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Flash Review Journal, 10-13: Physics and Metaphysics Made Superfun
From Plan B to Plan D with Big Dance Theater and Compagnie 111 and Without a Parachute

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2004 Maura Nguyen Donohue
Photo by
Jean-Paul Lozouet

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NEW YORK -- There seems to be an abundance of alternative plans running around town right now. Recently I caught two remarkably different productions both named "Plan B." But aside from the masterful explosion of categories like "dance" and "theater," and even, (ahem) "dance theater," New York's Big Dance Theater, which played at Dance Theater Workshop, and Toulouse's Compagnie 111 (CIE 111), seen at the New Victory Theater seem to have little in common.

Big Dance Theater doesn't make it easy for the audience. The company wants us to work. To think. To consider the possibilities. Even when working with such disparate source materials as BDT does for its "Plan B." I couldn't figure out before viewing the piece how Nixon's secret tapes, German 'wild child' Kaspar Hauser, the Old Testament, Kabuki and Taiwanese film scores were going to generate a cohesive, engaging work. But "Plan B" rips through a furious hour during which all things converge and entwine in a pageant of excellent dance, theater and feast for thought.

I knew from previous work that artistic directors Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, with whom I sit on on DTW's board, are, as we would've said where I grew up in Rhode Island, "wicked smaht." This complement isn't endowed simply for Lazar and Parson's heady creations but more sincerely for their outstanding choices in collaborators, which becomes apparent before the lights are even on. Jane Shaw's sound design rushes past us in the dark theater as we hear determined steps leading up to the sound of a gunshot. Adrenaline bursts and the work begins with a tight circle of light revealing Tymberly Canale's feet. She begins a series of furtive bursts of choreography, with hands held paw-like before she is handed a shotgun and wrapped in a bear skin. We catch impressions of Hauser, who was abandoned in the woods at the age of four and wandered into 19th-century Nuremburg 12 years later. Canale is an innocent wild child, both guileless and barbaric.

The back curtain parts to reveal a menacing Paul Lazar standing in a clear plastic cabin and illuminated by cold, white fluorescent tubes. He and Molly Hickok launch into an argument about the proper disposal of a body, eventually dropping the lightweight cabin on top of Canale's prone body. We will spend the remaining hour watching the downward spiral of vice that will return us to this violent end once again.

Along the way we are treated to a Nixon-esque Lazar ranting to Hickok, as his assistant Rose, about his impending downfall while zealously quoting Genesis and other Old Testament books. She agrees with him, meekly offering that "God does bring the hardest problems to the strongest men." They quickly collude to find an 'idiot' to train for a simple briefcase hand-off. Lazar orates, mumbles, rants and dances like a medium possessed. He is a whirlwind of rapidly shifting perspective and tone. Hickok plays Rose with constantly revealing layers of duplicity and naivete. Canale is entrancing in her simple, childlike portrayal of an inexperienced patsy and she handles the subtle shifts of Parson's choreography with exceptional aplomb. Kate Johnson, who danced with the Paul Taylor and White Oak companies, rounds out the cast serving as a kind of silent chorus and wry performing stage hand much like the koken used in Kabuki.

Without the talented cast "Plan B" would still be a stunning visual tale. The work includes an amazing array of props and costumes that bring the aesthetic richness of theater together with tightly woven dance. Seth Williamson's props are integral enough elements to imply aform of puppetry or object-based work and Claudia Stephens's costumes hint at the past and the wild. In one sequence Jay Ryan (with whom my company has collaborated) lights Lazar chasing after Canale with a kind of magical, fairy-tale blue light that seems directly culled from a Kurosawa dreamscape.

If Big Dance Theater's "Plan B" is like an Ivy-League romp then CIE 111's is like the Big 10 conference, all power plays. That isn't to say these guys are dumb jocks. Under the guest direction of Brooklyn-based experimentalist Phil Soltanoff, performers Olivier Alenda, Aurelien Bory, Loic Praud and Alexandre Rodoreda pack a heavy punch of schooling. In doing so the French troupe achieves what I dream of finding at every cirque performance I attend: the evolution of a variety of thrilling circus acts into one unified piece of theater.

The work begins simply, with one man downstage left strumming on a guitar and another in a suit holding a briefcase upstage right. But when I say upstage here I mean literally Upstage. A large metal wall leaning back at a 45-degree angle takes up most of the stage and will serve as the main playing space. Here "Plan B" is not so much an alternative strategy but rather a different plane, again literally, of existence.
Loic Praud (top) and Alexandre Rodoreda (bottom) in Compagnie 111's "Plan B." Jean-Paul Lozouet photograph copyright Jean-Paul Lozouet and courtesy the New Victory Theater.

Three others join the businessman in a continuous flow of falling bodies down the enormous slide. The descent occurs at a slow, smooth pace except for one dancer who repeatedly flips himself around, spinning on his back and dropping quickly. This is physics made superfun. It is all friction and gravity, resistance and momentum set in an urban playground complete with luring pulse by sound designer Stephane Ley and Arno Veyrat's post-modern lighting design.

As the pace accelerates, pieces of the wall begin to jut forward, creating ledges from which the dancers can spring and flip. The men use their rubber-soled shoes to anchor themselves and slow their drops. They look like dolls being dragged across a board by an invisible magnet, flipping and diving but always glued to the wall. I can only imagine the bruising involved in developing what is essentially an exhaustive bout of floor work.

When the wall shifts up to vertical the dancers attack it with continued voracity, devouring every inch of playable space. They walk against the wall while propped against one another's shoulders, managing to twist and flip and handstand; one man hangs upside down with his feet wedged into a tiny window. They run up the wall in a round of boyish one-upmanship.

When the plane changes alignment one more time and drops to the floor, the performers move on to their third scenario, or what I'd call Plan D.

Video designer Pierre Rigal furthers the game of shifting perspectives by projecting a bird's-eye view of the action onto a back wall. The horizontal performers can now appear to be truly defying gravity as their images manage to float in zero gravity, spin over each other's heads or battle in a riotous kung-fu fight. The bodies fly without ever leaving the ground.

Maura Nguyen Donohue is the artistic director of Maura Nguyen Donohue/In Mixed Company .

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