In the first tableau, a man in a beret and cartoon mustache cavorted with a huger-than-life papier-mache cow, and then segued into a frenetic dance that made him look like an animated pipe cleaner. In the second, another mock-animal -- this one a man in oversize costume -- suddenly "gave birth" to a snorkeler in swim trunks, goggles and fins, who proceeded to flip his flippers, mimic swimming and diving, and generally carry on to music that sounded as if it was issuing from a bubble machine.
These were the opening salvos in an evening-long program labeled "Avalanche" -- an anthology of scenes from the dance-theater works of Canadian choreographer Robert Desrosiers, representing a decade of creative work. They were also ominous portents of what was to follow.
The recently inaugurated 2,000-seat Concert Hall of George Mason University's new Center for the Arts chose to launch its first dance series Saturday night with a daringly unconventional attraction -- a Washington area debut by the Toronto-based, spectacularly histrionic Desrosiers Dance Theatre.
Desrosiers is a 37-year-old Montreal native, who founded the company in 1980 after an extremely eclectic array of studies in dance and theater arts, and lengthy stints as a performer with troupes in Europe and Canada. By now he has amassed a hefty international reputation as a sort of master conjurer of multimedia dance theater.
From his solos in the course of the evening, it was clear that Desrosiers is an electrifying dancer -- strong, fast, lithe, pantherine and supremely vibrant. His company, too, as represented here -- 10 dancers of both sexes (one was injured, however, and unable to perform) -- is amply stocked with virtuosity and personal magnetism.
Desrosiers' works, however, appear on the basis of this sampling to equate theatricality with gimmickry. Stripped of "special effects," moreover, the choreography -- the actual movement -- reduces to a relentlessly mechanical melange of acrobatics, gymnastics and hackneyed dance formulas, reminding one of nothing so much as Pac-Man in three dimensions. The musical accompaniments, largely electronic, made to order by sundry Canadian composers, are no less numbing. The visual designs, by Myles Warren, and lighting, by Adrian Muir, are reasonably skillful, though the evening was by no means free of technical glitches. But nothing in the course of the entire program induced one to see in "Avalanche" anything more than an indiscriminate landslide of tricks, devoid of drama or expressive purpose, and insufficiently clever even as bald entertainment.
Each excerpt in the grab bag of "Avalanche" had its own characteristic visual stunt or pun. In "Men's Song," from "Jeux," the dancers were dressed and made up like rag dolls. In "Tennis," from "First Year," two men were the players while the third, his head encased in a large, fuzzy sphere, was the Ball. The men, in "Capescape," from "Concerto in Earth Major," twirled giant flags, causing the women to seem to appear from or disappear into nothingness. Other segments featured dancing pawns on a chessboard set, men with chandeliers as headpieces and angel wings in back, and in the finale ("Doors," from "L'Hotel Perdu"), a man with a dog's face, a chef, waiters and floozies ducking in and out of what looked like beach lockers.
After a while, the dances seemed wholly interchangeable, and given the monotony of movement and sound, one's mind and senses began to tune out.
Desrosiers' work relates to a venerable tradition of illusionistic dance theater, manifest in this country in the imaginative productions of Alwin Nikolais and Pilobolus, for example, and flourishing abroad in a sizable multimedia repertory of the last several decades, particularly in Canada and France. A single, complete opus by Desrosiers might have afforded a richer perspective on his conceptual premises. "Avalanche," however, seems to have extracted nothing but sensationalist episodes of paltry artistic import.
For a multi-use facility (music, dance, drama), the $12 million Concert Hall seems eminently hospitable to dance. It's handsome, well equipped, generously spacious on its stage and in its lobbies, comfortable, and better than most in its sightlines, though the user-unfriendly "continental seating" arrangement is the same drag here as elsewhere. Certainly this is a more than welcome addition to sites for dance in a metropolitan area chronically short on them. The dance series, moreover, will be rounded out in the next two months with a very promising trio of events -- the Martha Graham Dance Company (March 2), the Miami City Ballet (April 6) and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, the travesty troupe familiarly known as "the Trocks" (April 27).