29 October 2010

Josef Nadj

Josef Nadj, Paris, October 27, 2010                                                         --Peter Sparling

It is pre-dawn in Paris, the morning after witnessing Josef Nadj’s /Centre Chorégraphique National D’Orléans Cherry-Brandy at Theatre de la Ville. I awake to a ghastly light on the towers of Notre Dame against the pallid gloom, a solitary church bell, the lonely twittering of a bird. But in Nadj’s universe, dawn never comes. A brilliant blackness pervades and invades the spirit; a cast of players fluidly shift from puppet-like spectators to characters in some deconstructed, diabolical plot of a torture never completed, an experiment or dismemberment gone awry, disemboweled waltzes, bodies constantly defying gravity and what the human body is capable of in extremis without ripping apart at the seams, and yet anchored to earth by dirt, sweat, vomit, the scraping of fingernails against wood or feet across a bare floor. Is this nightmare circus for insomniacs, or a metaphor for the artist lost in his own visions, his dernier cri in a world that will not or cannot see, much less accept or understand, his grim version of the human condition?

A note: This review of Cherry-Brandy is a partial review; because the words spoken on stage elude my comprehension, I can speak only of the exquisite poetics of the visual and the visceral that haunt this work and give it meaning to me. The choreographer would argue, I’m sure, that the words are everything. His own character on stage seems to be that of the poet, whose utterances from within a coffin-like box give voice to Chekhov, Varlam Chalamov and Ossip Mandelstram. A program note suggests “Sur scène ou goulag, dernier recours contre la morte: la poésie.” And yet it is the visual poetry that carries this full-evening work.

Nadj –a puppeteer and expert in the crafting of mechanically precise and bizarre scenarios—tinkers with the tools of his trade in the workshop of his own mind. As does an actor who anticipates or relives the mechanics of his own performance, or his own life, on an empty stage before or after the performance, the master puppeteer imagines his lines, the other actors, the lights, props, and a succession of scenes that appear out of the darkness in differently scaled penumbrae of light, then disappear again or morph into each other with utmost grace and superhuman articulation. The timing of groups and transitions between ritualistic scenes is the most refined I’ve seen in years.

The tinkerer is infinitely clever. At first, he teases us with amateurish glimpses of partial views of bodies, distorted chimeras. Gradually, we enter a universe populated by golems, spirits in empty black suits sucked of spirit then re-animated with a strange, disjointed fluidity. His cast of extraordinary dancers is pulled by their creator’s invisible strings. But the mechanics are revealed in the manipulation of props and demonstrated into the gymnastic feats of counterbalance such that we never know whether we are watching the spectacle, back stage with the puppeteers, or in the show ourselves. The dancers’ faces are at times erased under stocking masks, and bodies seem like inflatable dolls, or leaves or willow branches bent and flattened by gusts of wind. They grapple together in ways that obliterate boundaries between themselves, where one body gets lost in another’s.

It is as if the blackest of black Louise Nevelson box within a box opened to reveal a swiped, distended body from Francis Bacon, a Magritte or Ernst exquisite corpse with floating head or limbs, the halting, animated charcoal cartoon figures of Kentridge, shadow puppets a la Kafka, Schubert’s Der Erilkönig, the dark Russian nights of Dostoevsky, Gogol, all to rumblings or sudden pianistic exhortations of Moussorgsky or morose, vaudeville tinkerings on a toy piano.

Three-quarters through the work, I was ready for an ending. This was not Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with overture, acts and a feverish, moralistic plot to prop up the duration of arias, duets and quartets. I began to ask myself: Is this truly a hellish vision of a community in a gulag, and if so, what is their modus operandi? Or if this is rather a vision in the mind of the poet, at what point are we guided through “the eye of the needle” to view the perverse activities cast like figments of a shadow play on the inside his skull? The point of view, or point of, such entry, is blurred… until the ending image (maybe 20 minutes too late) when the lights pin spot the poet’s face, his body literally strung up in silhouette against white cyclorama, hovering over a stuffed wolf and a landscape strewn with the evening’s detritus, dancers holding long poles up to him like soldiers at Calvary, their spears guiding his ascent and prodding open his wounds.

In the end, Nadj succeeds because he is a master collector and connoisseur of images, a voleur in the best sense, who knows how to display his assemblage of horrors into something not necessarily cohesive but nevertheless powerful, constantly riveting, and leaving in its wake an accumulation of indelible tableaux, or exquisitely crafted and performed moving pictures. Is this last scene a death and transfiguration? An ascension or act of self-redemption? If it brings the poet close to his own death, he has already transfigured himself into the nightmarish vision of his brilliant black box. It is transfiguration and death.