How inventive! Frank Zappa music backgrounds ballet


October 11, 1990|By Anna Kisselgoff | Anna Kisselgoff,New York Times News Service

Lyons, France -- Ballets to music by the rock star Frank Zappa? Anything is possible. The Lyons Opera Ballet recently made that point at the International Dance Biennial here by inviting three Americans -- Lucinda Childs, Karole Armitage and Ralph Lemon -- to choreograph to their countryman's highly undanceable music.

All three commissioned premieres met the challenge significantly, magnificently and imaginatively. Ms. Armitage filled the stage with everything from gauchos to go-go girls.

Ms. Childs exhibited a polished new classicism and wisely chose to ignore a scenario about a door-to-door salesman and his vacuum cleaner "cavorting licentiously with a slovenly housewife," as Mr. Zappa would have it.

Mr. Lemon, staring down the composer in his proclivity for extreme musical shifts in "Bogus Pomp," one of Mr. Zappa's most ambitious symphonic efforts, created a galumphing, dynamic sensation of a pure-movement piece.

The ballet raises this very young choreographer from New York City's downtown scene to international status.

The program, "Dancing Zappa," crackled with creativity. When all is said and done about this biennial giving an unprecedented overview of American dance's history and current trends, there is no doubt that this bill will stand out for both its fun and its seriousness.

Ms. Childs, for instance, emerges here as a first-class, Neo-Classical choreographer, daring to venture out beyond the mathematical repetition of her modern-dance pieces. Yet like the others, she remained true to her style.

The new music director of the Lyons opera house is Kent Nagano. It is this young California conductor and associate of Pierre Boulez who thought up the idea of a ballet evening to music by his old friend from San Francisco, Frank Zappa.

After the premiere Mr. Nagano said that Mr. Zappa, who was absent because of illness, frequently titled his musical compositions "ballets."

Actually they are envisaged as theater pieces. In "Bogus Pomp" the orchestra players cry out "finished" when the music is not finished.

Mr. Zappa's rock music, dating from the 1960s with his band, Mothers of Invention, was not what Mr. Nagano had in mind. The three choreographers were asked to use Mr. Zappa's symphonic pieces, but Ms. Armitage did turn to four rock tapes as a prelude to "Strictly Genteel," an orchestral piece played live with Mr. Nagano conducting.

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