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When Theater Stage Embraces Cutting Edge Art

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After last week's explosive spectacle staged by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang outside of the Geffen Contemporary, I was worried: Would I find anything equally intriguing and unusual in the museums or galleries in the days to follow?

The answer is sort of yes and no. I did find some amazing artwork, though it was not in the galleries or museums, but on the stage. A friend of mine invited me to see Mikhail Baryshnikov acting, not dancing, on the Broad Stage in the new production In Paris. I have seen Misha -- as he is known to millions of his admirers -- numerous times on stage and on-screen. But this was a special occasion as he was not dominating, but generously sharing the limelight with delightfully quirky actors and singers, performing on an eye-popping, constantly shifting stage set, worthy of a must-see museum show.

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Based on the short story by Russian writer Ivan Bunin, the play tells the melancholy tale of Russian émigrés in Paris shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. In the best tradition of the Russian avant-garde theater, Moscow based director Dmitry Krymov and his Laboratory keep the audience on edge, never knowing what is going to happen next. Blown-up, century old postcards are used as stage props, constantly moved around. One moment a postcard is the background for the action, the next moment, with a wonderful sense of humor, it is transformed into a car, carrying the actors across the stage.

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The costume design is equally full of surprises. The aging general, played by Baryshnikov, shows his passion not only by breaking into a short dance, but also by unexpectedly opening up his military overcoat to reveal the startling bright red-lining. For a second, Baryshnikov transforms himself into a bull-fighting toreador, reminding the audience of his famous role in the ballet Don Quixote. The general's paramour, while trying to decide which dress to wear for their rendezvous, performs something close to a magic act. She reveals and then folds a series of completely different outfits, all cleverly concealed inside one seemingly simple dress.

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Even more visually stimulating, was the performance by the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I loved the dancers and enjoyed the clever choreography of Benjamin Millepied. But again it is the set design and costumes that, for me, stole the show. One hundred years ago, Mikhail Fokin famously choreographed Le Spectre de la Rose for the Ballet Russe, as a quintessential romantic fantasy. This new production by the Grand Théâtre de Genève makes light fun of the sleeping young woman who dreams of not one, but three dashing male suitors. They dance, climb, and jump over the few simple, brightly colored geometric shapes, which make up the intriguing set design.

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Next to the famous Giselle, Les Sylphides is the most beloved and romantic of any classical ballet performance. And once again, here on the Dorothy Chandler Stage, we saw it being completely reinvented. The dancing took place on a stage imagined, not as a mythical forest, but as a vigorous, black and white abstract composition.

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It was only a few months ago that the Nederlands Dans Theater performed at the Music Center, demonstrating their trademark innovative set design. The performers were dancing against black and white movie footage, projected on several large screens. Tension between the movement on the stage and the action on the screens was palpable. I remember it as one of the most visually stimulating and satisfying theater experiences I have had in recent years.

There is such a wealth of risky, creative, and intelligent set design in contemporary theater. It would be great to see a major museum show dedicated to the visual magic of stage design at its best.

Banner image: Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Les Sylphides, choreography by Benjamin Millepied. Photo by GTG/Vincent Lepresle.

Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of "Art Talk," a program on art and culture for KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.