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Flash Review, 3-27: Dance in the Age of Cholera
Larbi on War & Other Follies

By Rosa Mei
Copyright 2003 Rosa Mei

GENT, Belgium -- The locals in Belgium refer to him as "Larbi," just Larbi. It's an important name. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a young Belgian Morrocan choreographer already a cult figure here in Europe, makes dense, chaotic pieces about big topics -- war, race, culture, belief systems, individual identity, everything short of the kitchen sink. A quirky artist of the European post-Pina generation, he goes where many have gone before, recycling more than a few agitprop dance theater conventions, but adding twists that make his vision as big as the sky and wild as Vegas. In "Foi," his new work for Les Ballets C de la B, which premiered last week at the Vooruit and continues through Saturday in Paris at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, Cherkaoui creates a medieval/contemporary opera, a magnum opus about the terrors of war (talk about timing), man's inhumanity to man, subtle and brutal forms of violence and the basic human need for companionship. Cherkaoui knows how to set a scene, distill gesture and communicate an emotion; in his world, where the oppressor and the oppressed are frequently one in the same, we're often left wondering who are the jackals and who are the quiet, luckless fellas lookin' for love in all the wrong places.

First, though, a few notes on Les Ballets C de la B (formerly Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique).... C de la B is not a dance company in the traditional sense, with one artistic director and set company members, but rather a choreographic collective based in the Boho Belgian college town of Gent. It actually functions much like Dogma 95, the collective of film directors led by Lars Van Trier ("Dancer in the Dark," Breaking the Waves") in Copenhagen. One of the "supreme goals" of Dogma 95 is to force the truth out of characters and setings, by all means available and "at the cost of any good taste and aesthetic considerations." C de la B choreographers don't have to subscribe to the Vow of Chastity of the Dogma 95ers, but they do seem to have an unwritten modus operandi. The multi-cultural dancers, actors and musicians all contribute improvised material based on questions from the choreographer. They tend to prattle on in a multitude of languages (Dutch, French, English, Korean, etcetera) about real life events, in tedious detail. They sketch out patterns of human behavior, sprinkled with humorous elements that play on stereotypes and odd coincidences. The results of these collaborations range from the wretched and wildly uneven (Hans van den Broek's "Lac des singes" and Koen Augustijnen's "Just another landscape for some juke-box money") to the sublime ("Rien de Rien," "It" and "Foi," all by Larbi).

"Foi" takes place in a prison camp-cum-playground. It's life in the gulag, complete with commie loudspeakers and a pail to piss in, which one character does in the course of the piece. The concrete walls that contain these prisoners confine them and set the physical and metaphysical boundaries of their lives. And though the characters mill about and wander in and out of the space, they always end up in the same area of the twilight zone. "My goodness gracious, we're back in the same place where we started." Set above this gulag are three bright windows which hold the musicians of Capilla Flamenca, singing ridulously lush, polyphonic songs from the Golden Ages. Here, beauty equals music, beast is situation.

The prisoners are motley crew. There's the transvestite (think Martin Lawrence in "Big Momma's House"), a woman searching for her lost son, a blind yogi, a prison operator with earmuffs, a sexy weathergirl, and various other desperate, lone souls. While the transvestite goes on about the Lord ("God is my copilot. Seven days a week I praise his name."), the mother tapes photos of her son to the wall ("Heeft niemand mijn zon gezien?" Has nobody seen my son?). The characters listen to each other's stories with half an ear, nodding periodically, eyes glued to some image in the distance, a lost thought, a memory. Sometimes angel figures/human shadows manipulate the limbs and gestures of a character. One person starts to talk through another, much like a ventriloquist. A thick-necked apparatchik, all suited up and lifeless, stands in front while other people feed him words. ("My ass is like the tightest ass in the whole world." "I am HIV positive. I have my cocktail everyday.") He becomes a conduit, a filter of other people's gestures, emotions and anxieties. Alas, we human creatures are oh so malleable.

In one otherwise quiet moment, a woman sits down and hums, "Jesus loves me for the Bible tells me so" while slapping herself senseless on the cheeks. In another rather brutal but funny section, the uber sexy weather girl with a come hither smile recites the forecast while inadvertently snapping the neck of one man and slicing the head off another. There's a rather fine line between humor and cruelty.

Some of the elements of "Foi" do seem a bit literal and heavy handed. One dying swan girl gets tarred and feathered beside a chalk outline of a dead body. The bully wears boxing gloves with American flags on them and the Big Momma character walks around with his butt stuck out and sings "Amazing Grace" at a point of epiphany (Why give the only dark-skinned character on stage a big butt and the dumbest lines?). On the whole, "Foi" isn't as well-integrated as "Rien de Rien" ("Foi" is billed as a sort of sequel to "Rien," so the comparison's legit) and Cherkaoui reuses a lot of the same structuring devices with broader characters and heavier themes.

Cherkaoui doesn't choose an easy subject, however, and fuels the melodrama of "Foi" by channeling one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich into our contemporary world. He scrupulously mixes and matches body parts, gestures, languages and cultures to depict the irony of our three-ring reality. When's the last time you saw a skinny British lady singing Chinese opera while standing on a man's stomach, disco lights whirling in the background? In real life, Bedouin children on donkeys are passing American military vehicles at the edge of the Euphrates. It's a mad, mad world we live in, and the chances of getting somewhere over the rainbow are next to nil. Wake up Dorothy, cause this sure as hell ain't Kansas no more.

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