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Flash Review, 1 -30: The Revolution will not be Televised
Videodanse 2004: Down with America; Larbi goes Downs

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

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PARIS -- The refusal of the French dance establishment to recognize any of the new developments in American dance over the past two decades rears its ugly head again in Videodanse, a festival of some 150 entries on view, for free, at the Centre Pompidou through February 16. The omission is all the more blatant as this year's festival focuses on revealing the inspiration choreographers have found in other fields, a theme tailor-made -- not to mention Taylor-made -- to reveal some of the more innovative US-based work of recent years.

Mark Dendy, Jane Comfort, David Grenke, Rennie Harris, Headlong Dance Theater, Big Dance Theater, David Rousseve, Sarah Michelson, DD Dorvillier, David Neumann, Maura Nguyen Donohue (also a DI contributor) and Sara Hook have all made trailblazing work that, while rooted in dance, investigates theatrical, visual arts, or pop culture terrains as well. Even grand old man Paul Taylor, in his "Funny Papers," created in collaboration with the Taylor dancers, riffs off an art form hugely popular in France -- comics. Could an argument be made that it might just be that none of these artists have quality video to represent them? I don't think so, as they're typically excluded from the live stage here too.

What we have here is not simply a failure to see that one country is adequately represented, but, considering the quality of these creators' and other compatriots' work, a failure to really represent the best efforts by choreographers along other, extra-dance routes.

American choreographers are in the house, but it's the SOS: Martha Graham (in "Night Journey"), Trisha Brown ("Set and Reset Version 1"), Lucinda Childs ("New York Dancing Lofts," created with Karole Armitage), ex-pat choreographers Meg Stuart and Mark Thompson -- heck, even Isadora makes a showing, in "Mouvement de l'ame, Isadora Duncan." These stalwarts have much to say, of course, but they're not the full testament.

What this festival has to recommend it is an audience-friendly setting just about unheard of for dance. First of all, it's free. Second, it uses the biggest advantage museums have over dance when it comes to drawing an audience: You can leave when you want to. I don't mean to dis' dance, but even a critic whose superior attendance might forgive him the occasional early exit feels he can't leave a really bad performance, and I think the non-critic or non-dancer is also afraid of being thus trapped. At the Videodanse festival on the lower level of the museum, you can wander in, for free, as your bliss dictates, and drift away when you've had enough.

The lay-out also makes for a more relaxed feeling; several large and also individual screens are suspended from the ceiling or contained on monitors, all showing the same scheduled video, and one can choose portable seating blocks or small risers. I plopped down on one square cushioned seat against a wall, where I could view about three screens; when a couple next to me wouldn't stop talking, I crossed the large hall to another block and sat down with one screen behind me, one in front.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Nienke Reehorst's 2002 "Ook" initially produced a Croce moment; I wondered if I would have much to say, critically, about a production most of whose cast appeared to be people with Downs Syndrome. (According to the program, Larbi, as he's known, and Reehorst, both of the collective Balets C. de la B., set the work on Theater Stap, a company of mentally handicapped performers founded in 1987.) And indeed, the sequential set-up made it obvious that the work evolved from a series of exercises. But if some of the most powerful dance relies on simple gestures delivered with commitment and credibility, these performers were accomplished. A voluptuous woman in a spangled top, short hair and glasses whirls like a dervish before collapsing. A woman in black suddenly sits and starts bawling -- so convincingly that, unfairly, you wonder whether the performer is having an unscripted 'moment' -- as a group of men calmly wash, hang, and iron a kerchief. The iron-man finishes and ceremoniously drops the scarf over the bawling woman's head, and she stops, like a bird silenced by a false night. A woman with Veronica Lake-like tresses crosses the stage, shows us a wink and blows us a kiss, repeatedly. Later, she sidles over to a woman with windmilling arms, and mirrors her for a while before roaring and tackling her. A man enters with a Kung Fu-like scream, clad in a dark red bandana and Bruce Lee tee-shirt and wielding a bamboo rod, somersaults, and exercises what look to this non-initiate like martial arts moves in the style of Praying Mantis Kung Fu. The musical melange, which begins forebodingly with bad Belgian '80s music, concludes with Brel in his pensive mode, the performers in a sort of line, arms extended forward with pointing fingers, repeating some sort of mantra.

Contrast this -- you won't have to, but I did -- with Karry Kamal Karry's "Siamois," which is what it sounds like and worse. I suppose interesting things can still be thought of on the device of two performers joined at the hip, but set them in a bath of styrofoam pellets, slow -mo and stop-mo them down, reveal their beautiful breasts and glistening backs and have them roll around in the pellets in their white underwear and I don't see what makes this more than soft porn. But it revealed more than skin: Set up next to this fluff, the (supposedly) limited performers of "Ook" were refreshingly sans artifice, finding their beauty in simplicity. They were: Anne Dockx, Jan Goris, Kris Hufkens, Nancy Schellekens, Catherine Springuel, Els Van Gils, Peter Van Lommel, Nadine Van Miert, Marc Wagemans, and Gert Wellens. The video production was directed by Larbi and Kate McIntosh.

Saturday's highlights include "Dominique Mercy Danse Pina Bausch," at 6:30 p.m., "Hosotan," featuring Tatsumi Hijikata, at 7:30 p.m., and Merce Cunningham's "Sometimes it Works, Sometimes it Doesn't," at 3:10 p.m.

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