Ballet Preljocaj’s La Fresque at Sadler’s Wells

Picture Credits: Jean-Claude Carbonne

This show prompts you to lift up your eyes and spirit, and dream. From the very beginning, when we are exposed to vaporous, silky grey shapes that gradually materialise on stage, the invitation is to relish the dream-like atmosphere, without asking too many questions. Admittedly, I spent the first 15 minutes trying to work out whether the soft shapes were lights, projections, actual silk, or some unexplained VR magic. But much like these light effects (by brilliant light designer Éric Soyer), La Fresque is a mesmerising show, and one to enjoy precisely in its mysterious haziness.

I liked the idea that, as a show revolving around a painting, the framework of it was quite clear: Chu and Meng, two friends travelling together, enter a temple and come across a magnificent fresco depicting a group of young, beautiful girls. Contemplating the wall painting, Chu is magnetically drawn into it, and begins a journey of idyll, passion, and adventure. As he comes out of the fresco, his whole world has changed, but so has the painting.

The show seems in many ways indebted to the ancient device of ekphrasis, whereby a poem describes a visual work of art in such detailed and vivid manner that the artwork acquires a life of its own. In Catullus’ Poem 64, for instance, the story of Ariadne and Theseus (and the Minotaur and the labyrinth), which is supposed to be simply embroidered as a decoration on a coverlet, is narrated almost as an independent story, and ends up taking up more lines than the rest of the poem. Similarly, in La Fresque, the dream (from the moment Chu steps into the painting) seems to be the real show – we are set free from any sense of temporality and place. We are transported in a world of visions, some perhaps more striking than others, but all equally fascinating as they explore the link between movement and stasis, the fixed image and real life.

What’s remarkable about La Fresque is the incredible variety in the quality of movement the dancers showcase, especially the leading roles. From a sensual and staccato sequence introducing the wall painting, to a La La Land-like routine with the two lovers seemingly floating in the air (featuring a starry sky in the background), to the intrusion of bizarrely bouncy, jelly-moving masked creatures, to soldiers moving with sharp precision, the show can be anything from delicate to empowering to shocking, navigating the variegated score by Nicolas Godin and Vincent Taurelle.

One of the most fascinating themes of the piece, which comes up repeatedly, but again explored from different angles, is hair. The whole idea of dancing with (and choreographing) hair is adventurous, and feels pretty avant-garde. As choreographer Angelin Prelijocaj puts it: “It’s funny how hair can extend the movement of the body in a sequence, but it’s also hazardous. There is something that occurs that is … unexpected. But that is very nice.” This actually sums up the show pretty well. We get hair flicking in perfect synchronicity, chignons being made to a fellow dancer on stage (in a creepy, wonderful way), hair extensions literally hanging from the ceiling and used as circus ropes – hair is omnipresent. In all instances, it seems to stand for beauty, freedom and sensuality, and its “taming” means inhibiting this sense of unrestrained freedom.

Using art (dance) to explore art (painting) is a rich, compelling concept. I found myself thinking about one of my favourite paintings (Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent), and the number of times I tried to imagine the background story that hides behind it: who are the two girls? What are their lanterns for? What are they thinking? Ballet Preljocaj goes one step further and asks what happens when we positively enter the world of static images, and how much they have the power to change us.

La Fresque runs at Sadler’s Wells until 2nd October. For more information, please visit their website.