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Flash Dispatch, 7-16: Amsterdam Alphabet
The New Dances of Julidans

By David Parker
Copyright 2001 David Parker

AMSTERDAM -- The Julidans Festival, held every July in Amsterdam, is a high-profile, two-week long survey of mostly European contemporary dance. Participants like Wim Vandekeybus, Ballets C. de la B., Emio Greco/PC and Marie Chouinard make this an all-star event and give audiences the opportunity to see these and others in work that has brought them acclaim. I was in Amsterdam following my own company's participation in an Italian dance festival in Rome. I had business in Holland and I was able to catch two different shows at Julidans. I saw Ballets C. de la B. from Belgium, and Emio Greco/PC from The Netherlands.

Les Ballets C. de la B. is a fascinating choreographers collective from Ghent. The company is led by choreographer Alain Platel but produces work by many artists and was featured in several different shows in this year's edition of Julidans. I saw "Rien de rien" by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a young Belgian/Moroccan. This is, apparently, his choreographic debut and it is a beauty. Ghent is in Flemish Belgium, where Dutch (Nederlands) is the official language and "Rien de rien" plays off the vertigo-inducing mixture of languages, cultures and ethnicities of his performers. There is an almost giddy pleasure in the fluent interchange between words and movement and a marvelous yielding to the knowledge that no one understands all the words. This leads to the emergence of movement as the most legible, reliable and intact of the languages in this Babel which is, I think, a triumph.

"Rien de rien" is always surprising, full of stark juxtapositions and sometimes hilarious dislocations. The cast is made up of performers of widely various ages, all of whom contributed to the creation of the material. A grown black woman and a white teenaged girl recount, in perfect unison and in English, a story about a trip to a primitive society. Their prosaic gestures take on an intriguing formal quality by being doubled and they eventually overturn our attention to the words, which are about a cross-cultural experience. Suddenly, the combination of gestures and spoken languages comes to seem equally cross-cultural. Many tongues are spoken here and not necessarily by native speakers. Significantly, Dutch is not among them. Contemporary dance vocabulary is used almost as an ethnic form alongside tango, jitterbug, classical dance and Middle-eastern styles.

59-year-old former ballet dancer Marie Louise Wilderijkx comes in and out of "Rien de rien" like a harbinger. Wilderijkx dances a delicate, armless tango with a much younger man and later does fragments of "The Dying Swan." She seems to inspire two other dancers to engage in an exhibition-style Lindy performed without music, the rhythm of their feet clearly tapping out a New York dialect. At times the partners drift apart and pantomime the partnering, sometimes substituting one dancer for another without ceremony. Replacement becomes a theme. During a rapid dance combination, one dancer trips and falls over another who lies on the floor and is immediately replaced by him. A monologue ends up fragmented across the stage in gestures, words and lip movements. A black woman sings a torchy song while other dancers lip-synch her words and gestures silently to one another. Two men dance a contact-improvisation inspired duet in which one of the men appears dead or inert, stiff as a log. The duet climaxes with the man being set right on his head against a wall. He eventually falls over like a tree in the woods that no one seems to hear.

A man sings in Latin while another man close behind him uses his arms to provide gestural commentary like a tacky Middle-eastern nightclub routine. A male dancer repeatedly kicks the back of his head with a thunk. People take off their clothes while others pantomime doing the same, a man puts on a dress and carries a bouquet, another climbs up the back wall of the stage and drops off the back into oblivion, someone gets naked, there is more singing in various languages and finally one man spray-paints the phrase "Nederlands A.U.B." (Dutch please) across the back wall of the stage and the audience laughs.

Throughout the piece, a cellist seated high on an onstage platform plays twentieth century concert music with an air of imperturbability. It's hard to imagine how Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui will follow this dense and beautiful work, which merged so many elements so elegantly. I look forward to whatever comes next.

Emio Greco is an Italian choreographer who works in Holland in collaboration with Dutch theater director Pieter C. Scholten; they call their company Emio Greco/PC. Their work has been seen across Europe in many prestigious festivals in recent years. The program notes can be overwhelming, announcing such thematic concerns as "the longing for a synchronized, unison manifestation of mind and body, in defiance of the knowledge that this can never be fulfilled." Maybe it's the translation. This time the pair announced their investigation of the "longing for a fusion of different sensory perceptions." No small matter.

This work is called "Conjunto di Nero" and features stunning and evocative lighting as part of a thoroughly coordinated theatrical event for light, sound, movement and set design, all conceived by Greco and Scholten. The audience enters the theater to deafening techno music (a sound collage by Wim Selles) while a lone dancer onstage executes a very slow sequence interspersed with ballet steps, some of which are on pointe. We gradually notice that a barely visible figure behind a scrim mimics this soloist's movements. She falls and we hear her shadow fall. Eventually she is replaced by four other dancers in fraught sequences of unison.

The movement is typically driven by the extremities: arms, legs, feet and head with occasional sudden drops to the floor. All characteristics of Greco's personal style. He is a small, handsome man with a feral gaze and a taut attack and he features himself prominently in this work. He, alone, is dressed in white for the latter part of the piece while the four other dancers remain clad in darker shades. The sharply-enunciated phrases are spikey and metric without being syncopated. There never seems to be any offbeat. Thus, the movement has a harsh, relentless quality which is apparently meant to burn itself into our perception.

One striking sequence features rapid phrases performed in unison by some dancers lying down and others lying upright. The use of repetition underlines this and the stark shifts in speed and volume are accompanied by instant lighting changes which plunge the dancers into uncompromising brightness or shadow. These shocking effects are masterfully achieved (lighting by Henk Danner and Erik Lint) and, while the air of self-importance can be off-putting, there is never less than complete commitment on the part of Greco and his dancers. The stage space is a place of unpredictable density and mystery; a place of infinitely triturated blacks, whites and greys. Sometimes it is thick with darkness and fog, sometimes it explodes with light and sounds. The dancers remain vulnerable to these effects which overexpose or hide them. There is a canny interplay between shadowing which brings the bodies of the dancers into the continuum of lightness and darkness which is the work's subject. Nothing in this piece is taken lightly, but it is indeed illuminating.

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