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Flash Review 1, 5-3: The Future is Now
France Rocks! Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu Rocks! BAM Rocks! Joe Melillo Rocks! Hell, Even I Rock!

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

Whenever I meet a dancer and she learns that I write about dance, the first question she asks, somewhat accusingly, is usually, "Are you a dancer?" When she finds out I'm not (or, as I like to say, "I just play one on the dance floor"), she gets a bemused look in her eye and asks, "Well, how did you get interested in writing about dance?" I explain that: At a time in life when a lot of negativity was being thrown my way, I suddenly, having recently written about he 60th anniversary of San Francisco Ballet, found myself comped for the entire season, and finding my spirit uplifted by the ballet, I wanted to turn more people on to dance's power to do this; writing that initial anniversary story, I got to interview three gorgeous ballerinas in one day (Evelyn Cisneros, Tina LeBlanc, and Elizabeth Loscavio), and thought, "This is hella lot more interesting than interviewing stock brokers"; and, finally, writing about dance seemed a way to integrate two of my three main passions: journalism and DJing, in the latter of which my charge is to get people to dance. By writing about dance, I aimed to get more people like me -- non-critics, non-dancers, just normal schlumphs who needed some uplift in their lives -- to see more dance. And yet in six years, with the exception of a fleeting flirtation with one Stephen Petronio work in 1996, while I've seen lots of great concert dance, and had a few spirited spins on the dance floor, I'd yet to find a work which integrated the concert hall and the dance hall, embodying both the spirit of what it feels like dancing and the accomplishment of a well-crafted dance. Until, that is, catching Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu's "Le Jardin io io ito ito'" last night at BAM. As a cynical journalist, I'm not one to nod automatically at a presenter's after-party comments. But when Joe Melillo, executive producer of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which presented the company at its Gilman Opera House last night, simply and boldly stated, "This is the future of dance," I had to agree.

If there's been one constant of the current NYC France Moves festival of which Montalvo-Hervieu is a part, for me anyway, it's been constant surprise. Seeing that Joseph Nadj's piece, on view at the Joyce last week, involved "Kafka," "Hungarian actors," and "no intermission," I dreaded an onslaught of pretentious angst. Instead, Nadj offered a purity and clarity of kinetic vision, in which a distinct vocabulary was deployed to develop a dramatic idea. Encountering last week's BAM concert of Philippe Decouffle, which sounded like it involved many elements that tickle me -- including cartoons and film -- I found these elements not terribly original, and the dance mundane. The biggest and most shocking, numbing let-down has been Angelin Preljocaj, whose offensive piece, filled with gratuitous violence and sex, was the last thing I'd expected from France's best-known dance moralist. The one company that had not surprised was Maguy Marin, although even her work was a bit lighter (-seeming!) than expected.

This brings us to last night, and my advance appraisal of a program which promised hip-hop, ballet, flamenco, oh dear -- a recipe for disaster, I thought. Hip-hop in the concert hall, notwithstanding Rennie Harris and Doug Elkins, is still an iffy proposition; flamenco, about the purest dance form, defies hybridization, and attempts at such tend to offend me or at least make me wince; and ballet hybrid anythings tend to shout, "Hey, aren't we cool! We're ballet dancers, but we can still funk out!"

Well, at first, I had little reason to suspend my cynicism; a duet between Flamenco artist Erika La Quica and African chanteuse-dancer Clarisse Doukpe, while certainly not making me cringe or wince, didn't quite gel for me. Doukpe's chants directed at La Quica seemed to be inquisitions or at least barked challenges, the African dancer continually unsatisfied with the flamenco dancer's beated response. And the Flamenco dancer's non-feet speech seemed a little stilted and unconvincing. But as soon as Blaise Kouakou appeared in a simple blue shirt and black slacks, and released a simple African (?) chant from his lips, and the most limped liquid dancer I have seen in a long time, Marjorie Hannoteaux, robed in a medium-length dark blue dress under shortish black hair, started responding to Kouakou's chant, my heart was a lost cause. Too often -- and this is what I'd feared -- hybrid artists think that more is, er, more, forgetting that actually less is more. Jose Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu, armed with an 18-member ensemble that can do it all -- from head-spinning B-boys to lockin' and poppin' to pristine ballet, to gymnastics, to, yes, even a "Smurf" dancer -- understand that to impress our hearts, not just our eyes, they need to be selective, to edit, to give it to us in turns. In Kouakou and Hannoteaux, they gave us the basics: a beautiful man singing a beautiful song, with a beautiful woman dancing beautifully to it. Is dance REALLY any more than that?

I was a goner when Hannoteaux returned later, this time in red blouse and black pants, fully stealing my heart. A young Evelyn Cisneros, this one -- prowess without pretension, bewitching without being beguiling. I struggled for a word to describe the quality in her dancing that was affecting me so. My colleague Alicia Mosier, my dancer-writer companion du jour, said her body was just perfect for dancing. She's got ballet poise. Modern fluidity. (Yow! Says here in the program she's a self-taught dancer!) The best I can analogize her is to say, particularly in her middle body -- upper knees to torso -- Hannoteaux has the quality of a mermaid dancing in outer space; there are no vertebrae to get in the way of her exquisitely smooth silky line, and there is no gravity to restrain her.

Up to this point, though, I was still reserved about the integratibilty of the hip-hop. Notwithstanding Elkins, Harris, and its inherent potential for drop-dead virtuosity, hip-hop has struggled to earn a place on the concert stage. As impressive as it often is, it seems to force it whenever the artists try to manhandle the form into a story-line. Montalvo and Hervieu -- smartly, I think -- while they certainly had a conceit, did not attempt a story-line. The conceit, innocently enough, was that it's one big dance world. While the initial combos with hip-hop didn't quite prove this point, Doukpe, this time paired with locker-popper Kalypha Doumbouya, did. Their duet worked because of its simplicity and the exactness of what the choreographers drew from each. Doumbouya did the robot thing, hissing finely as he locked and popped. And Doukpe kept her imprecations to "Here," directing the robot to follow her. He did, until she finally called him to a spot off-stage.

But where the hip-hop really entered the zone (and kept the evening there, really, through to the dance party afterwards) was with a solo by -- remember his name -- Salah Benlemqawanssa. Benlemqawanssa had already established himself as a locker-popper and B-Boy who could hang with the best of them, notably in some off-center, sloping barrel turns with puffed out chest, and in a trio in which he physicalized with what can only be described as pregnant chest, palpitating in and out, the piercing operatic singing of Sabine Novel, a slight reddish-blondhead in slight yellow dress whose vocal chords were anything but slight.

But in his solo, about 2/3 through the show, to his physical virtuosity, Benlemqawanssa added ventriloquel virtuosity -- yes, throwing the voice/whistling of various species of birds throughout the theater. He watched them. He swallowed one and made its voice morph accordingly (I squirmed as I watched his mouth scrunch the bird). He consumed one in his body, which reacted accordingly. He courted a girl and (if I got this right) presented a bird-phrased proposal for how their life together might play out. This was a Savion Glover moment. Like I say, Benlemqawanssa had entered the Zone -- you know, the one where the performer has gone beyond himself, beyond prepared and rehearsed routines, and is simply channeling the Creative Force, the Universe. You have no idea how long it will last, but you're content, you're privileged just to be there to witness the moment.

Tho, yes, this evening is rightly characterized as a dance concert, the other moment of totally unexpected original virtuosity was also a vocal one. Novel took center stage, rotely lifted a bottle of water, and started to drink. You might think nothing of it; she's about to sing, so naturally she's in need of water. But by this point, the BAM audience was already on the alert, expecting the comic in every typically bland action. Sure enough, Novel started gurgling. And then delivered -- I'm not kidding -- a five-minute gurgled aria. Talk about chops!

There's much more to praise in "Le Jardin io io ito ito," which received its U.S. premiere last night: The double-virtuosity of Zheng Wu, who boasts the ballon of Vladimir Malakhov AND the flippability of Steve "Wiggles" Clement; the not-to-be-pitied fool of Court-Circuit; and, in all, a flawless ensemble. Oh, and the film (with video conceived by Montalvo and executed by Pascal Minet and Etienne Aussel): Where Decouffle, as dazzling as his films were, for the most part failed to integrate them with the dance, Montalvo-Hervieu and their performers, on film and live, offered 'nuff respect both ways. This is the first live dance-film combo I've seen where the live dancers actually step over and are careful not to step on or in front of the filmed performers dancing behind and above them on a screen. Those celluloid performers were often centaur (minataur?)-like creatures with human heads and cat or griffin or even fish bodies. They often emerged from the dancers' bodies, tiny at first and then spiraling larger. And they would often exit on the dancers' backs, shuffling along them as the dancers shuffled off.

There are more details I've written down but, to be honest, I've got to stop now, because it's 1:15 in the morning, and I only just got home at midnight. Why? Because the dance concert, true to the final words flashed across the screen, "Temporary Ending," didn't really end when the curtain fell. It continued upstairs at the BAM Cafe where, to the funkily dulcet tones of Tom Terrell (you can look him up in the Brook-Land phone book), Benlemqawanssa (decked out in a "New York - 51" jersey) and the Montalvo-Hervieu crue (with Montalvo and French Cultural Counsel Pierre Buhler looking on approvingly) led the party attendees in a get-down, we got the funk, raise your hands in the air like you don't care dance party, as organic and genuine as the performance they'd just given. A clapping circle formed around them. Benlemqawanssa, Doukpe and colleagues started it out with more spinning and shimmying; Bill "Crutch" Shannon made a cameo appearance; eventually pedestrian soloists -- even a BAM waitress, who rocked the house in a spontaneous duet with Benlemqawanssa -- took the center of the circle. A limbo line formed, with Benlemqawanssa and a mate urging partyers under their linked arms. When Terrell kicked it with the cut that originally introduced my late homegirl Ofra Haza to the U.S. -- the Erik B. and Rakim cut from "Colors" which sampled Ofra's centuries old rabbinical tune "Im 'Nin Alu" -- that was my cue, Ofra urging me from above to get on down and dance now. By the time Mr. Robert Nester (Marley) kicked in with "Could You Be Loved?" I was shouting Yes Yes Yes, my body undulating and rockin' inna reggae stylee -- but I can't take credit for closing the party. (Quick definition: closing doesn't mean stopping the party, it means being the last one on the dance floor.) That honor fell to the tireless Benlemqawanssa and none other than the indefatigable Joe Melillo, who we now know not only knows how to program a glittering season and throw an after-party, but how to party down! You go Joe!

What always boggles me about the disconnect many pedestrians feel to dance -- and the reason I know we'll get them in eventually, Dance Insider -- is this: Most pedestrians can't just suddenly start spouting a Shakespearean monologue. We can't suddenly start playing a violin in public. But we all have a license to dance. It's visceral, it's instinctive, and I don't think these qualities are that different from those the most appealing concert dance offers. Montalvo-Hervieu's "Le Jardin io io ito ito," and the wonderful creatures on stage and on film who populate their marvelous magical jardin -- there's much more than a unicorn in this garden! -- make that connection. I have seen the future of dance, and this is it.

"Le Jardin io io ito ito" continues at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. For more info, please call 718-636-4100. Go 'dere, Dance Insider!

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