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Flash Review Journal, 11-7: Where Have You Been, Where are You Going?
Home by the Sea with Carolyn Carlson; Wading into the Water with Carlotta Sagna

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS -- Works of connection and of alienation, by dancer-choreographers at opposite ends of the career, generational, and temperamental spectrum, bowed here this week. At the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt Tuesday, Carolyn Carlson, an early Alwin Nikolais dancer and former director of the contemporary atelier of the Paris Opera Ballet, premiered "Writings on the Water," to a live, commissioned score for piano and 11 strings, written and conducted by Gavin Bryars. Last night at the Theatre de la Bastille, Carlotta Sagna, longtime Belgium-based collaborator and performer with Jan Lauwers and needcompany, gave her first integral evening of choreography. Carlson's solo evoked our original roots in the sea and our current in the earth, while Sagna offered a duet whose content portrayed a near-despairing detachment, but whose form displayed a refreshing detachment from props.

"When we dance," said Nikolais, as cited by Carlson in Rosita Boisseau's program notes, "we allow the spectators to retrieve memory." With her long eloquent arms, melting and malleable torso, a face that remembers the sublime and the tragic, and a long dress that obscures her feet but seems planted in the earth, Carolyn Carlson summons memories that are inchoate -- which is what dance is for, after all. (If it could be expressed in words, there would be less need for a dance.) The memories she swims in are written in the water, which we know not just because the evening commences with Peter Knapp's waves projected on the curtain (to a meloncholic musical prologue from Bryars), but because of the measured way in which she traverses the stage. ("The anti-Parsons," I found myself writing. Dance is not just about the body moving fast to music, it is about the body moving, in both senses of the word.) She paints this histoire in liquid, too, spilling some on the low table downstage left (another is upstage right), and drawing a white calligraphy brush across the table, up over her arm, and back over the table. Upstage right, a cylindrical cage or prison or Tower of Joan looms or awaits.

The terms "timeless" or "ageless" always seem a bit patronizing to me, as if to say, "Well, she looks younger than she is." But with Carlson, these words are apt: Only the chronology of her career and perhaps her tight facial flesh would place her in about her fifties. But there is no brittleness in her limbs, no retardation in her pace. She is...unbound, creating lines and images that by-pass the cerebrum; she is uncapturable by me, except perhaps to reflect that now I think I understand a little bit of the personal performing effect Martha Graham -- or Sarah Bernhardt, in the same theater -- had on audiences. Like Graham, Carlson is telling an epochal story. And like Graham with Louis Horst, in Gavin Bryars, she's found a sympa cohort. And a great team has he, with Andrea Vigani, Jonathan Guyannet, Sylvain Gilles, Alessandro D'Andrea, Stephane Dudermel, Valerio Sannicandro, Alice Mura, Arnold Bretagne, Clara Zaoui, Guillaume Arrignon, and Marie Asselin on strings, and himself on piano. Costume is by Alberta Ferretti, lighting by Mikki Kunttu and Patrice Besombes, and scenery by Michel Crivelli.

"Writings on the Water" continues at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt tonight through Saturday.


.... Like Carolyn Carlson, as a performer Carlotta Sagna draws on an incredible charisma; I could watch her just standing on a stage, occasionally scanning the audience. As a dancemaker, Sagna might said to be on the other end of the experiential spectrum from Carlson. And where Carlson no doubt, like other generations of Nikolais dancers dating back to Murray Louis, learned a lot about constructing a dance from her mentor, needcompany's Jan Lauwers seems to have left Sagna alone to create the dance element of many of his works. (In New York, "Morning Song," seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999.) In fact, in "Morning Song," the dance did not seem so connected to the ribald theatrical action. With "A," premiered last night at the Theatre de la Bastille, Sagna has now truly stepped out on her own, creating her first integral evening of choreography.

"A" is a dance that, I suspect, needs to be seen more than once if one is to figure out what Sagna is about. On its surface, the movement, a sort of slacker dance attack in which when the dancers aren't moving, they are slouched (if not physically, then dispositionally), is not as gripping as is Sagna as a performer. But afterwards, you realize that in this first effort on her own, Sagna is -- in needcompany fashion -- fucking with the form, or at least the form in the special effects-laden fashion in which it is usually presented today.

"This is the blackout," announces the choreographer from up high in the lighting booth of the black-box theater to begin the evening, for indeed "A" has only one lighting cue. The lights -- most glaringly from two florescent bulbs -- stay on for the ensuing 50 minutes, until an actual blackout to signify the work's conclusion. Before that, after Sagna and her two performers -- the (purposely) anxious Lisa Gunstone and the boyish Antoine Effroy -- have discarded loose-fitting slacker clothes in favor of black jackets, slacks, and boots or heels, Sagna strides upstage center, sweeps her arms across the lip and explains, "This is where we have the projections, and the follow-spot."

Action-wise, the evening begins with a bare-chested, rust-chinned Effroy lolling about on his side, to be discovered by a curious Gunstone, who interrupts her observing only to dip into a cracker box. Further de-spectacle-izing the spectacle is the aroma of chips chewed which wafts out into the theater. Sagna strides down the aisle to join Gunstone in the oggling and munching as the two muse on the man's biceps, how concrete they are and whether he'd be concrete in bed too.

Throughout what follows, Sagna explores a male-female relationship, only to remind us after each episode that we're in a theater. Gunstone replays a day-after discussion between partners emerging from a viscious argument; "It wasn't intentional"; "You can't say something like that not intentionally; it's as if you killed someone and then forgot because it 'wasn't intentional.'" As she stands riveted to one place, her limbs and then torsoe spasm out, her voice getting lower. After this emotive solo, Effroy, who's been observing, claps and acclaims, "Bravo! Beautiful, beautiful!" looking at the audience as if to say, "Don't you agree?" She's just sort of puzzled by this acclaim, which Sagna eventually joins. Acclaim for both will follow, in an extended faux curtain call, complete with more fake blackouts and "lumieres!"

For his part, Effroy soon announces to us that he's looking for a wife. Then he says, well, actually, just someone to live with for five or six years would be very nice. Well, really, a two-month affair would be quite fine. Well then, how about just a drink after the show?

The densest dance section eventually kicks in: As Sagna cues an electric guitar version of the Gershwins' "Summertime," Effroy starts it out, and then Gunstone feeds him the lyrics, all while he is lifting her, holding her upside down, swinging and even twirling her. I liked the contrast here: flat readings of lyrics to grappling, accelerating contact. But the nature of this pas de deux I've seen too many times before: a woman lays physical siege to a man while he, albeit catching and otherwise supporting her, remains distracted, regarding mostly us and not his partner. As a pedestrian I can't empathize with such distraction; if I were entwined with a partner, if she were twisting herself around me, I'd be paying attention. Perhaps Sagna is making a point or at least an observation about alienation, describing two people who just can't connect no matter their physical proximity. But I found it hard to relate.

What I appreciate, though, about Carlotta Sagna's first integral dance "A," is that it is so stripped down. For mostly innocent reasons -- insecurity about whether dance alone is enough to engage and hold an audience's attention -- so many choreographers these days load their creations with extra-dance elements: site-specific settings, fancy films, heady text, gimmicky audience exchanges, and more. In this light, Sagna's achievement here is not so much in what she has created, but how she has created it; her approach. Perhaps she'll add more later, movement or extra-movement wise. But she's made a brave beginning.

"A" continues at the Theatre de la Bastille through Saturday. For more information, please click here. The work tours to Antwerp December 6-7, Caen February 19-20, and Villeneuve d'Ascq March 21-22. It returns to Paris February 24, playiing at the Theatre de la Cite Internationale.

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