Tableau Vivant: A Wandering Retrospective

                                                                                                                                                           Pelican Bomb. February 19, 2011

Silent figures held their poses as the usual flash and blare of police sirens flew by. Mythic compositions of elaborately costumed characters moved slowly, telling a living story or, literally, a tableau vivant. On November 13, the New Orleans Society for Tableau Vivant, along with other guest artists, performed nine varying scenes from atop a flatbed truck advancing along St. Claude Avenue as part of Prospect 1.5. Tableaux vivants were popularized in the 19th century as entertainment at parties for the wealthy. When the original Mardi Gras krewe, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, organized the first ever night parade in New Orleans, their crepuscular tableaux vivants floated down the streets, leading the way toward the Mardi Gras balls. This art form’s profound connection to the city’s past and contemporary landscape, as exemplified by its presentation in the burgeoning St. Claude arts district, is what made me fall in love with the Society’s rolling delights.

Produced by New Orleans Airlift and carefully selected by British curator Rosie Cooper to educate the viewer, each successive scene recorded the evolution of the tableau vivant beginning with Hal an Tow, a play based in Celtic tradition dating to the 16th century. A brilliant history followed: The Metamorphosis of Ovid as presented in 1878 by the Mistick Krewe of Comus, Mercure, which was created by Pablo Picasso, choreographer Léonide Massine, and composer Erik Satie in 1924, and  London-based artist Tai Shani’s translation of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice as a current portrayal of Hollywood narcissism. In Anna Barham’s particularly beautiful interpretation of Proteus, four figures dressed in black gripped white polyhedrons recalling a Robert Morris sculpture. Airlift co-founder Delaney Martin concisely summed up the project saying: “Truly we pay tribute.” I was left wondering as to whether these tableaux signified a thoughtful history of the art form, an analysis of how our roots define our contemporary identities, or simply the mischievous work of a tipsy fairy. Perhaps the magic lies in some combination of all three.

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