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Flash Review Journal 2, 4-28: Planet Dance
Brazil's Hip-hop Flop; Nadj's Newest Paranoia; the Fabulous Destiny of Madhavi Mudgal

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- One of the reasons the Dance Insider decided to open up a bureau here four years ago was that on a Fall 2000 visit, my first, I realized how much dance was being presented here that our readers were missing. Not just French dance, but dance from other places that never or rarely touches down in the States. Since moving here, I've discovered that the scene does have its blind spots: that of presenters to most dance that's emerged from the US in the last 25 years, and that of the Paris Opera Ballet to most of its own storied history, for instance. But, notwithstanding the absence of recent US dance and the paucity of classical ballet (who'd have thunk it?), the French dance palette continues to offer generous samplings of international dance. In the last two weeks, I've been able to hopscotch from Brazilian hip-hop near the Bastille (Bruno Beltrao), to Eastern European-influenced French theater-dance on the Seine (new Josef Nadj), to virtuosic Indian dance from an Odissi master in Montmartre (Madhavi Mudgal). All about to be delivered to you as I listen to a French station broadcasting Scott Joplin's entire "Treemonisha" as performed by the Houston Grand Opera.

That work falls outside the blind spot, being a) music and b) recorded in 1975. A more recent -- and perhaps even revolutionary -- development in US dance, Rennie Harris, does not. Were there not an unofficial, presenter-agent imposed embargo on contemporary US dance artists, the programmers at the Theatre de la Bastille (more open than most) might have realized that where hip-hop choreographer Bruno Beltrao is in 2005 Harris was in 1995. It was about then that US hip-hop artists decided to step up their profile on the concert dance scene and bust a few moves on the proscenium stage. Critics said (or thought) How quaint, presenters really weren't expecting much except perhaps to reach out and show their multi-colors and, at least in the initial efforts, narrative-wise what the artists presented was more like shows you'd put on for your friends: They had the dance chops, they showed an earnest desire to use their vernacular to tell real stories, but the stories lacked imagination and so did the use of the hip-hop vocabulary in telling them.

Then came "Rome & Jewels," and the revolution was on.

In creating his opus (seen at the Joyce Theater in 2000) -- maybe even chef-d'oeuvre -- it was as if a little light had gone on in Harris's hyper-active mind. He was a choreographer, not a scenarist -- an actor (of the body), not a playwright. So he took a page from the book of his ballet (and modern) predecessors and looked to literature for his story, finding his source in Shakespeare. Okay, maybe that part was obvious but where the genie came in was in Harris's specific, new, and contemporary way of using the language of hip-hop to specifically express the timeless emotions in and story of Romeo & Juliet. Not just timeless, but ahead of its time; one New York Times critic, not realizing what he was seeing (dance-wise), didn't even recognize the hip-hop language as a distinct vocabulary. Harris did; hip-hop had found its distinct dance narrative voice, and concert dance a new and unique voice.

Back in Brazil, meanwhile, another hip-hop dancer, Bruno Beltrao, saw a welcoming place in contemporary dance. Unfortunately -- at least as seen at the Theatre de la Bastille April 14 in the group work "Telesquat" and a solo, "Me and My Choreographer" -- he hasn't yet found a choreographic voice completely worthy of the concert stage. Imagine Harris in, oh, 1996, when he was still working it out -- or even "Jam on the Groove" in 1995 -- but with only one dancer on a parallel level, and you'll know what I mean. Inexplicably, Beltraodeploys his most fluid and charismatic performer, Eduardo Hermanson, in the 20-minute solo, which opened the program, making the four dancers who follow in the longer work (assisted a bit by Hermanson, but mostly at the mic) pale by comparison. And unlike Hermanson, who mostly gets to show off his minute contractions and power, without having to convey much of a narrative (that I could spot, anyway), Eduardo Reis, Alexandre de Lima, Ugo Alexandre Neves and Ghei Nikaido have to carry a real story on their shoulders, and the choreographer doesn't help them out here.

From the program notes, if I understood them correctly, I gather that "Telesquat" is some sort of reference to Brazilian TV zombies. This might explain the really basic plot, involving an astronaut, a tortoise, a penguin and a soldier who must defend the Earth against some sort of invasion. This is preceded by a few one-off dance/verbal jokes, such as an opening tableau in which one man has possibly lost something, two others are searching for something, and a fourth is laughing: "The first man's lost his money. The second is looking for it. The third is helping him. And the fourth already found it," subtitles flashing on an electronic screen in front of the performers explains. (Asked by the Paris daily Liberation's dance critic Marie-Christine Vernay why he didn't feature any women, Beltao answered somewhat haughtily, and erroneously, "The energy is masculine and the dancers must be very technically adept in the language of hip-hop." Rennie don't play that.)

The Star Wars scenario stumbles almost from the beginning; the astronaut is evoked simply by slow-mo motion, and it's hard to see how what the tortoise and penguin are doing bear any relation to the species supposedly being portrayed.

From a crass belly-laughing perspective, "Telesquat" redeems itself a bit at the end with the final battle scene: What hip-hop artists can do best is retain the sense of play we all used to have making up skits with our friends back in the day. In a breathless denouement, six television screens embedded three on each side into curtains flanking the stage light up. Men dash offstage into one wing, appear on that side's screens, seem to be running smack dab into the screens, their faces squashing against the glass, then -- as indicated by the onstage performers looking up into space --- appear to be soaring miraculously over the stage, crashing through the screens on the other side in a running landing. What makes this work, as my Pilobolus companion pointed out -- in addition to the deadpan hip-hop faces of the performers as they 'fly' through the air with the greatest of ease -- is the spot-on timing of the soundtrack (taken from one of the film scores credited in the program, perhaps "Mission Impossible" or "The Matrix"), a "Whoosh"y sound of impact perfectly synchronized with the dancer's take-off and landing. The dialogue -- voiced by the sub-titles and Hermanson at the mic -- also ups the humor ante. One performer/character thinks to himself, "Maybe I'll be lighter (in flight) if I take my pants off," then, "Maybe I'll be lighter if I take my under-wear off," striping accordingly until he's stark naked. The effect is not titillating, but innocent.

At this point, my companion and I were in hysterics, ready to watch this gag repeated ad infinitum. (We were the only ones laughing out loud; this surprised my friend, newly arrived, but I explained that the French may be laughing, they're just laughing inside.)

The Orleans-based choreographer Josef Nadj triggers different reflexes -- sometimes laughter, but more often Kafkaesque paranoia, an assumed product of his roots in Hungary and the former Yugoslavia. His new "Poussiere de soleils," seen April 19 at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, explores similar territory, but it seems to me he's already mapped it. I've seen much of this before -- the dark mood, the unsourced paranoia, the bleak visages, the implied or direct violence, even the men in black suits -- in "The Watchers," reviewed here by the DI's Alicia Mosier.

Nadj calls "Poussiere de soleils" an homage to Raymond Roussel, the French writer active in the first part of the last century who, says my Yahoo encyclopedia, "employed hallucinatory imagery while eschewing emotion and the expression of personality," and who is "now recognized as anticipating both surrealism and the nouveau roman." The problem is that without knowing this -- and a spectacle should be able to stand on what you see onstage -- it's hard to see this semi-surrealist work from Nadj as distinct from previous works. He also seems -- albeit with compelling images and a compelling sort of character-driven dance -- to be just farting around, in an Eastern European mode. Visual ideas are introduced but left undeveloped: The dramatis personae appear in apparently Africanized, stoic-visaged masks at the beginning, then ditch them for the rest of the dance-play; a group of men, including the choreographer, appear holding clear vases whose water gradually turns blood-colored, but the possibilities are not pursued; a silver dinner-jacketed, turbaned Nadj does a sort of waltz with another performer, but what's new about this? A man in silver suit and silver body paint lurks just outside the action (much of which takes place in and around two boxed, scrimmed, mobile, and sharply raked arenas), but what besides his bald-head, dark aspect, and shiny skin is dangerous about him? Later, the same man stands on his head in a transparent tube while the other performers scribble on a long dining table, a miracle of endurance, but saying what exactly? I know it's all meant to be surrealist, but is surrealism simply a string of non-sequiturs?

In other words, while he may be more sophisticated and his dancers (particularly the women) better trained than Beltrao's, Nadj's scenario is not terribly more original than the Brazilian's.

In a column Tuesday, I ranted the Times's John Rockwell for his dismissal of "Elitist European" dance. Sure, his comments were in a review of specific works, but I believe the dis' was general. Not only was it errant, as I pointed out, it was actually the opposite of the truth. In the same article, Rockwell dismissed a certain slackness in some work as being the result of the generous funding for the arts here. In fact, the reason behind public arts funding in Europe is a fundamental belief that the arts should be accessible to all -- and not an elitist few. Consequently, you don't need to be a dancer, dance critic, or dance fanatic here to be not only dance literate but sometimes even more literate than dance critics.

Such is the case with my pal Djamel, who accompanied me to Tuesday's opening of Madhavi Mudgal & co. at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses in Montmartre, where she continues through Saturday. Mudgal was new to me, so it took Djamel, my non-dance friend, to explain to me that in India, she's nothing less than an institution. Indian dance forms aren't the only ones whose study begins in infancy, but they're unique, I think, in that the training often begins before birth. Mudgal, whose forte is Odissi dance, directs New Delhi's Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, founded by her father in 1939. I, by contrast, have been regularly reviewing dance since 1996, and this is my first foray into writing about Odissi dance, so I'm not even going to attempt to critique Mudgal's evening. What follows is simply a response from a general movement point of view, and even there I owe some of the observations to Djamel.

"Equilibrium" is the word he used, and it's the most powerful skill which emerged in this concert. Ever try rubbing your tummy and tapping your head at the same time? Well, imagine if you had to simultaneously execute actions involving at least eight bodily components, with technical alacrity and artistic expressiveness, while revealing a classical art form, an age-old story, and the music, and sometimes even honoring a god. This is essentially what Mudgal and her three fellow dancers (Moumita Ghosh, Arushi Mudgal, and Sudha Mallik) accomplished -- and without making it look difficult, I mean without showing the effort.

The dancers were often doing this while executing yet another task, their feet adding percussion to the musical ensemble of Gandhi Mallik, ethereal singers Manikuntala Bhowmik and Purna Chandra Majhi, Srinibas Satpathy, and Yar Mohammad, playing sublime music by Madhup Mudgal and Mukul Shivputra. I don't think it would be accurate to say their feet were totally bare -- there appeared to be a paper thin demi-sandal covering the heel -- but really, this is the hardest I've ever seen basically shoeless dancers stamp a stage. They frequently balanced their weight (weightlessly) on those heels, the rest of the feet arched. Moving up, the part of the leg above the knee often jutted at a slight angle to the part below, the torsoes were often further skewed, and their heads at yet another angle. Their eyes moved conversationally, with either us or an unseen partner, and of course steady arms at right angles displaying perfectly articulating fingers framed it all.

If Madhavi Mudgal's seasoned virtuosity was a foregone conclusion, there was a nice surprise. A legend can sometimes eclipse her supporting cast and make them appear nondescript by comparison, but Arushi Mudgal, the choreographer's niece, held her own in aplomb in a duet opposite her aunt, and in that section as well as dancing with the ensemble distinguished herself with a fineness in her general physical expression and particularly in her facial gestures, in which a mischievous smile lingered.

The invisible partner thing doesn't always reach me, but the choreographer's nuanced solo story of a sort of amour fou did, in all its contours. To a theme suggested by two sanskrit poems by Amaru, who lived in the sixth-seventh centuries B.C., Mudgal told of a 'tragedy of love which finishes in indifference." From pleading and being unwilling to yield her lover or her love, she progressed to mourning and a sort of disdain. Certain stories transcend, and this is one: There was a moment which reminded me of the final scene of John Cranko's "Onegin," when Tatiana, with great difficulty, refuses the hero. The whole scene, with one person giving a farewell to an invisible other, reminded me of how I once imagined an elaborate and gracious parting with a lover with whom my real-life parting had not been so graceful. At its most effective and affecting, this is what dance does: Give extraordinary articulation and fluent expression to our sometimes ordinary and frequently incoherent lives.


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