers is a bit too good to be true, I liked much of what I saw. But then, I also liked some of the things B'ejart created.
The success of Desrosiers's work is much indebted to the spirit of B'ejart. The visual impact and sophisticated staging of his works are strongly reminiscent of the best and the worst of B'ejart. Like B'ejart, Desrosiers's modernism is never so daring that it alienates his audience. And also like B'ejart, Desrosiers's sense of the theater is his greatest strength - a strength so persuasive that I came away from the Desrosiers Dance Theatre feeling deeply impressed.
Is this a case of a Great Oz?
At the same time, I had a hunch that the glow wouldn't last. When the theatrical smoke clears, I suspect that I may find myself in the presence of an ordinary man who pulls levers to make flashing flames and who speaks into a microphone to create the highly amplified voice of the Great Oz.
What it comes down to, I guess, is that there is always a good deal of Kansas lurking just behind the luster of high fashion.