07 October 2010

6 octobre, 2010/Robyn Orlin

Robyn Orlin at Théâtre de la Ville

Robyn Orlin’s new work is a sprawling, unruly mess. But so is life on the streets of South Africa. According to the program notes, which I waited to reference until after I’d seen the spectacle at Théâtre de la Ville, the one-hour work by the South African choreographer is in three parts:

Walking Next to Our Shoes...
Intoxicated by Strawberries and Cream
We Enter Continents Without Knocking…

This processional/purging ritual/carnival/public service announcement of overextended vignettes begins even as we wait in the lobby. A black man in sunglasses wearing silver frock coat with garish fabric tail insert, walks about with a pink feather duster. And as we file into the theater, a row of sentinels in shades, short pants and short jackets lined with inserts of native African fabric stands against the back wall. A video, projected onto a narrow vertical screen with French translations hovering above it, occupies our attention on stage, and we distinguish someone videotaping front-row audience members’ shoes—while technicians telecast the image live onto the screen. As the lights dim, a processional of crouching sentinels descends the steep stairs of the theater, training their LED flashlights on shoes held in front of them like some precious fetishes. This lighting effect is to become the dominant motif of the evening, and in terms of theatrical visuality and purely optical visibility, it wears thin very soon along with my initial curiosity.

Once on stage, the men’s rhythmic, synchronized dancing—timed like a well-rehearsed rap video to chanted text--is the most powerful statement of the evening and carries the momentum forward in fits and starts. This chorus performs extraordinary formation dancing with marvelous intricacies and sudden freeze-frames that arrest the picture for heightened resolution. (If only the lighting were better designed to break through the muddy gloom.) Singing, chanting and swooning, like tricksters or carnival spirits, these are everyday laborers of the street transformed by a charm, or a theatrical conceit characterized by parody and danced scenes depicting aspirations for a better life. Better has its bitter, ironic twist, when what is worshipped is the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, status symbol of the promise of the new royalty.

A huge woman, not unlike the extremely obese character actor/comediennes of American silent films, appears in long blond wig and undulates about the stage while bellowing in a gorgeous mezzo soprano voice. She navigates the stage surrounded by the men, like a circus float with wheels hidden under her skirts.  Her voice is huge and rich; is she the mother of South Africa, the uninhibited spirit of song and desire, or travesty? Regardless, she will not be quieted. Or will she? A shrill scene-stealing dancer/actor in diapers repeatedly attempts to usurp the mic/camera and demand our attention. He is the whining voice of the groupie, provocateur, dress-up doll, married lady wannabe. He addresses the audience with instructions: "Stand up! Sit down! Smile!" At times, the action spills into the front rows of the audience. Men's faces, lit up by red LEDs, float like red strawberries in a sea of black. The chanteuse/Aretha Franklin stand-in rocks us with a blues-inspired lullaby. 

This is a dance for the streets, transplanted from the streets. It would be interesting and useful to know if this was ever performed on the streets, in civic halls, or town squares of its native country: where the message would be alive with meaning. For the Paris audience, we are given, in a sense, a Living Theater, with 21st century video technology providing the narrow window and uncompromisingly fluid passage between the “reality” of the street and the stage. In this setting, it is a messy, irreverent and exotic import, geared to work on a white European guilt and social conscience but parading as a globalized contemporary dance.

The central metaphor/symbol is chaussures (shoes), and whether held up as precious token, worn on the head, or balanced precariously on the bosoms or buttocks of the woman, this image takes on implications: as the object of colonization, the shod foot vs, the bare foot of the working man and second-class citizen,  or the promise of a better life, as in the pre-produced video image—edited in slow motion--of a uniformed schoolboy walking to or from school, balancing his shoes on his head.

In the end, we have witnessed a catharsis, a spectacle invested with care, talent and great human effort. We feel that Orlin has a certain mastery of this form as the work winds slowly to its conclusion. She saves the strongest image for a last coup de théâtre: the roll of paper that acts as a renewable screen unfurls forward across the stage to the sound of lapping waves.  Like a white river, it ascends upwards over the heads of the audience, broken at times but borne up by determined hands. Dancers follow this flowing current, rolling slowly over the lip of the stage and into the laps of the audience. Lights fade on a small projection of waves cast onto the fabric held by the singer like a Veronica's cloth. 

Orlin’s creation is part public service message, part morality play: a reminder that, after all is said and done, whether we are saints or sinners, black or white, of high or low social status, privileged citizens or rootless migrants, protected sex can save your life. And we all return to the ocean, that vast mother that bore us to our native homeland and that took us away to foreign shores. And this brings us to the limits of dance criticism. Like the argument for and/or against Bill T. Jones’s "Still Here" that rocked the dance world a decade or so ago, we are brought up against our own prejudices of what constitutes art or theater. When we are confronted with work marketed as dance/theater but that is more a document of real lives calculated to provoke our extreme empathy, there is nothing left to say.