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Flash Review 1, 4-25: Watching "The Watchers"
Nadj & Co.: Dance Theater Worth Watching

By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier

In the former Yugoslavia, where the Hungarian choreographer Josef Nadj was born, the worlds that Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett described are still very much alive to the imagination. The theater of Central and Eastern Europe -- for most of the 20th century, a protest theater -- has used the terror and lunacy of a dehumanizing State as a foil for productions rich in irony, absurdist provocation, and dramatic intensity. When combined with the brainy energy of contemporary French dance, that theatrical vision -- the one Compagnie Josef Nadj brings to the Joyce Theater this week in "Les Veilleurs" (The Watchers) -- becomes quite a spectacle. (The piece won a prize last year for the best foreign performance in Russia, another spot where absurdist theater has some resonance.) Does it resonate for American viewers the same way it does for Nadj's European audience? Does it resonate even for them? Who knows? But the spectacle, seen last night, is pretty spectacular.

Of course, when you see the following quote from Kafka printed in the program, you have to wonder whether "meaning" has any meaning in the world of "Les Veilleurs":

After a certain point, there's no going back.
That's the point you have to get to.
Over there, there are people! Think about it. They don't sleep!
-- And why not?
-- Because they're not tired.
-- And why not?
-- Because they're crazy.
-- So crazy people aren't tired?
-- How could crazy people be tired?

This is the half-sense, half-nonsense nightmare meaning that exists in the Kafka stories that are this work's inspiration. The set, which begins as a sort of cabaret, is crowded with little gray rooms and doorways and curtains, most of which become liminal zones. Somebody is suspended in a door frame, neither in nor out; somebody rips a piece from the center of a white cloth, or tears little holes in it and eats the torn-out scraps. A writer types in a tiny room on the side of the stage, and as he types, the lights make flash-photos of a man behind a white curtain; the image stabilizes when his writing starts to flow. Everything seems to happen at about three in the morning, when you're not sure why three hairy men are eating spaghetti off a plate atop your scalp but you go ahead and let them do it for a while, or how it is that the woman who seemed especially interested in a mattress early on ends up in a quiet, erratic duet with a dark man (Nadj himself) who ends up wearing the mattress on his head. Does it help to suggest that the man might be Kafka and the woman Dora Diamant, his last companion? It helps you understand why they're dancing together, and why in this neurotic way, but any further insight proves elusive.

Vaguely menacing bureaucratic figures from Kafka's "The Trial" show up here and there; there's even a golem of sorts. The man you see sitting in his underwear when you come into the theater (a man with a terrifically expressive face that shows resignation and resistance at once) has some clothes draped on him and evolves into some rag-doll calisthenics, only to end up later with his head stuck to a chair-back and his feet (feet away) on a staircase, then wedged into a chair with no seat, then literally tied into knots. He seems almost to invite burly men in fedoras to come up with new ways to immobilize him. It looks like, in addition to Kafka et al., classic American film noir and comedy (Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops) have influenced Nadj as well. There's a great routine for three men in suits -- the Three Stooges under an interrogation lamp (or a bug zapper) -- and another that's a take on the old "walking in the wind" schtick, complete with a propeller fan that blows off one dancer's coat and hat. (The music, by Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel, reminded me of some of the quirkier scores Bernard Hermann made for Alfred Hitchcock.)

Amazing acrobatics abound, as well, which reminds you that Nadj studied with Marcel Marceau, among others. The chap who got stuck in the chair gets stuck standing on the side of a room later on, and when I say he stood on the side of the room, *he stood on the side of the room* -- feet on the wall, body a yard above and parallel to the floor. I won't even begin to describe all the incredible scenic effects and staging tricks Nadj's company goes through in the course of this hour-long (no intermission) piece. My colleague PBI hit it on the nose when he said last night that the work had "rigor," which is something a lot of American choreographers miss when they go in for absurdist expressionism. Nadj gets the construction as well as the deconstruction; he starts with a story (the crazy, paranoid, half-desperate, half-bemused people for whom sleep, among other things, isn't even a consideration) and takes off from there. The twelve members of the cast -- French dancers as well as veteran Hungarian actors -- are, simply put, rather magnificent. I didn't know quite what to make of "Les Veilleurs," though it seemed like Nadj intended something to be made of it, but it's a surreal, inventive theatrical adventure that's well worth going to take a look at.

Compagnie Josef Nadj performs "Les Veilleurs" at the Joyce through Sunday. 29. For more information, please visit the Joyce web site. These performances are part of the France Moves festival, which continues through the end of next week.

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