Tutus: Take Two

THE NAMES BILL T. Jones, Susan Marshall, and Stephen Petronio don't exactly conjure up images of tutus and toe shoes. So what are these American individualists doing on the roster of choreographers who've accepted commissions from Lyon Opera Ballet?

Chalk it up to the eclectic and innovative spirit of this classically based French national company. Whether they're performing French choreographer Maguy Marin's landmark, dollhouse version of Cinderella or ex-Minneapolitan Ralph Lemon's response to the music of Frank Zappa, the LOB aesthetic is so far removed from classicism's stuffy traditions and stiff formalities it might almost be mistaken for a modern troupe. What's more, under the intuitive guidance of artistic director Yorgos Loukos, the LOB has become a creative home-away-from-home for Jones (resident choreographer in 1994-95), Lemon and other post-mod darlings.

For New York City Ballet veteran Jeffrey Edwards, the special emphasis on original American dance is one of LOB's chief appeals. The 32-year-old Pittsburgh native matriculated in Lyon in 1995, after a two-year stint in Zurich. He is currently the 35-member company's sole Yankee. "The French are very protectionist," Edwards explains. "There's a quota of how many American dancers Lyon can hire. Sixty percent of the company must be French."

Meanwhile, living abroad has so widened Edwards's personal and professional perspectives that he's "surprised there's not more of an influx of American dancers stampeding their way to Europe." At NYCB, he says, "the repertory was very rich, but limited. I was craving new work." He found it at LOB.

"Our repertory is definitely the largest and most varied in the world," Edwards boasts. "Very few European companies take the chances that we do." The result, he says, are dancers that collectively rank as "the chameleons of the dance world. We're very adept at changing gears."

LOB's versatility will be amply demonstrated at Northrop Auditorium this weekend. The program includes "Green and Blue," Jones's "dialogue" with two of Mozart's lesser-known string pieces; Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato's award-winning "Jardi Tancat" (Catalonian for "Closed Garden"); Marshall's "Central Figure," a study of how a community deals with loss that's set to music by her "Les Enfants Terribles" collaborator Philip Glass; and Marin's "Groosland," a fantasy in which the dancers cavort gracefully in Michelin Man-styled fat suits. Edwards compares performing the latter piece to "running a marathon in a straitjacket. By the end, we're like limp chickens."

Still, suffering for your art is easy when the conditions are as comfy and secure as those in Lyon. LOB is housed in a restored turn-of-the-century theater that features a glass-walled studio with stunning panoramic views. (Edwards claims he dons sunglasses during some rehearsals.) Of course the company is extremely well subsidized, so much so that it can tour the world without having to worry unduly about turning a profit. LOB's American counterparts should have it so good.

DRAG RACERS, SANDRA Bullock, and the chap who broke the sound barrier in the Nevada desert all have an urge for speed. Add choreographer Jelena Petrovic to the list. "Mean Free Path," premiering this weekend in Dogheaven and Other Places, is an ode to perpetual, and sometimes punishing, motion. Set to composer Michael Gordon's hyper-paced "Yo Shakespeare," as interpreted by British thrashers Icebreaker, "Mean Free Path" is 11 minutes of sonic and kinetic intensity that never quits building. "The title comes from a physics term," Petrovic explains. It's 'mean' as in average, not wicked, and it describes the amount of time a particle travels before it comes into contact with another particle." An apt explanation, Petrovic suggests, for a dance that demands its performers tap into some other dimension to overcome their human exhaustion.

"Mean Free Path" is a departure for the choreographer (and sometime City Pages contributor), whose works have generally favored a subtle sort of theatricality over bald abstraction. "I'm still really interested in drama in dance, but a lot of the drama I've seen is larger than life," the Belgrade-born choreographer observes. "What I want to convey is the cracks that exist in the interactions between people."

The duets "Smith" and "smith," for example, are about creating a kind of symbiosis set to the lyricism of classical music. The evening also includes the effervescent "Love Project," Petrovic's signature solo "It's Really Very Brief," and another physics-inspired premiere, "Strange Attractor."

"There's a wonderful connection among those who know each other through dancing which I try and tap into," Petrovic says. "But these relationships can also mutate into the disturbing or the extreme." (Donald Hutera/Caroline Palmer)

Lyon Opera Ballet perform at Northrop Auditorium November 7-8; call 624-2345. Dog Heaven and Other Places runs Thursday through Saturday at Studio 6A, Hennepin Center for the Arts; call 722-8109.

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