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Flash Review 2, 4-30: Modern Dance Hell
Close Rencontres of the French Kind

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

BOBIGNY, Seine-Saint-Denis, France -- You know what I'm talking about, dance insider. Five minutes into the dance and, watching the senseless writhing which you know is only a small part of the modern dance spectrum, you're sure your non-dancer companion is thinking, "Oh yeah. He's gonna pay for this. No Starbucks after THIS concert. Veselka's at least." And, as you stuff the second set of wadded tissue into your ears to muffle the themeless over-volumed electric guitar shrieking, you're thinking, "Next time, Preljocaj. Or Josef Nadj. Even better, Pilobolus. Maybe Taylor. Good Taylor." If you're watching this in France -- yet another indulgent, alienated, unoriginal, uncomposed, random, distant 'creation' by an untested and unschooled young choreographer -- you're also thinking "Pour quoi?" Why did curator Anita Mathieu, who reportedly attends dance festivals around the world to program her Rencontres Choregraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis, program something from a high school dance class? Why are seven of the 16 companies in this supposedly 'international' festival from France, when the only worthy concerts of the three I've seen this year and two last year are from outside of France? Why does just about every beginning dance company I've seen here look like it's just recylcling a contact improv class? Why do the dancers seem to be so vacant? Why can't I see anything? Why does 45 minutes suddenly seem like 45 hours? Why are they, and I, so disengaged?

The culprit in question last night at MC93 was called Skalen, and I was really there only because it was bundled into an evening with Foofwa. I didn't make it to Monsieur D'Imobilite's co-creation with Thomas Lebrun. After the dishevelled looking man hunched over the computer consul -- why does every dance performance DJ suddenly need a laptop? -- picked up the electric guitar, I knew it was only a matter of time before I bolted. I knew Hendrix, Mr. Soundscore Man -- well, I didn't know him, but I did live next door to Electric Lady for six years -- and you're no Jimi, Hendrix or Page. You're not even Eric. Clapton or the half a bee. Your buzzing is of the chain saw variety, and I am out of here. Goodbye, lolling dancers. You should do something about that random angst.

After I bolted I realized that in my haste I'd actually bolted not to the lobby but to the roof, more or less, smashing through the firedoors. It was too far to jump and I didn't have flares; fortunately I was able to push the exit doors back open and sort through the correct ones out to the lobby. I really could have hung out for the 15 minutes or so remaining in Skalen's "Bruit" (well, the name was on target anyway!) and re-entered for Foofwa, but at this point I was fuming -- "No, I do not have any more time to sacrifice to Mme Mathieu and her ineluctable taste."

You know, when this concert started, when the lights went down, I had a fleeting recollection of the feeling I get when the lights dim in a movie theater. It is always one of anticipation. By the end, I am not always fulfilled, and even at the movies, I am sometimes disappointed. But I am usually engaged. In so much of what is coming from young dancers and choreographers here in France today, I see no attempt to engage the audience -- on any level. I see dancers absorbed in their own bodies -- and even then, with vacant eyes. By 'engage,' I do not necessarily mean 'entertain.' I don't need to understand a dance concert. In fact most of the movies I go to these days are old French movies. I may understand only about 10 percent of what they're saying. (Highlight: Michel Simon's cat-fancying barge captain in the 1934 Jean Vigo classic "L'Atalante" scolding a scrawny kitten who's jumped up on table, "Allez, Mignon! C'est pas chez toi!" -- Go, Mignon! It's not your house.) But some part of me -- brain, eyes, palate, body -- needs to be engaged. I rarely understand Pina Bausch or Merce Cunningham, but I am usually engaged. And I know that the creators have applied rigor to the work -- they are not just fartin' around. The latest expression here seems to be multi-media fartin' around -- last night with an unoriginal video film element with age-old tricks like montage, and at last week's festival opening a concert by Fabrice Lambert in which the gimmick was to have dancer sounds replayed a minute after they made them. To what end? TO WHAT END?

What is missing here, especially in the Rencontres, is rigor -- compositional or curatorial. Before starting this review this morning, I read my colleague Tom Patrick's of today, discussing Dodge Dance Company and Barry Blumenfeld's Tap Fusion. In reviewing the latter, Tom notes "The great scope of this subject." I see scope in the more experienced choreographers here -- Preljocaj, Marin, Daniel Larrieu -- but it is totally absent in their younger counterparts. And yet they are being programmed in a marquee festival like the Rencontres. Pour quoi?

(Disclosure: Back when other cities were holding 'platforms' at which Mathieu could view work for consideration for the festival, I participated as a performer -- the music gimmick guy -- in one of the candidates at a New York platform. We were not engaged. We engaged.)

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