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Flash Review 1, 12-19: Unaccustomed Fit
Plenty in Nothing from Laurent Pichaud & Co.

By Melanie Rios
Copyright 2003 Melanie Rios

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PARIS -- Living up to its billing as an unconventional theater, the Menagerie de verre completed another season of its Inaccoutumes (or Unaccustomed) festival Saturday. The Menagerie's string of so-called choreographic events has included some of the edgier, up-and-coming French art-makers. Saturday's performance, titled "Feignant" (or Pretending), was a fulfilling closure, as Laurent Pichaud directed his company x sud in a soft and substantial evening of improvisation-based work.

A spacious white performance area, which alternates as a studio, comes to a clean silence as the doors close and the spectators settle on the cushion-lined risers. In good keeping with the post-modernist vibe, the performers are sitting in the audience dressed in casual clothing. Note of course that they are wearing hip casual clothing, with some thought to non-repetition of similar colors.

Clunky shoes and all, three of these "ordinary people" walk on stage. They check in with each other and close their eyes. They initiate a run together. Or maybe one performer initiates a run and the others follow, attempting to stop at the same time. Since this is an improvisation-based work, I am guessing on what was agreed on as a movement score for this section. (A movement score in improvisational work can be defined as the delineations or "rules of the game" that will shape the movement, although these rules are often set to be broken or forgotten if there is compelling reason to do so.) In this score, as all three movers succeed in stopping in sync they begin to stretch the aim of the game and develop more lee-way to now stop intermittently. Although they are aided by the sound of their stepping to sense their location, they occasionally run into each other, which explains their use of wet noodle shooting arms forward as a sensory device. The man behind the lighting board, who owns a stopwatch, calls out "STOP." Eyes begin to open as the dancers transition into the next movement score, in which David Subal remains alone and close to us in stillness. We watch him as the percussive patting of the rain playing the window panes in increments brings me to a rare piece -- I mean peace. I will continue to be grateful that Pichaud has resisted using any music other than the sound of the stepping coming from the movers and the incidental rain during this production. It speaks of his search for the innate phrasing that results from the responsiveness of the dancers to the inner impulses that motivate improvised material.

Some time has elapsed -- much or little, depending on who you are -- as some of the other movers return to the space. They look at Subal, and just when I am intrigued by their mutual gazing, he walks off (casually of course), and the other four are left with eyes fixed in arbitrary directions, with an unaffected intensity that makes me think their thoughts have been stalled -- it's stunning.

An impulse to break the calm begins a trajectory of bursting, short-lived but continuous movement phrases that propel the group from the one side of the space to the other. The dancers play off each other's timing as one quirky explosion shoots off another spasm of unfinished business. The practical awkwardness necessary to play out this next movement score seems enchanting to me and I am catching on that this evening is the result of a long process of investigation in improvisational structures. "Tuning," an indispensable and favorite concept to the world of improvisational dance, is taking place within the dancers, in relationship to each other, with the space, the audience, and even the weather, which is in on it. Facing the mirror-lined wall, Albane Aubry gives us the impression that she is looking straight at us when in fact she can't see us at all. There is no inspired drama or practiced neutrality in her exploration. A 21st-century human is home. Laurent Pichaud repeats the mirror paradox with the same disarming effect.

With some humor in regard to the homemade feeling of the venue, the whole crew of movers goes about officiously changing the "set." Gauzy curtains are tucked behind the mirrors lining one of the studio walls and a clear square glass propped up by a red clamp is added to the translucent square that has been hanging in the center of the space throughout. A long metal winch is used to open the ceiling windows and left hanging. Everyone adds sweaters to their outfits by pulling them on over their heads as they walk to their new beginning.

Five of the dancers become involved in an energetic flurry in the background and again they borrow material from each other, sabotaging their movement impulses by arresting them halfway through their realization and diverting them on to the next unexpected place -- which in turn will be inhibited and re-directed. In the foreground Subal engages in a lengthy exploration of a stationary dance, curtailing the impulses even sooner so that the solo is kept subtle and the arms near the torso. The background stompers are creating the accompanying sound and I am completely won over.

Hooray for the dismantling of tension in an already uptight world. What a joy to encounter the work of Pichaud, who is making some effort in real time to be all there and to take his fine company of converts with him. It is not often that I see a creator who trusts himself with the material to feel that what he has is enough, I think to myself. However, as soon as the word 'enough,' as in complete and clear curiosity, itched and scratched, comes to mind, out comes -- Oh no, ouch! -- the TEXT. Yep, a dancer takes a book behind the translucent glass and reads an excerpt (Hannah Arendt, "What is politics?") while Nathalie Collantes, from the back row of the audience, echoes some of the words being read. It was later explained to me by the company manager, Chantal Scotton, that this section had been added at a later date to address the situation facing France's Intermittent performing artists and technicians, who face a reduction in benefits starting next month. The protest in other performances often takes the form of eliminating the final bow in exchange for reading or displaying on a screen a text about their plight. Maybe it is almost impossible for any one of us to ever feel like we are doing enough.

Despite this episode, which depleted my piggy bank of dreams of an alternative, kinesthetically-based, intelligent world added to by this work of Pichaud, I am sufficiently impressed with the work to recover my rapport. By this time, Anne Lopez is looking for a place to lie down or to sleep, near the radiator maybe, or over there halfway to where she was going. The movers, Albane Aubry, Anne Lopez, David Subal, Remy Heritier, Nathalie Collantes and Laurent Pichaud, have spent the evening seemingly changing their minds on very short notice, redirecting, tapping into their developed abilities to be present and aware. The charm is that they always seem to be ready even if to do nothing at all, which sometimes adds up to a lot anyway.

Melanie Rios is a France-based Fulbright scholar concentrating on contact improvisation and improvisational performance. A Guatemalan-born freelance improviser, choreographer, and teacher, Rios has choreographed for the Ballet Moderno de Guatemala, the Ballet de Cali in Colombia, Group Motion Dance Theater, and the Saint Joseph Ballet. She has performed site-specific improvisations as a soloist or with her Mosquito Dance Company at the 25th Sao Paolo Biennal, the Philadelphia World Dance Alliance celebration, Montpellier Danse, the Contemporary Art Museum in Mexico City, and elsewhere. A 1994 graduate of Juilliard, Rios is a past recipient of the Kennedy Center's Fellowship of the Americas.

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