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Flash Review 2, 12-21: Sad Clowns
Nadj & Mercy: Miniatures from Momentous Men

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Watching choreographer Josef Nadj and Pina Bausch veteran sad clown Dominique Mercy's duet "Petit Psaume du matin" last night at the Theater aux Abbesses, I realized how rarely a choreographer devotes an entire evening to a non-homoerotic duet between two men.

Nadj has created a series of vignettes ranging from crisp solo turns (Mercy exhausts himself throwing his arms every which way, while the heretofore Butoh-paced Nadj suddenly floats fleetly like a sylph) to synchronized, mirror-like routines, to pure mano-a-mano hoisting in off-center lifts.

The purely clownical is there, but in measured, economical doses; even the humor is presented in the slow tempo that is followed for all of the hour-long show except for the two solos. So when I attempt to describe it here, it may not seem remarkable, because half of what makes it impossible to take your eyes off these two is their delivering/timing, presence, and second-nature partnership.

For example, in the most jokey segment: One by one they retire to two adjoining chairs and pick up two framed windows. Methodically, in synch, holding the frames in front of them on their laps, they pull out the props from their pockets or somewhere: a two-dimensional derby, likewise a mustache and beard; cigarettes which they lean sideways out of the frames to help each other light, before affixing the cigs, like the rest of the fake visages, to the front of the glass. When the two position their faces behind the glass, the effect is as if they are wearing the hats, smoking the cigarettes (also affixed to the front of the glass!), and sport the whiskers. But really, so obvious is the joke that the effect is more in the delicate, patient, and synchronized timing. (And the joke was diluted if you were looking at them from the balcony, and could see their actual heads behind the glass.)

In his solo here, Mercy -- I believe he was the man, following in the path of Sisyphus, slowly shovelling dirt that kept replenishing itself in Bausch's "The Window-Washer -- seems to be stretching himself, led by the arms, just short of painful extenuation. He pants, and I don't think it's a put on. When he finally sighs onto his back, Nadj, who has been curled up on a table behind him, rolls smoothly off and dispenses with the almost ritualistic tempo with which he's danced so far -- a pace which seems natural, by the way, because it's set to either silence or slow-cadenced, often baleful, almost drone-like Eastern European folk music. But for the solo, Nadj is suddenly, if not bounding all over the place, feather-light; straight-spined where he was hunched before as if slowly and helplessly falling to the ground. Here, the burden on his back is gone, and he is practically skipping. He pops up, he glissades his feet here and there, he presents much of this face-forward to the audience.

Later, in the final segment, the actor-dancers each unbutton the other's shirt sleeves. Each pulls his own shirt back to reveal his chest, and I think, uh-oh, it's get nekkid time again in Paris, but after a hesitation they demur, and each retreats to a chair upstage. Then they pull their shirts of. Between them is a low table on which, we discover when they start applying it to each other systematically, is laid out make up. They paint white diamonds around each other's mid-faces, delineated by black outlines. Then they don black caps and from nowhere, pull out decadent body-length brown-gold kimonos. When they rise, this wardrobe with the make-up and the tight caps has essentially transformed them into Kabuki or Noh actors. But not really; we realize that all the movement Nadj has designed for us this evening, in this compact hour-long performance, has has been spare like Kabuki; few actions and gestures, and those well chosen. Not quite so brief as a haiku, but just as economical.

Spare can easily become slight, and this does happen once, during a vignette involving a half-filled wine glass unveiled under a box on the floor and which each then holds to the other's mouth to drink through the tissue bandages they've just wrapped around their faces. But wine glasses have been employed on stage before, drunk from, offered to the audience, and even produced in bottle-sized quantities, as in Maguy Marin's "Pour Ainsi Dire."

Like the Marin piece, Nadj's ensemble work "Les Veilleurs" (The Watchers) was performed as part last spring's NYC-wide France Moves festival. Having seen that work and found it almost too image-laden to fully comprehend in one setting -- you really want to be able to hit the pause button to linger over the loaded freeze-frames -- part of the pleasure for me in watching last night's duet, besides the expected one of seeing a creator embody his own work, was the opportunity to receive his imagery, if not distilled, at least more intimate in scope.

As after seeing "Les Veilleurs," I still can't tell you Nadj's larger message, though I've seen enough to conclude there is one. But I can confirm that for every action, he has a precise reason. I think what's missed by today's many imitators -- of Bausch, Forsythe (see Chris Dohse's review today of Ballett Frankfurt), and the sort of melancholy Eastern European dance theater Nadj excels at -- is that with these masters, it's not just about effects, but affect. Bausch's 120 beats-per-minute prop-fests have a compository, symphonic scheme behind them; Forsythe has a geometrical map (for the choreography; his self-indulgent incursions into textual Bausch-land are another story); and Nadj has, well, a story to tell. I don't yet know quite what it is, but that's the failure of my attention span, not of his story-telling capacity.

Viscerally, though, I get him -- or, should I say, he gets me?! Walking down the rue des Abbesses in Montmartre last night after the dance play, ahead of me I noticed a father and daughter who were also in the theater. He was repeating -- oops, forgot this part -- the killer ending of the piece, when both kabuki-clad actor-dancers bent back at the waist, their spines stiff, and spread their arms as if to welcome the sky or, maybe, take its weight. The daughter laughed. I walked past Place St. Pierre, where, in 1870, Gambetta outsmarted the German army surrounding the city by sending human-laden balloons out over the enemy lines. Nadj and Mercy didn't leave me feeling I could fly, but they did inspire me to shoot my 40-year-old self up those stairs to Sacre Coeur. I raced the elevator up, and beat it, falling on my face only once, and not stopping until I'd bounded onto a balustrade on the last observation level, right at the foot of the church. From this vantage point -- and this vantage point only -- in the clear, starlit Paris sky I could see, through autumnal tree branches at the right, a slivery silver moon -- the kind that seems to be smiling and winking at you -- and the golden beacon of the Eiffel.

"La Lune! La Lune!" I cried, echoing a child's gleeful alert from a movie whose title I've forgotten. When I jumped down, it was gone.

Josef Nadj and Dominique Mercy continue at Theatre de la Ville/Abbesses through December 30.

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