Dance - The political, erotic, nakedly personal Ballet Preljocaj

French company brings movement to John Cage’s 1977 sound experiment

If you were to make a list of the least danceable compositions of all time, John Cage’s Empty Words would probably top it.

The recording, a conceptual piece from the late 1970s in which Cage reads from the work of Henry David Thoreau without pronouncing the vowels, is certainly a modernist classic. And sure, its creepy, low-tech beauty and implied Zen-like questions — What is the sound of someone not making music? How do we know it’s not music? — will unfold to anyone who listens. But still. Even when Cage’s unreceptive audience in Milan begins to jeer and their boos take on a sort of musicality in the recording, even when their bouts of sarcastic applause give the piece an angry, irregular rhythm, it remains a work unlikely to inspire many listeners to turn to one another and say, “Hey, let’s dance.”

It is the piece’s seeming total unsuitability for movement that oddly makes it the perfect match for choreographer Angelin Preljocaj. Just like Cage, Preljocaj is anarchic, playful, beguiling, singular. His work, like Cage’s, asks simple questions, but resists easy answers.

“What I like is the deconstruction John Cage brought in this project Empty Words,” Preljocaj says over the phone from Paris. “I started to work on my own idea of deconstructing my grammar of movement. If you hear Empty Words, you have the sensation it has no sense, but it comes from a structured text, very deep, from Thoreau. I tried to find the same deconstruction in my work in the way I worked with my dancers. I tried to invent a new vocabulary through this deconstruction.”

Preljocaj’s piece, entitled Empty moves (parts I & II), involves four dancers in T-shirts and underwear performing a series of surreal movements with a smooth, expressionless calm and trancelike acceptance. “There is a kind of musicality to the voice of John Cage because he gives the text something very calm,” says Preljocaj. “Even though everybody was screaming in the audience, he continued reading. There’s a feeling of serenity. I used the feeling of his voice and the mood of what his voice is bringing.”

Although Preljocaj’s name (pronounced prel-zho-KAHJ) may be unfamiliar to Atlanta audiences — this will be the company’s first visit to the Southeast — his huge body of work has established him as one of the world’s most important choreographers. A thorough list of honors, titles, awards, collaborations, significant work, eminent institutions, and high praise would be exhausting. Suffice it to say everyone thinks he’s the shit, and, well, for once, everyone is right.

His work has an almost schizophrenic level of variety, productivity and invention. From the blatantly political to the nakedly personal to the purely abstract, his work covers the gamut. And every dance looks different, though his work’s eroticism, demanding physicality, sharp intricacy and precise jumps and turns remain something of a constant.

It’s not surprising that a choreographer with such an unconventional output should have an unconventional background. Preljocaj was born into a strict, traditional Albanian home in suburban Paris. His parents — he a carpenter, she a shepherdess, their marriage arranged according to Balkan tradition — were refugees from their country’s Communist takeover. While en route to the U.S. in the 1950s, they stopped in France to wait for a visa and ended up staying. As a boy, Preljocaj loved judo: He earned his black belt at age 16. Somewhere along the way, he fell in love with movement for its own sake and began secretly siphoning off the money his father gave him for judo lessons to use for dance. He kept his new lessons secret because his parents didn’t approve of what they considered an unmanly pursuit.

“After some years,” he says, “they started to admit that it is just my way. They started to see some performances. At the beginning, they didn’t like it, but slowly they started to accept my passion.”

Throughout his career, Preljocaj’s output has remained enormous and varied. “Bulimic” is the word he uses to describe his creative energy. But when asked to define the Preljocaj style, he has surprisingly little to say. “In the end, that’s not my job. There’s a lot of intuition. I think an art piece is half intelligence, half intuition. If it’s just intelligence it’s not an art piece, and if it’s just intuition it’s not an art piece. It’s a strange combination, and maybe that’s why an artist is not able to define his own style.”

“There is no such thing as silence,” Cage is famous for saying. One of modernism’s great artistic discoveries was that the process of subtraction can reveal more detail than it takes away. Preljocaj and Cage remind us that no matter how much is removed from a work — even when narrative, even when sound and sense, even when words and logic themselves are taken out — under the hand of a great artist, the result is anything but empty.