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Flashback, 4-21: Watching "The Watchers"
Nadj & Co.: Dance Theater Worth Watching
By Alicia Mosier
Copyright 2001 Alicia Mosier
(Editor's Note: To
celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider
is revisiting its Flash Archives. This Flash Review originally appeared
on April 25, 2001. The author now goes by Alicia Chesser, and you
can read her latest review by clicking
here. "Poussiere de soleils," the latest creation from Josef
Nadj, opened Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, where it continues through
In the former Yugoslavia,
where the Hungarian choreographer Josef Nadj was born, the worlds
that Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett described are still very much
alive to the imagination. The theater of Central and Eastern Europe
-- for most of the 20th century, a protest theater -- has used the
terror and lunacy of a dehumanizing State as a foil for productions
rich in irony, absurdist provocation, and dramatic intensity. When
combined with the brainy energy of contemporary French dance, that
theatrical vision -- the one Compagnie Josef Nadj brings to the
Joyce Theater this week in "Les Veilleurs" (The Watchers) -- becomes
quite a spectacle. (The piece won a prize last year for the best
foreign performance in Russia, another spot where absurdist theater
has some resonance.) Does it resonate for American viewers the same
way it does for Nadj's European audience? Does it resonate even
for them? Who knows? But the spectacle, seen last night, is pretty
Of course, when you see
the following quote from Kafka printed in the program, you have
to wonder whether "meaning" has any meaning in the world of "Les
After a certain point,
there's no going back.
That's the point you have to get to.
Over there, there are people! Think about it. They don't sleep!
-- And why not?
-- Because they're not tired.
-- And why not?
-- Because they're crazy.
-- So crazy people aren't tired?
-- How could crazy people be tired?
This is the half-sense,
half-nonsense nightmare meaning that exists in the Kafka stories
that are this work's inspiration. The set, which begins as a sort
of cabaret, is crowded with little gray rooms and doorways and curtains,
most of which become liminal zones. Somebody is suspended in a door
frame, neither in nor out; somebody rips a piece from the center
of a white cloth, or tears little holes in it and eats the torn-out
scraps. A writer types in a tiny room on the side of the stage,
and as he types, the lights make flash-photos of a man behind a
white curtain; the image stabilizes when his writing starts to flow.
Everything seems to happen at about three in the morning, when you're
not sure why three hairy men are eating spaghetti off a plate atop
your scalp but you go ahead and let them do it for a while, or how
it is that the woman who seemed especially interested in a mattress
early on ends up in a quiet, erratic duet with a dark man (Nadj
himself) who ends up wearing the mattress on his head. Does it help
to suggest that the man might be Kafka and the woman Dora Diamant,
his last companion? It helps you understand why they're dancing
together, and why in this neurotic way, but any further insight
Vaguely menacing bureaucratic
figures from Kafka's "The Trial" show up here and there; there's
even a golem of sorts. The man you see sitting in his underwear
when you come into the theater (a man with a terrifically expressive
face that shows resignation and resistance at once) has some clothes
draped on him and evolves into some rag-doll calisthenics, only
to end up later with his head stuck to a chair-back and his feet
(feet away) on a staircase, then wedged into a chair with no seat,
then literally tied into knots. He seems almost to invite burly
men in fedoras to come up with new ways to immobilize him. It looks
like, in addition to Kafka et al., classic American film noir and
comedy (Buster Keaton, the Keystone Cops) have influenced Nadj as
well. There's a great routine for three men in suits -- the Three
Stooges under an interrogation lamp (or a bug zapper) -- and another
that's a take on the old "walking in the wind" schtick, complete
with a propeller fan that blows off one dancer's coat and hat. (The
music, by Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel, reminded me of some
of the quirkier scores Bernard Hermann made for Alfred Hitchcock.)
Amazing acrobatics abound,
as well, which reminds you that Nadj studied with Marcel Marceau,
among others. The chap who got stuck in the chair gets stuck standing
on the side of a room later on, and when I say he stood on the side
of the room, *he stood on the side of the room* -- feet on the wall,
body a yard above and parallel to the floor. I won't even begin
to describe all the incredible scenic effects and staging tricks
Nadj's company goes through in the course of this hour-long (no
intermission) piece. My colleague PBI hit it on the nose when he
said last night that the work had "rigor," which is something a
lot of American choreographers miss when they go in for absurdist
expressionism. Nadj gets the construction as well as the deconstruction;
he starts with a story (the crazy, paranoid, half-desperate, half-bemused
people for whom sleep, among other things, isn't even a consideration)
and takes off from there. The twelve members of the cast -- French
dancers as well as veteran Hungarian actors -- are, simply put,
rather magnificent. I didn't know quite what to make of "Les Veilleurs,"
though it seemed like Nadj intended something to be made of it,
but it's a surreal, inventive theatrical adventure that's well worth
going to take a look at.
Compagnie Josef Nadj
performs "Les Veilleurs" at the
Joyce through Sunday. 29. For more information, please visit
the Joyce web site. These performances are part of the France Moves
festival, which continues through the end of next week.
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