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Flash Review Journal, 2-15: Wonderland
Child's Play with Groupe Quivala; Playtime for Valeska and Germany....

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- One of the things that puzzles me about the alienation of many from concert dance is that movement games are something most of us engage in from the moment we start walking. Next time you're near a schoolyard, look at the way children maneuver and contort to evade whoever's It in a game of freeze tag. (For that matter, look at the way they imitate sculptures when they freeze.) Watch the way they jump, duck, pivot and weave trying to dodge the ball of dodge ball. Notice how they hunch in their nook in hide-and-go-seek. The body knows how to move before the brain can even analyze. And yet many of these same children will grow up to, one day, go to a dance concert that makes them fidget in their seat and leaves them scratching their head and turning to you (their dance insider friend) to mutter, "What was that?" The deficit isn't always in the spectator -- often, it's in the dance. (Herve Robbe's performance in Montmartre tonight, says the theater's brochure, looks at a "unique" problem: "How to represent a suicide on the stage.") How refreshing, then, to catch, last week at the Theatre de la Bastille, elbowing its way onto the French scene amongst all the angst, Groupe Quivala's "Vaisseaux Brules," a spectacle that begins with a game of hide-and-go-seek.

The premise of the opening scene is simple: Prisca Harsch (who, like the other performers, is also credited with the choreography), counts to 100 and then scours the stage and audience for the other 'children,' who one by one emerge to dash onto the stage and touch the upstage base. One even hunched near me in the dark of the aisle. This game (here called cache-cache or 'hide-hide') morphs into another which looks familiar: As Harsch slowly marches downstage, the three men follow her, freezing into off-kilter positions whenever she quickly turns around. Finally they all freeze downstage center, and she starts using various contortions of "Boo!" to try to get them to budge, in vain.

The transition to the centerpiece game of the evening has a delicate simplicity: Each of the three men don elements of Superman's costume -- red cape, underwear, or shoes -- and what follows is various matches pitting super-hero against super-villain. Here the artistic elaboration starts, too: In each battle royal, there's a delay of about a minute before the defending party reacts to his assailant's elaborate and expertly mimed attack. A man wires his opponent with dynamite, steps back to his position 10 paces away from the victim, and detonates the explosives. The target remains impassive, until about a minute later, when he violently recoils. Even a chain-saw attack doesn't fell its victim until a long pause, after which he discombobulates into shreds all over the stage. Finally, Harsch returns, in full Superman regalia, and tries to sing her pith-helmeted opponent into submission, after whispering something in his ear which by his reaction might be a sonic attack. He tries to shout her down and then just carries her off.

The piece becomes less obviously a game and more Herculean dance than mime when the lights come up on Barbara Schlittler, on her back, hands folded behind her head, feet perched on toes, knees up, legs wide open, exposing her pink underweared crotch directly to us. It's hard not to perceive this image as sexual, and I'll admit to getting a thrill, but Schlittler's body is positioned in such a way -- concealing everything above her butt, the rest of her hidden behind her towering legs -- that I think the intent is to represent an unrecognizable creature. And the sexual impression of those powerful legs is quickly replaced by just plain impressiveness as, the rest of her still flattened on the ground, her cradled head just peering up occasionally, her knees still up, she propels herself across and around the stage solely by the locomotion of her feet. It's a force that has a ripple effect as, one by one, the curtains lining the wings of the stage topple off their hinges.

This pisses off the rest of the cast, who return to the stage and toss Schlittler some clothes so she can join them in a fast-paced game of dodge ball. This is where the inherent kinetics of children's games really hits me, as well as the attendant joy, as the performer-players spring about to avoid the ball, smile defiantly when it misses them, diabolically before they throw it at someone else. Even the audience has to stay on its toes, as the ball occasionally careens into the stands.

The concept of play is further played with in a culminating jam on real rock band instruments, which none of the dancers can actually play, although Harsch shows some charm as a potential chanteuse. Even the theatrical sense of 'play' gets a reading in a monologue delivered by a boxing, spotlighted Pascal Gravat.

Joining Gravat, Harsch, and Schlittler in choreographing and performing "Vaisseux brules" were Jose Lillo, Robin Harsch, and Laurent Valdes.

Perhaps your playgroup also included a fool -- not someone who acts foolishly, but who in heart and soul truly is a fool. You can't tell them to behave because 'behave' implies a rational center, from which their foolish behavior is a deviation. Performers often try to play the fool, but rarely with the investment and conviction needed to be credible; usually, I just don't buy it, and I question whether the player in question would be acting so foolishly without the license of the stage. But then there's Valeska Gert. Reviewing Sara Hook in her "Valeska's Vitriol" in 2000, I wrote:

"I see many quote unquote 'over the top' performances. But as often as not, I get the feeling that the artist's primary intention was to be over the top -- the effect came before the cause. Sara Hook, on the other hand, gives herself an intellectual challenge, and then asks: How can I best realize this in performance? In answering this question, Hook sets herself absolutely no limits and thus has produced the most beyond-limits, er, personality I've ever seen on a stage. It's Valeska's world, and God help you if you just want to be a distanced bystander, as several bystanders discovered last night at Joyce Soho."

Well, now that I've seen Volker Schlondorff's 1979 documentary "Kaleidescope: Valeska Gert -- Only for the Pleasure, Only for the Play" -- and without taking anything away from Hook -- I can see that her source might have had something to do with it.

Seen Friday at the Centre Pompidou as part of its ongoing (and free) Videodanse festival, 'Kaleidescope' takes us on an extraordinary journey, through archival footage into the pre-World War II golden performing days of German dancer, actress, and cabaret artist Gert, but also into her contemporary world, or at least as it was when Schlondorff interviewed her at the age of 84 at her ramshackle home and performance space in Germany.

It would be impossible to fashion a critique from the rare footage of Gert in performing prime Schlondorff has unearthed, but one can at least divine her (free) spirit. In one extract, by the circling of her arms she could be a girl jumping rope (Valeska also, scandalously for the times, flashed her underwear) (it was in the film, I'm not pre-occupied with this subject!), an impression accentuated by her sticking her tongue out repeatedly. Schlondorff also generously excerpts scenes from GW Pabst's 1925 "Die Freudiose Strasse" (Joyless Street), in which Gert played opposite the 20-year-old Greta Garbo. Pabst makes use of her devilishness, in a scene where she appears to be convincing Garbo to buy a mink coat, and another (I think from the same film) where she riles up a barroom full of men with her table dancing. After seeing her work with Pabst, Jean Renoir enlisted her to play "Nana"'s maid Zoe in his film of the Zola classic. Later, Russian director Sergei Eisenstein sent her a telegram which instigated a torrid affair. Waiting until the last possible moment -- because she found it difficult to leave her home -- to flee Hitler's Germany, Gert landed in New York where, at the instigation of Tennessee Williams, she opened a Greenwich Village cabaret, at the corner of Bleecker and Morton. Beggars Bar, where Williams served as occasional waiter, was constantly being closed down by the NYPD for one excuse or another (among them, no liquor licence). (The more things change....)

Interviewed at 84 in Germany, where she returned after the war, appearing with spiked black hair, thick black eyebrows, and eye-lashes shaded blue, Gert remains provocative. She became a dancer, she explains to Schlondorff, "because of my family. They were all crazy, and ended up in the asylum. I started dancing." And she needs no external stimulus for her own insanity: "I never drank nor smoked, because I knew if I started, I'd become addicted. That's why I follow all these rules." Except rules of politisse; at one point, she tells her interviewer, fully grinning, "You have bad breath."

And yet she accommodates him by not just sitting for the interview but performing: When we find Valeska, after driving down a country road to reach the barn-like, graffiti-splattered headquarters where she still organizes her spectacles, she is imparting her work to women sixty years her junior. (And who rhapsodically describe days spent learning with Valeska, and listening to Charles Trenet records.) Teaching a classic with a boxing motif, she gets up to demonstrate, and the years don't tell in her pugilistic ferocity. Later, leaning on a bar, stretching her arms so that her sweater lifts to reveal a tight belly, over black leather pants, she reprises a solo whose vocalization is hard to recreate in print, except to say that calling it gibberish wouldn't do the intent justice -- it's more a gutteral, inchoate call projected from her wide-open mouth without the least inhibition.

It's the joy in this expression -- the expression in the body of a woman simply unable to stop performing, ever, indeed whose whole life on and offstage seems an engrossing performance, and the openness to life, whatever may come, in that mouth -- that remains with us when the film is over. In a gross misunderstanding of how art communicates beauty, the new chief dance critic of the New York Times, John Rockwell, recently issued a call for more lookers in dance -- as if a beautiful face is all it takes to create beauty. Oh that he could see Valeska, who would both educate him otherwise and, if he resisted, give him his due comeuppance.

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