13 November 2012
Back from Paris, where the stony city air made my temples throb and the streets had a much-too-lived-in gravity, so unlike the fantasy of two years ago. I was afforded the mid-semester break with funds to attend the 2012 conference of European Association of Dance Historians. My presentation, entitled Dancing Graham's Music: Sounds from an Inner Landscape, was one of 21 papers presented, all focusing on different aspects of the theme, En cadence, s'il voius plaît!: the relationship(s) between theatre dance and music. As I wrote my friend, Terri Sarris, of the trip:
Paris... hmmm... bittersweet. I walked the old paths and was so struck at how I was seeing it all through different eyes. The past is past! no more fantasy. I'd created a big body of materials from my stay two years ago and I was SO ready to move on. That was then, this is now. It took me a return trip to realize this. The conference went well enough, small and poorly run but with some real jewels re. papers presented by fine dance scholars. My presentation went well enough, despite my nervousness. My hand would not stop shaking as I tried to work my PowerPoint.
Staying in a UM colleague's apartment--the same John & I stayed at during my September, 2007 sabbatical-- I had less deja-vu than gratitude for a refuge. It was particualrly unsettling to experience the election from a distance. CNN and BBC coverage of cable TV allowed me to follow the bumpy road until I couldn't stay awake any longer that night. When I awoke at 6 am Paris time, I turned on the TV, learned of Obama's win, and my body shuddered then relaxed. I had not realized until that moment how much tension I'd been carrying, my worry suit. I got up, shaved, dressed, had coffee, then keeled over on the bed and fell back asleep.
I should not complain, then. The presentation was a success, I saw some very dear friends, and was even able to take an afternoon to play with the new Final Cut Pro X. See Paris Reentry .
I wrote a review of dance, my "Report from Paris", which may or may not go to Ballet Review. See below. And I'm back safely, in time for today's brief few minutes of snowflakes and the nip of winter in the clear, crisp Michigan air.
Report from Paris
November 8, 2012
Exiting the Théatre de la Ville last night from the performance by Jean-Claude Gallotta was not easy for some. As soon as the final lights came down on the dancers standing in place and bowing to indicate the end of the evening-long work, a woman in front of me stood to leave. While the audience applauded enthusiastically and the lights came up on the cast for their formal set of bows, the people in her row refused to stand and let her pass. One man actually extended his hands and rudely clapped in her face. Protocols in Paris rule; the indignity and impolitesse of a premature exit during bows (as opposed to standing indignantly during the performance to walk out and make one’s opinion known, as a few disgruntled patrons did earlier in the evening) is a socio-political gesture that should be punished, judged immoral and unacceptable. So what of Gallotta’s retrospective treatise or lecture-demonstration, Racheter la mort des gestes: Chroniques choréographiques that was neither traditional dance performance nor college lecture, but hovered fashionably in between? Full of benign scorn for the elitism of the power structures that institutionalize dance and remove it from the body politic at birth, it fulfilled the protocols of a particularly French elitism while condemning others. Replete with French-only text in the recorded sound score, spoken by the performers and printed across the projection screens and cyclorama, the work satisfied the Parisian audience that adored being fed the performance theory du jour in the form of montage and personal chronicle.
Gallotta’s attempt to reclaim, retrieve or buy back the “death of gestures” (from the tyrannies of social protocols and high art) as movement for all—or movement as gestures for all (or is he claiming they are one in the same in a post-post-modern world?) featured all the diversity trappings of the American cross-disciplinary evangelist Liz Lerman, disability performance (wheelchair-bound dancers) and the post-Judson Church “dance for all” movement. Gallotta uses as his point of departure a 1984 quote from the critic Hervé Guilbert written in Grenoble of the choreographer, whom Guilbert calls, in my rough translation, “the sacred fool who society pays to reclaim the death of gestures”. In this new production, the stage becomes a site for recollection and representation via embodiment and clever casting of a utopian world without discrimination according to race, fender, sexual orientation, age or physical ability.
With a slick, high-resolution video panorama in panels stretched across the entire stage, Gallotta situates us looking onto a largely deserted city park or business district at night, (Grenoble?) as if we are peering out of a downtown hotel room window (at the back side of the hotel). This low-hanging horizon becomes the transitional default for the rest of the evening, as if to remind us that we are condemned to being figures in a 21st century landscape of horrifyingly mundane efficiency. La vie quotidienne. The cast of 26 dancer/performers enters and exits in vignettes that range from virtuosic, seemingly improvisational flourishes by highly trained dancers in street clothes to a clownish Merce Cunningham look-alike lightly hobbling about while speaking about his aging knees, to mock stagings against text lifted from “found” Technicolor movies that we later recognize from clips of Lawrence of Arabia or a Grade-B Italian muscle movies projected onto the screen. The movement default is an extended sequence of arm and hand gestures that all are able perform, whether sitting, standing, in wheelchairs, young or old. These moments of gestural activity signal the reclamation of a universal language, or “we are all the same and have the right to sharing the same system of signs, regardless of difference”. The interesting thing is that this sharing among disparate representatives of the human population also manages to highlight their difference. And perhaps that is the point of the evening: that gesture lives again when humans reclaim their birthright to move, regardless of their differences. But does this movement signal freedom, or is it as tightly controlled, rehearsed and proscribed as any elitist model of rigorous unison movement?
Gallotta likes to reference his past choreographies as if they are now cultural references to the time and place of their creations. These “reconstructions” are delicately rendered, and there is great wit and invention in their performance. The most eloquent and lovingly choreographed section by far references the death of his mother: an older, white-haired woman who appears downstage on a chair looking up at the screen at the opening of the performance becomes the stand-in for the mother, and drops dead to the floor. To a baroque instrumental score, the dancers immediately swirl around her to protect and adore her. They dive to the floor in cherubic poses and fill the stage like Elysian spirits with exquisite tableaux that constantly re-frame or mobilize the otherwise inert body. A duet by two of the more highly trained dancers imitate an intimate tango, displaying dance as a carrier of codes of heterosexual courtship. Members of the non-dancer cast simulate the joys and indignities of an open audition, and a woman desperately calls out for her “Maman!”, reminding us perhaps that our earliest fears of abandonment were what got us into the mess of ceding freedom of movement to systems of authority figures that would provide the illusion of safe haven. The evening ends with full cast entering in a counterpoint of groupings—many of the men in women’s house dresses—then facing the audience and performing the gestural accumulation in unison.
If Gallotta and cast are reclaiming the stage as a site for the restoration of rightful ownership of movement to the people, then they seem to be determined to prove two things: that the French Revolution lives and that dance remains the primary vehicle for social discourse on and between the body individual and the body politic. Threatening to derail this is the dominance of printed text in the demonstration, because it denies the movement itself its own poetics and power. The performance is diluted with print-out polemics and the attempt to ingratiate its audience by simulating a politics of inclusion, i.e. each of you is being represented by someone on this stage. Is this a new poetics of gesture for all? Do we see the elements of weight, flow, time and space that French dance writer/thinker Laurence Louppe so eloquently maps out in her Poetics of Contemporary Dance? Yes… and no. Or somewhere in between, making it problematic to know just when to stand up and exit the theater.
As a study in contrasts, I will briefly reflect upon the extraordinary spectacle I witnessed the following morning. I was fortunate to gain access through a friend to the ultimate elitist event of the Paris season, the annual Concours of the Paris Opera Ballet. An invited audience is allowed to sit silently (no applause allowed) on the higher levels of the house behind a distinguished panel of judges (including outgoing director Brigitte Lefèvre with little bell in hand to conduct the proceedings, Karen Kain, Artistic Director of the Canadian National Ballet, and a host of other guest ballet company directors and ballet masters). One at a time, the company’s corps de ballet members enter the Palais Garnier stage to be judged on their performance of the same required variation, in this case, the Premiere Ombre’s variation from Act III of Rudolf Nureyev’s version of Petipa’s La Bayadère. What follows is a stunning display of classical ballet technique, pointe work and stylistic specificity cranked up to the highest level imaginable. There are different body types: a longer torso here, stronger feet, more flexible back, bigger ears, longer neck, or more expressive eyes there.
Occasionally there is also artistry, where one forgets the degree of difficulty of the execution of feats of balance, control and coordination. In these instances, the part of the viewer’s instinctive empathy that detects fear shuts off and allows for an ecstatic trance state to register. This is how one begins to differentiate between the exquisite clones. One also sees as in a series of X-rays or MRIs the very skeleton or architectural underpinnings of what holds up and defines the classical ballet. Bodies are like compasses or navigational instruments, reminding me of the models displayed in the Musée des Arts et Métiers, and the dancers who master the instrument can measure and alter the space of the stage. They manipulate their bodies and our gaze like mobile sign posts or drafting devices, drawing and embodying details, scrollwork, vertical supports, horizontal extensions lifted by invisible pulley systems, pivotal points, hinges, and always that willful, probing pointe sheathed in pink: the machinery of the French Enlightenment seen through the male gaze as catalogued in Diderot’s Encyclopédie. They assemble repeated motifs of steps, and their repetitions and accumulations either build through subtle inflection or rhythmic variation or become slightly tedious and obvious. A structural and musical logic emerges, based on proportion and scale of step to gravity (or anti-gravity) and propulsion; one experiences the choreographic wonder of Petipa as filtered through generations of disciples. But what ultimately registers is the women’s supreme dominion as an embodiment of this bizarre, fetishized feminine ideal, IF they can master their fear and achieve the artistry. And this, I suppose, is what the panel of judges looks for as the chief criterion for a promotion to rank of soloist or future étoile.
Against Gallotta’s utopian vision of dance for all, this spectacle appears like an artifact from another planet, where bodies are engineered to astound us and make us feel that we, as privileged witnesses, and they, cloned as the chosen professionals, are of the chosen few. The French, who are enjoying a wave of embodied theory for the stage, seem to insist upon having it both ways, as does most of the rest of a demanding, spectacle-hungry world—a world in which the protocols for participation, inclusion and accessibility, and for appropriate entering and exiting, are becoming increasingly more complicated.