REVIEW: Ballet of the Dolls gives a cinematic deconstruction of a fairy tale about a real songbird and its mechanical replacement.
Choreographer Myron Johnson creates works that dance along the intersection of fantasy and pop culture. Perhaps that's why fairy tales are a fitting inspiration for the artistic director of Ballet of the Dolls. "The Peruvian Nightingale," which opened Friday night at the Ritz Theater, re-imagines the classic Hans Christian Andersen story as a vibrant, almost cinematic romp, set to vocals by a singular songbird, soprano Yma Sumac, as well as Peruvian folk music.
The story is simple. The Emperor of Peru falls in love with a nightingale, and she serenades him every evening until he becomes distracted when a mechanical version of the bird arrives in his court. The real nightingale flies away, unable to compete with the flashy toy. But soon everyone tires of the soulless imitation. The nightingale returns to save the emperor from death and to share her true voice - no longer taken for granted - once again.
Whether intended or not, the Dolls' "Peruvian Nightingale" has a style reminiscent of underground artist Jack Smith, the wildly creative director of the banned 1963 film "Flaming Creatures." While Johnson's content is nowhere as racy, his gauzy romanticism and hyper-exotic vision of the mashup of real and imaginary worlds runs in the same surrealist vein as Smith's.
It's an intriguing new dimension for Johnson to explore and expand upon. This influence really shines through in his shadowy set design as well as Will Rees' rich gold-and-green-hued lighting and Grant Whittaker's witty, finely detailed costumes.
Stephanie Fellner is a bit of a revelation herself as the nightingale. She uses her delicate frame and alert face to fully animate an avian spirit. Her arms, fitted with feathers, seem buoyed by the air beneath them. Fellner can always be counted upon to deliver a riveting performance, but this is among her best roles. Heather Cadigan also stands out for her poised rendering of the elegant Lady Solhe, who first discovers the nightingale's special song.
While the name of his company may suggest otherwise, Johnson doesn't always use ballet. Here he deconstructs court dances until they pulsate with new rhythmic life, and infuses elements of Martha Graham-esque abstract modernism into Julie Warder's solo as Death. But whatever the medium for expression, in this work Johnson stays committed to his goal. He succinctly - and smartly - celebrates the original essence of the creative being.
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.
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