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Flash Review 2, 5-4: The Many Colors of the Tri-Color
Azanie Represents for Rainbow France and Rainbow Dance

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

The logo for the France Moves festival currently absorbing NYC imagines two pointe shoes played by baguettes, manipulated by forks. Now, I'm not about to rant against baguettes: France spoiled me for bread forever, or at least until I return there to live. We're not just talking fresh daily; I remember one rainy evening when, feeling cocky, I tried to take a shortcut off the Rue des Ecoles and got lost. I started worrying whether I'd make it back to the 'hood before my local boulanger closed, so I figured I'd better stop at the next boulanger and pick up my nightly baguette. Even tho there were plenty behind the counter, the salesclerk insisted on going downstairs and pulling a fresh one out of the oven. But there's more to France's cuisine than natively French food -- in some neighborhoods it's easier to find fresh shwarma than crepes. First and foremost, Algeria is in the house; my danciest, most culturally rich evening was spent in the company of a Franco-Asian (my term) friend and her two Franco-Algerian pals and one other Franco-African buddy, dancing the night away not to Piaf, but to Ivory Coast reggae star Alpha Blondy. Caucasian France, tragically, has, 40-some years after the Battle of Algiers, still not fully reconciled itself to its French-Algerian population. Unfortunately, this irresolution seems to be reflected in the lack of any Franco-Arab dance companies in France Moves. However, France's ethnic African population is a diverse one, encompassing more than citizens of Algerian descent. Thankfully, the Africans are in the house for France Moves: as one component of a dance stone soup, at BAM this week with Compagnie Montalvo-Hervieu and, starting last night, in a more concentrated form in Compagnie Azanie, which opened at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church.

I'm not sure if this is confidential Dance Insider knowledge, but I'm going to share it and cross my fingers that the presenter will understand, as my intentions are the best. In these pages, we've been ranting about the under-representation of women-directed or choreographed companies in the France Moves line-up (seven male-directed companies, two companies directed by women, and one shared directorship). Danspace Project had a choice between booking a company directed by a Vietnamese-French woman and Azanie, directed by African immigrant Fred Bendongue. As I understand it -- which could always be wrong, caveat emptor! -- the presenter booked Bendongue in part because his work is more specific to his particular cultural background.

After seeing Azanie's "D'une rive a l'autre (From one shore to the other)," I'm not going to dispute this work's African heritage. The undulations, the shimmies, the drums, the jubilation, the free spiritedness, the spirituality, the male camaraderie, the uniquely uninhibited African bonhomie are all there. But what's neat about this work is that it's not just a demographic token. In fact, legit as its African credentials are, it also feels at home in the post-mod Mecca of this wonderful church space. An initial mobile tableau of four men clad only in underwear, doing a sort of Deadhead shuffle (i.e. unison vertical movement, i.e. jumping up and down) is in the tradition of Contact work we've seen in this space. And yet it still has a distinctly African inflection, as the reactions set off by the contact are often from the traditional folk vocabulary (the undulations, particularly).

Azanie also takes advantage of the unrivaled acoustics of this space. A sonorous musical ensemble of various Afro-beat drums, a bass, a miniature accordion, and not a few Brazilian instruments (triangles, cowbells, berinbau) presents a score, by Areski Hamitouche, that, while not terribly original, is specifically expressed by the Bendongue/Rui Moreira choreography, and by dancers Bendongue, Moreira, Alberto Hechevarria, and Harry Albert. And one virtuosic musical element is utterly original: singer Landy Andriamboavonjy, in both her style and the material she's given. She starts in an African vein, and progresses through more Western-style opera, showing she has the chops for both. The light blue-gowned, bare-footed singer moves too, effectively, singing and moving most hauntingly in a duet with Bendongue.

If there is a problem with the music, it is with its lack of specificity. It's varied, certainly, but I'm not sure how distinct a composition it is. This didn't occur to me until repeated quotes from the Jewish Kaddish. You know me; at first I asked myself whether I should be offended to hear the Kaddish in a church. Well, no; the Christian religion does after all stem from and most times pay 'nuff respect to the Jewish one. But its employment did point to a kitchen-sink aspect of the musical mix. It all sounded good, was played with great virtuosity, and suited the dance, but really, would you remember it?

The music did, most times, match the theme, which had something to do with crossing over. (As it also involved four men crossing over, I was reminded of Pilobolus's 1997 hit "Gnomen.") For the most part, this story was told clearly; from the sense of just-baptized wonder and trepidation at the start, through some fear, exploration, and ultimately celebration at the end. And yet...and yet. In reviewing Montalvo-Hervieu's work, I noted that I liked their avoidance of a narrative, which might have seemed forced. Here, I found myself wishing that the elements which most obviously pointed to the narrative -- itself, let's face it, not a terribly original concept -- would have been jettisoned, which would have left us with phrases that, if generally birthed because they related to the subject, had inherent beauty not dependent on a theme. Notwithstanding the segments which hit you over the head with the dramatic theme, there is, actually much complex originality here. And for the Danspace audience, that really is enough; I don't mean that in a patronizing sense -- this dance audience prizes kinetic investigation for its own intrinsic worth.

If I have one small bone to pick with this piece, it's that narrative, which fits in with what I've previously commented upon seems to be the France Moves festival producers' diminished expectations of American audiences. We've gotten the basest Preljocaj (since many have commented on the vitriol of my Preljocaj review, let me reiterate: the man is an idol; I don't question his right to try something new, but I do question the taste of the producers in selecting the particular work as the one we'd see; not everyone is so fortunate as me to have seen other, deeper Preljocaj works, and my concern is they may judge him by this work alone, and never come back); perhaps the tamest Blanca Li (even tho we have rightly raved about it); the lightest Maguy Marin (ditto); the very commercial and derivative Philippe Decoufle; and Montalvo-Hervieu which, while I loved it, has struck other colleagues as just That's Entertainment.

In "D'une rive a l'autre," then, the simplicity is in the theme of crossing over. Fortunately, however, Bendongue has addressed that theme, in terms of movement, broadly, so that, in fact, Compagnie Azanie presents us with the most challenging work -- that's a compliment -- that we've seen at the festival so far. Challenging not because it involves any over-the-top violence or sexual innuendo, but because the movement isn't easy to figure out. You have to use your brain!

Most of the venues in this festival have programmed work typical for their venues -- BAM the grand in scale and multi-media in scope, the Joyce the dance-theatrical and the Preljocaj, The Kitchen the iconoclasts and rebels. (Exception: The New Victory, which, even tho most of its family fare is never kiddy drivel, was still stretching with Marin, whose work might be considered a challenge for even the brightest kid.) Unfortunately for Danspace Project, the work it rightly prizes -- Post-Modern, Release, and to a degree Contact -- has little official support in France. So there's not a lot there in these categories that's above the surface and has been recognized, endorsed, and funded by official organizations like AAFA, the cultural arm of the French government which is helping to fund France Moves. But D.S. director Laurie Uprichard has ingeniously found a company that, while it might be most obviously identifiable as "African," in fact is going for the very type of movement explorations, and employing the very type of movement technique, that ordinarily finds a home at Danspace Project. Thus -- notwithstanding my minor quibbles mentioned above -- Compagnie Azanie both helps make more complete a truly accurate Representation of contemporary France's rainbow culture, and Represents for the type of dance usually Represented by this crucial NYC venue.

Compagnie Azanie plays again tonight and Saturday at 8:30 p.m., and Sunday at 7:30. For more info, please visit the Danspace Project web page on our site.

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