French choreographer Roland Petit deals in spectacle. In his hands, ballet goes beyond pretty, courteous movement into a realm of horror, ecstasy, contortions and lust. And movement is only one part of his bold theatrical vision. Grandiose sets, outrageous costumes, flamboyant lighting effects, surging music and wild crowd scenes combine to produce an experience light years away from traditional ballet.
Take Petit's "Notre Dame de Paris." This 1965 opus, which opened his Ballet National de Marseille's two-week run at the Kennedy Center Tuesday night, pulls out all the stops and then some. Victor Hugo's tragic tale of the hunchback bell-ringer Quasimodo and the gypsy Esmerelda has been transformed into an electric pageant of grotesquerie and sex. From the first murky image of a medieval society stretched across the stage (dressed in Yves St. Laurent's flowing robes and towering headdresses) to the final poignant tableau of a dead Esmerelda hanging limply in Quasimodo's arms, we're snared in a world where the action and the cruelty never quit.
Rather like the stage version of "The Elephant Man," Petit's hunchback displays no hump -- only a raised shoulder, haunted eyes and a hangdog mouth. His enemy, Frollo, wears a skintight black suit and an awful black line down the center of his face, and moves like a wicked knife. Esmerelda fairly steams with erotic energy, and her soldier-lover Phoebus exhibits equal parts passion and military fervor. Best of all is the corps de ballet, a gifted pack of stage chameleons who, during the course of this production, portray an assortment of aristocrats, fools, harpies, whores, soldiers and ghouls.
In addition to Sunday afternoon's performance of "Notre Dame," the company offers a mixed bill of other Petit creations to be shown Friday and Saturday evenings and at a Saturday matinee. BALLET NATIONAL DE MARSEILLE -- Through July 3. Friday at 8, Saturday at 2 and 8, Sunday at 1:30. Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets $16 to $32. Call 857-0900.