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Flash Review 2, 2-12: Dancing Bartleby
Verret Prefers Dance Theater to Spin Melville Story

By Angela Jones
Copyright 2002 Angela Jones

PARIS -- The French know how to do dance theater. In "Bartleby," based on the Herman Melville short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," it is clear that choreographer Francois Verret is experienced in bringing together disparate elements of set, live music, choreography, and spoken word to create an evening of dance theater that is cohesive and balanced in each element's eloquence. My way of viewing this piece, seen Thursday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, was constantly changing. I would suddenly notice the sound score being created on stage by the actors or I would feel like I was then watching a moving painting or that I was at a surreal circus. But the beauty of it all was in the transitions. Each moment morphed easily into the next, drawing the audience's attention slyly into each new idea. There were no tangents. Every medium, every minute added a layer to a collage of content. The simple and the impressive were treated with the same democratic nonchalance; every movement, gesture, sound and word had its own particular function in this non-linear narrative.

Our attention was caught promptly as the curtain opened. A man stood quietly and easily on his hands as an older man sat at a desk in the back writing. As the piece progressed, the writing became more and more amplified (or perhaps just noticeable) and musical. Characters entered and exited as the man on his hands began to undertake harder and harder acts of balance, even to the point of somersaulting in the air onto another man's hands. Then the madness all suddenly stopped and we heard those ominous words spoken: "I prefer not.." Then, they were sung operatically from off-stage.

Verret did not miss the humour of Bartleby's tragedy. Here and there throughout, suddenly everything would seem absurd without my knowing why. But the absurdity was clear as people around me would suddenly start to snigger. For example, one female character began to simply fall to the floor and get up (a common modern dance convention) but after a while it seemed like she was addicted to the action. She seemed embarrassed when she stood and then reluctantly enjoying her legs crumbling beneath her. Another example was the actions of one dancer moving in rhythm to another's monologue. The more erratic the monologue, the crazier the dancer seemed.

But a scene could suddenly turn poignant as well. The black curtain wings on the stage would move occasionally to indicate a change of scenery, but then at one point they became alive. A woman walked and the wings began to slowly turn and soon she was being folded into and spun out of them as she moved. She seemed tossed and folded into an anonymous darkness, then was released over and over, not diplomatically but decisively. It was simple and visceral and as scary as the death-defying physical feats of the opening.

Everyone on stage had their heads full of some idea at all times. Their intentions were clear, although open to various interpretations. My companion and I argued over which performer really represented Bartleby and yet it seemed actually not to matter at all. And even though much text was in French and I had not read Melville's story recently, the various elements worked together to reveal a whole understanding that went beyond Melville. The craft, eloquence and succinctness with which this understanding was revealed are rare and beautiful in this kind of multi-dimensional art form.


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