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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Cutting Edge of French Dance

If you didn't know the story, you might have thought that Tuesday's performance by French choreographer Christine Bastin's contemporary dance company was just another back-alley street scene complete with sex and violence.

In fact, "The Jaws of the Wolf" was inspired by Camilo Jose Cela's novel, "The Family of Pascual Duarte," in which four tightly wound Spanish peasants become unraveled after the arrival of a sensual stranger, the Toreador.

Using inventive choreography and competent, lithe dancers, Bastin provocatively explored the impact of repressed sexuality and constricting social mores.

The piece had its greatest impact as an allegory for the fine lines between love and violence, life and death. Though the references to Spain were recognizable, the complex interactions between Father, Daughter, Mother, Son and Stranger revealed the darker sides of all humanity.

Bastin, who formed her company in 1986, created "The Jaws of the Wolf" ("Gueule de loup") three years ago for a dance festival in Lyons, France. Since then, the work has been performed in Europe, Japan, and the United States.

The work leaves only a little to the imagination in its references to such subjects as incest, homosexuality, religious obsession, and Oedipal rage.

The Son, danced by Pascal Allio, ultimately broke the neck of his Mother (Katharina Bader) in heated passion. The dance ended as she lay limp, her red skirt tossed over her head.

The narrator-Father (portrayed by actor Dominique Collignon Maurin) sounded a mournful accompaniment in French to the sparse musical score. His wails and groans sometimes offered clues to the storyline: "To die or not to die," he roared at one point. Head of the family but lacking control, he found himself in the midst of his loved ones' aggressive behavior with little recourse.

The characters flirted with danger and reverted to crudeness, challenging each other like caged animals. The Toreador, who at first came courting dressed in a suit and carrying red roses, stripped to his T-shirt and wiped sweat off his brow as he alternately tangled with the men and embraced the women.

An elevated platform, whose handrails made convenient parallel bars for rolling and tumbling, dominated the stage's stark space. Each character took a turn within this enclosure -- sprawling, lounging, wrestling with one another or with internalized passion. Strewn rags, an old rolled carpet, a narrow wall and a wooden chair completed the family's bleak surroundings.

The tendency toward the dramatic characterizes much of European contemporary dance, as does the use of literary subject matter. This is in contrast to American modern works, which often take their meaning from the movements themselves.

But Bastin did not make the mistake of over-relying on theatricality. She has developed a strong and expressive vocabulary of movement, probably inspired by her studies with the modern-dance choreographer Alwin Nikolais.

The suggestion of sexy flamenco dance by the women, who wore wrinkled flowered peasant dresses instead of ruffled taffeta, added to the smoldering emotion. Their frequently in-unison steps and gestures created a self-absorbed but evocative ritual of desire.

The consummation of longing by the Toreador (Serge Ambert) and the Daughter (Agnes Dufour) was another stunning sequence. As he knelt in anticipation, she dove over his shoulder three times in quick succession, tucking her head into his side and somersaulting to his feet. Their fluid duet, performed almost entirely on the floor, was propelled by momentum as he then whipped her body around his like a flag.

The Bastin company's appearance at the Mossoviet Theater marked the sixth contemporary dance performance brought to Moscow by the French Cultural Center in the past year. Among the six was a powerful solo performance last October by a Bastin dancer of excerpts from Bastin's choreography. Contemporary productions like these provide welcome variety amid the parade of Giselles, Nutcrackers and Swan Lakes traditionally found on Moscow's stages.

From Moscow, the Bastin troupe continues to St. Petersburg, where the dancers will perform Friday.