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Flash Review 1, 4-5: Why We Really Need Needcompany
"Images of Affection": A Course in Miracles from Jan Lauwers

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- At its best, Art elevates life. At its super-best, Art distills life and reveals the cream. At its super-super-best, Art creates magic. At its super-super-super-best -- what the French call "Super meilleur trois fois" -- Art imbues the spectator with super-human powers. Jan Lauwers's new "Images of Affection," created in collaboration with the superhumanly versatile performers of Needcompany and receiving its French premiere last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, is just such a work of art.

Structurally, "Images of Affection" pares down Lauwers's approach in his 1999 "Morning Song," seen in NYC at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The story through which he looks at life this time features a cast in which just two of the characters are actually dead, instead of the entire ensemble. There are no exploding dead cats this time, only exploding coke cans (pulled from a Warhol-like stack) which the narrator/semi-protagonist, Mike (Dick Crane), offers to neighbors he's passively pissed at when they cross the line -- both the figurative one of behavior and the one demarcating his neighborhood from the outside, the former being dominated by crosses taped on the stage. (Although even the coke cans were too much for one audience member, who promptly fainted at the first explosion and had to be carried out of the theater.)

After a pre-amble in which two equally hot, modishly dressed (he more than her -- hey, at least they weren't naked!) young people (Lisbeth Gruwez and Maarten Seghers) smooch passionately, Mike strolls to center stage to introduce himself (in particular, to ask us to regard him as an innocent baby) and the story about to be played out. The actors will recall, he indicates, the night when he lost his best friend Angie to a throat-slitter (after the friend smiled inappropriately) and his wife and house to a bomb. Just as Mike's retreated and we've settled in to experience this memory play, he returns to tell us that the other thing we should know about him is he's a major bullshit artist.

At play's end, after some contained-violence exposition by an under-utilized Misha Downey about three very snowy cold days that segues neatly into Hans Petter Dahl's rocking cover of the Kinks/Ray Davies's "You really Got Me," another character, Mike's next-door neighbor Candy (Anneke Bonnema), suggests that actually, Mike well knows wife Christine (Grace Ellen Barkey) died of the cold. This seems to have more than a ring of truth, as Mike has just recalled Christine's last words to him: Put your wig on before you go out because it's cold out there. He was headed out, to the kebab place where Angie would meet his fate, because he thought it best to amscray after Christine told him the chair he had just painted green was a mahogany heirloom from her grandfather. Mike painted the chair green to mollify Christine for his refusal to paint the whole interior of the house green because, he said, the color made her skin look sallow. She suggested green in the first place because she didn't like the pink he'd chosen for the walls, even after he changed it to a blacker shade of pink.

I've started from the end not only because "Images of Affection" is a recollection, by Mike, of the images of affection by which he (and his neighbors and their kids) recall Christine and Angie, whose ghost hovers about for the duration, creating Warhol-like found-art sculptures; but also because this is the approach to life advocated by Candy in a central debate with her husband, Bob (Dahl, who also sings three other Davies tunes). Candy fancies how wonderful it would be if instead of being born and then proceeding towards death, we were able to begin with death and head back towards birth, getting younger and younger. Bob tells her, with a rather vicious conviction which ultimately reduces her to collapsed sobbing, to be here now. When she strays beyond the here now and the confines of the neighborhood, crossing that line -- voila!, exploding coke cans (or, as Bob tells her, the devil and hell).

If all this sounds loaded -- did I mention that the main costume prop is glazed white rabbit heads which all 11 performers don at one time or another, a fecund symbol of life in this recollection of two deaths? -- "Images of Affection" is actually refreshingly less didactic than "Morning Song." Lauwers has streamlined his story and his message into a lean, mean, tanztheater machine. He has also better integrated dance into his drama. While there may actually have been more dance in "Morning Song" (choreographed by performer Carlotta Sagna) and it was often riveting, much of it seemed to take place apart from the drama. There's some of that here, but mostly, the dance is not only better integrated into the story, it's integral to it -- particularly as embodied by Barkey's Christine.

Christine -- as Mike remembers her, anyway -- is most often sitting, Javanese style, knees folded, on a cushion smack stage center, bedecked and be-jewelled in regal Balinese regalia (topped by high gold crown), trying to make sense of the world, both her immediate and the larger. Speaking in an intense stage whisper, gesturing with Javanese inflected fingers, flicking wrists, angled elbows and serpentine shifts and swivelling of her torso, Chrstine intercepts, interprets, and most of all interlopes for us -- or tries to, anyway. Almost Tourette's-like, she starts by incanting the years and names of various international imbroglios -- Vietnam, Afghanistan, Burma, etcetera. She ends by trying to interpret the arguing going on in front of her, as when Mike insists he didn't just take a carrot from another character, but was really given it by Christine. Christine's torso seems to rock back, forth, and sideways with increasing combustibility, her hand gestures more and more rapid, like a translator trying to keep up with a discourse she is fastly losing track of. But in fact it's she that's running out of time, her own life that's ebbing. Unable to understand, let alone intercede, Christine implodes. At this point all her childlike expression gives way to a very adult, gutteral, moaning death rattle, as other characters frantically tear her costume from her stripping her down until all that's left as she high-tails it is the belt with her mic.

Doesn't sound like an image of affection to you? Okay, try the following, for Lauwers is not just bombastic; he whispers too. He wants us to tie all this in to larger, global crises, but he also wants to show us the antidote. Here that's represented most fetchingly, I think, in a duet between Needcompany's dance stalwart Tijen Lawton and Rosas veteran Kosi Hidama (in a blood-stained silk dress), danced to Dahl's crooning of the Davies ballad "I Go to Sleep." (You as I may remember the Pretenders version also.) The fiery Lawton is suddenly subdued, her eyes closed for most of this duet, as Hidama coaxes and leans her this way and that. She stiffens like a board and lets go, trusting he'll catch her. She cradles her chin in the crook of his elbow. It's a dance of trust -- perhaps the dance that Mike and Christine were never able to do, and that he'd now like to extrapolate into their relationship.

Softer still, as a dance image and angel, is the ghost of Angie, who, as interpreted by Frankfurt Ballet-trained Timothy Couchman, moves and speaks in slow-mo throughout, working on those sculptures, asking only to to borrow the occasional object from Mike to add to his objets d'art -- usually something formerly belonging to Christine, such as a white (rabbit-fur) jacket he conceals under a giant cistern with a gloomy face painted on it, or her crown, which he finds is too large for a plaster doe guarding the coke structure. Mike, for all his professions to us of his toughness, wants at least to hear Angie, drilling him gently at one point on what he misses most about life. This occurs while Angie is donning a new blue shirt and matching trousers, and only after he's completed this task, Angie finally answers: "Pockets. I miss pockets." Then he tenderly slips Mike's hands into his, and his into Mike's, to demonstrate.

What Mike regrets most is that he wasn't able to realize while she was alive that he was freezing Christine to death -- that it wasn't the bomb inside her, but the cold from him that killed her. He seems to have this epiphany at the end, when the gracefully moving Barkey is replaced, as Christine, by Gabriella Carizzo. No content spirit like Angie, Carizzo's Christine is palsied.

"Images of Affection" is Mike's search for images of affection in his relationships and in his life. In letting us share in this search, Lauwers and his collaborators provide guideposts for ours -- which we, unlike Mike, can hopefully exploit before our loved ones explode.

That's how this reviewer sees it all the morning after, anyway. And sees more: (Here's where the magic comes in.) Before the performance at the Sarah Bernhardt last night, strolling along the banks of the nearby Seine, I found it hard to shake the gloom imposed by global events of recent days. In particular, there was the report that among yesterday's victims of violence in the Holy Land was Bethlehem resident Samir Ibrahim Salman, a middle-aged Christian Palestinian who, as Christine Hauser of Reuters reported "since 1967 has risen each day at dawn to ring the bells of the Church of the Nativity. Early on Thursday, he was shot in the chest by an unknown sniper as he walked across Manger Square to the church (of the Nativity). He was dead by the time an ambulance reached him, hours later."

My gloom was effaced for a while when, a half hour before curtain, I saw this site on the island below the Pont Neuf: On the walkway encircling the garden, a duck squatted with her feathers ruffled out. As I came closer, I saw the reason: From under the feathers, tiny duck feet and tails occasionally protruded. Below the walkway, on the last perch of land, a mallard stood vigil, looking out toward the water for potential threats, and occasionally bending and craning its neck to see how moms was doing.

Not enough magic for you? How about this: Right before I left the theater last night, Lauwers handed me a flyer for the premiere of Needcompany's new film, "Goldfish Game," April 25 in Brugge, Belgium. As I fingered the flyer, walking home up the seedy rue St. Denis, I stumbled upon a beautiful lacquered table someone had thrown out. Its surface is (I'm looking at it now; the super-human part is that I was able to transcend my 40 years and lug it ten blocks and then up six floors of narrow winding staircase) covered with a black and yellow grotto around which swim violet, white, pale green, and, of course, orange -- goldfish.

I don't know if Art can make for, to use Camus's term, "A Happy Death." But for those who have eyes to see, it can sure make for some serendipitous miracles.

"Images of Affection" repeats tonight and tomorrow at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, before touring to other cities including Antwerp (May 23-25 at de Singel) and Hamburg (May 28-29 at Deutsches Schauspielhous). Special effects are by Needcompany production director Carl Gyde, who also produced the sub-titles live on stage last night, in complete drag.

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