Barnum and Ballet

Philippe Decouflè, joined by the Lyon Opera Ballet, dazzles Brooklyn


Barnum and Bailey focuses on wild animal acts; Cirque du Soleil features jugglers and acrobats—no animals—and an artistic theme to make theirs unique; and Philippe Decouflè makes dancing the center of his unique version of circus.

One of Europe’s most popular choreographers, Decouflè lets his prolific imagination run rampant onstage, ably abetted here by visual collaborators Philippe Guillotel, designer of the fabulous costumes, and Jean Rabasse, who furnished the striking dècor. The Lyon Opera Ballet has among the most adventurous repertoires of any contemporary company, and now it has its very own Decouflè in the form of “Tricodex.” Middle-Eastern-sounding music by Sèbastien Libolt and Hugues de Courson adds exotic flavor.

Italian naturalist and artist Luigi Serafini’s “Codex Seraphinianus”—a fanciful encyclopedia of an imaginary universe, published in 1981—furnished the inspiration for the bizarre imagery of “Tricodex,” Decouflè’s 90-minute garden of fantastical delights, shown at BAM April 20 through 24. Decouflè knows how to mount an eye-popping entertainment that keeps you so astonished with one amazing visual image after another, you hardly realize it’s really about nothing but its surface. But what a surface!

Three platypuses begin in shimmering light, one standing on its head, wearing striped wet suits and huge flippers on their feet. A gaggle of similar creatures floods the stage and stomps around the drum-like sprung floor, like mutant Marx Brothers. Then, a new species invades: willowy extensions on their limbs or protruding from tops of heads or shoulders or worn like tutus around waists amplify their movement. They could be refugees from Dr. Seuss’s world, rippling their distended arms behind them in canon, as they slouch across the space.

Next, a courtly array of dancers sweeps in, wearing what look like Slinky toys as hats, sleeves, skirts, or even tails, for a passage of pure dancing—one of a few that seem almost like concessions to the performers, who are usually encumbered by the imaginative, elaborate regalia. The Lyon Company members are all beautifully proportioned, strongly built, and superbly trained ballet dancers. Yet they surrender themselves completely to Decouflè wacky visions: A caveman hunkers on his haunches, then evolves into a body builder. The ensuing pose-off among the males starts out fey and devolves to swishy. The men, in Speedos, vie for space to present themselves on two pedestals; then decide to call off the competition and just have some campy fun.

Since he’s creating for ballet dancers, Decouflè references ballet conventions with pas de deux and the male paradigm of jumping high, stretched beyond reasonable limits: A man on a counterweighted trapeze suspended above the stage flips and walks in midair, as his harness rotates; a woman on a counterweighted, two-wheeled contraption swings a 180-degree arc, forward and back, teasing her partner; another ballerina gets tilted to perilous angles by her beau without falling over, because her feet are anchored in a hemispherical base. Two more ballerinas spring on bungee cords, so that they merely have to check in periodically with their gravity-bound male partners for a boost back into orbit, where they can breezily execute spectacular bounding leaps and whirling spins.

Tutu-clad ballerinas twirl, rising into the air and back to earth, while men in pantaloons march around them, and a woman swims in the air, suspended on a swiveling harness in the proscenium opening of the stage within the stage that frames other fanciful beasts, like a creature with six retractable arms, like vacuum-cleaner tubes and a dancing deer.

One of the most beautiful moments in the work is one of the simplest: The dancers do a hand dance in unison, but they’re all perched at different angles: upright, upside down, tilting at 45-degrees, or jutting out horizontally from vertical walls: Hieronymus Bosch meets Joan Miro in Disneyland on Mars.

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