10 October 2010

10 octobre, 2010: Shake That Devil—A Tour of 4 Paris Dance Sites

Shake That Devil! Conception et Chorégraphie par Alban Richard/Ensemble l'Abrupt

It seemed like a great idea for an American in Paris to catch a Saturday night of dance the easy way: for the price of admission, 20 Euros, board a bus at Nation and be driven to four different performance sites. First stop: Atelier de Paris- Carolyn Carlson. An exquisite dancer with Nikolais/Louis and striking solo presence for years on European stages, Carlson has become an institution in France. Her studio is on the beautiful grounds of La Cartoucherie, Chateau de Vincennes, next to a riding stable. To be ushered into a pavilion at dusk on an Indian summer evening, and invited to sit on benches on three sides of an open space with shiny black marley floor, I felt like I’d entered a kraton in Central Java. And sure enough, three women, skirted in full-pleated pewter-grey paper with naked bosoms, entered to began walking in steady floating paths with tight parallel steps to a trance-like obbligato or drone. 

The inner, central woman took on the pivotal force, gradually adding arm movements and upper torso as if summoning the planets towards her or churning the space: an oracle or female deity, a sun. The other two women, blank-faced and in perfect mirrored synchronicity, orbited her, carving an outer sphere or circumference. The women’s bare breasts took on interesting lives of their own: ornamental, geometric and primal, almost hypnotic magnetic forces in themselves pointing the way ahead, suspended there above contained centers of gravity, yet lending to these impersonal deities a human, vulnerable quality.  Titled 1—Les Dieux: “le charme est noué, this meditative overture to the evening’s progress was suddenly interrupted by three screeching banshees, dressed in ill-fitting wigs and black paper or fur robes, or were they witches from Macbeth? Crouching in a corner behind three microphones, they read from a white laptop, launching into fitful utterances in at least two different languages, as if trying to provoke the three deities or derail them from their slowly accelerating orbits. And then they lurched out again, leaving the three to finish circumscribing their celestial map and proceed out the door into the evening with the same slow shuffle to the incessant drone. OK. What next?

Returning to our buses, I remarked to my American friend and former dance composition teacher from my Juilliard days, Janet Soares, that it reminded me of a Laura Dean work done in Kabuki or Noh theater style for a Paris runway show. Obviously lovely, disciplined dancers, a rigorous choreographic process and an understanding of theater ritual. I was willing to reserve further judgment until the next installment. And now I knew from the program that all four sites would feature the choreography of the same choreographer, Alban Richard, a former dancer with Karine Saporta, Odile Duboc and Rosiland Crisp, who had been making his own works since 1999. Materials for the evening’s episodes were drawn from works created over the past 3 years, and featured a cumulative cast of 8 dancers and three musicians.

Witnessing 2.—Les guerriers: “ruine face aux lointains” (warriors: ruins facing a background?) was a powerfully visceral reminder of the potential for close-up dancing in an intimate space, with near-naked bodies in constant contact with each other. The homoerotic, sensual, and violent all collided in this 30’, gradually decelerating wrestling match/anatomy study straight out of Muybridge or Thomas Eakins, or a live embodiment of Francis Bacon’s Two Figures (1953). We entered the Studio Le Regard du Cygne and took our places on all four sides of the dimly lit wooden floor. Three monk-like figures sitting cross-legged patiently awaited the last arrivals. Lights dimmed, and suddenly two of the figure stripped from their robes and thrust themselves onto the floor, naked except for what looked like strands of seaweed or shreds of black embroidery and the scantest of posing straps to contain and/or protect their genitals.

The choreographer sat to the side, intoning passages from Samuel Beckett’s Têtes Mortes as the men repeated a sequence of almost classic wrestling moves in real time and then slowed it down over the entire length of this provocative, gorgeous pas de deux, I experienced my own internal wrestling match between my kinesthetic empathy, my sexual arousal, and a purely esthetic pleasure of two beautiful male bodies in complete control of their physicality, writhing together in an organic morphing of form and oppositional tension. At what point did one internal response overwhelm the other? When did I become aware of looking at this demonstration from the outside in, not as a voyeur but as an objective observer of two rather stereotypically perfect specimens of European white males who were in really good physical shape? When did the willful opposition between the two dancers take on the appearance of mutual pleasure or ecstatic union?  When did active aggression turn to passive submission? The choreographer struck a vibrant chord here, with a simple idea amplified and carried to its fullest, extraordinary both while in progress as well as in its aftereffect.

During the bus ride to our third location, I compared notes with my two female companions on the element of erotic arousal, and of a “gaze theory” that might apply to the spectacle. Who is gazing whom? Is this about a gay male gaze, equal attraction guaranteed for both gay males and straight females? What if the same work was cast for two women? Man and woman?

We chewed on that while slowly circling the Périphérique choked with weekend traffic coming into the city. Arriving at Théâtre de L’Etoile du Nord, we were offered dinner snacks then ushered into a small theater. The stage was set with piano, keyboard facing straight on, a chair to its right, and a cyclorama lit with the faint outline of a projection. The pianist, his back to us, began performing the Metamophosis of Philip Glass, while Martha Moore, sitting with reading glasses at the side, read in choppy fragments passages from Emily Dickenson. Eventually, the screen lit up with excerpts of a film, Fantôme, (2002) by Xavier Baërt. A take on Maya Deren’s 1940s experiments in slow-motion figure against ground, the fashionably grainy, black & white film with silhouette of male dancer’s torso in increasing layers of superimposition eventually became a tedious indulgence, with poor Emily’s terse, exact syntax ruined in the recitation and the excellent piano performance by ?? cluttered with unnecessary distractions. Poor Glass, poor Metamorphoses, forever relegated to accompaniment for weak excuses for interdisciplinary theater. 

Rounding off the evening’s tour, parts 4-5 took place in the white box of Micadanse’s basement studio/theater. La femme folle: “A Conspiracy” was followed by Les Demons: “des instincts de danse”.  Clad in white shorts, white shirt, a dunce cap and white paper train that appeared as tails of a tuxedo, the dancer/actor repeated a sequence of lurching walks, agonized cringing, and broken falls to the floor, all while speaking lines from Macbeth or Macbeth Horror Suite by Carmelo Bene. As the electronic drone intensified, he moved four speakers onto the strip of white flooring the cut down the center of the space between platforms of different levels and angles that the audience sat upon. One at a time, dancers from the previous episodes who had planted themselves inconspicuously in the audience began twitching violently. (A pregnant woman sitting across from me held her womb fearfully, protectively in her hands while her husband comforted her.) The floor was pulled up, dancers migrated around the space, the sound increased in volume, and eventually the DJ added a rhythmic club beat and everyone was on their feet dancing. A fitting reward for an inconsistent, long but cleverly formatted and beautifully performed evening of Shake that Devil