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Flash Review 2, 11-6: "Mummy, I've Seen this Dance One Time and I Still Don't Know Where the Dance is"
With Orlin's "F...(Untitled)", the Devil's in the Details

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Robyn Orlin's "F... (Untitled)," which opened Saturday at the Theatre de la Cite Internationale and plays through Sunday, is more provocative considered in contexts outside of the actual spirited performance. Socially, South African-based Orlin refers to the question of white-black relations in post-Apartheid South Africa. "We're white performers in Johannesburg," says the show's nominal star, Toni Markel, to the other white actor, Gerard Bester. "We're doomed to dance for Robyn Orlin forever." The "doomed" analogy is to Goethe's Faust, on which "F... (Untiltled)" is more than nominally based. Artistically, there's the question raised by my artist friend who came to the show expecting to see dance -- that's how it was billed -- and in her view saw a comedy with some movement. Which observation delighted me because it provided today's meaty topic, concerning where exactly we are now with this thing called dance theater.

The model has got to be Pina Bausch, whose New York season opens tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Or, as Francis Mason might say, "After Pina, what?" But Bausch is the past master of taking diverse genres and making them seem to come from one aesthetic, and gel as almost one uniform genre. When we watch her swimming arms in front of a massive screen filled with images of swimming goldfish, are we watching dance, theater, film, or a higher alchemy achieved and impressed on us by an artist who as all these forms of expression at her easy disposal? When a lean well-dressed dapper blonde man stands on stage, diminished only by a 3D backdrop of something like the Grand Canyon, and simply smiles at us drolly, none of these elements alone would perhaps seem that remarkable, but together, they produce an effect that makes us laugh. A man whose body is not the "typical" dancer's skis down a mountain of carnations; the image emerges from dance, installation, theater, landscape art all at once.

Pina Bausch, then, is at such a level that she could, I believe, make a work with zero recognizable dance expressions, and no one would challenge her right to call it dance. Robyn Orlin may be at a pretty high level, dance-wise, as well. Having not seen her previous work, I don't know that it's fair for me to pronounce on viewing one example, "This isn't dance." Were I seeing, for example, a performance by Mark Dendy Dance and Theater, Jane Comfort, or Shapiro & Smith, having already seen proof that all these artists create original dance with their theater, I would indulge any one of them a whole evening in which there was little dance. Once a an artist has treated us to an expansion of their vision, and the means with which they tell their story, I don't think it's fair for us as audience or specifically critics to set a quota. Having mastered dance and theater, they should be free to tailor the quotients of each to the particular story they're telling.

On the other hand...most of the schlumpfs in the audience are seeing an artist for the first time, and when they decide that for their dance that week, they're going to go see Robyn Orlin, naturally assuming from her being advertised by the presenters as dance, shouldn't they get what they paid for? I suspect, however, that the responsibility for misleading my friend is as much to be laid at the feet of the presenters as the artist -- maybe even moreso. The artist's only responsibility is really to stick to her vision, and then it's up to the presenters and, after the fact, we critics, to, er, tell the audience what they're going to see or what they've seen.

Now that we've got that out of the way, here's what I saw in Orlin's "F... (Untitled)."

It was, mostly, an evening of political satire, most witty in its verbal expression but hardly without movement, of performers and even audience. The evening started before we entered the theater, with an escaped actor, Bester, hailing us out into the foyer of the Theatre de la Cite Internationale, between two steep staircases. There Bestart proceeded to summarize the plot, using baby milk bottles with different color water in them to represent the dramatis personae -- Faust, the Devil, God, the Student, and Gretchen, Faust's wife. A techie, Thabo Pule, occasionally tried to coral Bester (dressed, like most of the performers initially, in the white smock of an escapee from a lunatic asylum) , but it was no good until two other performers appeared with bullhorns (and, like all the cast members, horns on their heads as well) and, on Morkel, a whip to reign him and us into the theater. The color scheme would hold in the costumes and even dreads of most of the real actor-dancers during the piece.

If a consideration of "movement" is to be applied not just to the arraying of bodies, but the way a choreographer moves the action around the space, using existing levels and even inventing new ones, I don't think it's fair to say that Orlin's piece was "not dance." In fact it fairly galloped throughout, and not just on the stage or inside the building -- at the end, real-time camera footage we see on four screens around the arena theater showed most of the performers getting into a "Parisian taxi" before returning to the building and theater. A canvas which hovered above the boxing-ring like stage for the first half dropped over it in the second, becoming a convenient cover for costume and character changes (think Pilobolus crashing through the Marley at the end of "Day Two," only repeated more often), as well as for the suggestion of more x-rated action going on under the sheet, mainly between Morkel's red hot-panted and bra'd Devil and Makhaola Ndebele's alternate Faust. And of course there were the requisite forays into the audience, chiefly for a volunteer to play G-d for two minutes. ''Who wouldn't want to play G-d for two minutes?" Morkel expostulated at getting no initial volunteers, before my other friend raised his hand. Alas he was disqualified because his socks weren't yellow (the chosen color of G-d for the night), and instead an apparently protesting audient was drafted, hauled against his will onstage by performers lifting all his limbs, stripped, and forced into underwear and high heels, the rest of us only gradually realizing, on observing Pule Molebatsi's perfect control of his buff body (in a turn where G-d gyrated Chippendale style, tempting the Devil mightily) that it was all a set-up.

I think, too, there was something elitist in my other friend's insistence that this wasn't dance. Dance there was, and spirited -- especially as delivered by the jubilant-on-the-edge-of-crazy Caroline Mofokeng, as Gretchen, singing and smiling as she danced -- but it was in an African style. When this style of dance is appropriated by Western choreographers and fused to ballet, we call it brilliant; why then is it not "dance" in its pure form, especially when danced to equally jubilant indigenous music with a modern beat (by Eric Leornardson and others)? And shouldn't Orlin be congratulated -- er, as a white South African -- for utilizing the native abilities of her performers when they fit the character and situation?

Not that Mofokeng was not just as masterful at more studied dance phrases. Indeed, at the beginning, while Bester and Portia Mashigo took turns rather narcicistically lighting each other -- with elegant simplicity, using just a hand-held light and different-colored gels which they shifted in front of it -- Mofokeng delicately, tightrope-like, balanced, with riveting precision, around the perimeter of the ring.

Sometimes I think, in seriousing up our minds to go to a "Dance Concert," we forget where we first found dance: as children, listening to music, PLAYFULLY. PLAYING. Even Bester and Morkel, who (like moi!) didn't display typical "dancer bodies," excelled at communicating the spirit of play in the luxuriant and unabashed, abandoned way they moved. Believe me, I've seen Claras and other performers who may have looked more like dancers, but did not move as dancers with anywhere near the spirit of these two.

But I don't want you to think Orlin was all interested in fun and games. Just as I've not seen any of her previous dances, including her last, "Daddy, I've seen this piece six times before and I still don't know why they're hurting each other," I'm frankly not that familiar with Goethe's "Faust" text. So I don't know that I can fairly gage Orlin's fealty to the original, even with all the comedy which might seem to argue against it.

Did I say comedy? Comedy, as you all know, is often just a sugar pill to fool us into swallowing bitter truths, and those there were here. The most true had to come when Bestart emerged with a black Faust costume, and Morkel scolded him (I paraphrase): "Black and white! Gerard, we are not in South Africa. This is outside South Africa, where we're the rainbow nation." This was the money moment, where we recognized, perhaps, in Morkel and Bester, a vanishing if not vanquished South Africa, trying to buy into the rainbow dream but unable to elude a new reality in which it feels, if not excluded, irrelevant. And, in retrospect, on a couple of days reflection, it occurs to me that the two white actors evinced most of all a desperation, a futile trying to fit in, trying vainly to deny the apparent obscurity looking back at them in the mirror. Whereas the actor-dancers of African background, though not untroubled (most intriguingly Ndebele, who played a janitor drafted at first reluctantly into the starring role -- "I'm a cleaner, I want to go back to my job," he tells Morkel, before joyously surrendering to his new part), appeared to adapt. As such, they indicated that in fact, the author, Orlin, has very much created a dance, about the dance of life, which holds extraordinary things for those who stop resisting and ride with its unknowing and unknown currents.

"F... (Untitled)," a co-production of the Festival d'Automne, Theatre de la Cite, and the Centre National de la Danse, will be performed again tonight, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8:30 PM, and Sunday at 5:30. Following tonight's performance, the audience is invited to stay for a talk with Orlin and dance professor Isabelle Ginot.

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