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Flash Review 2, 5-17: Story Hour
Laub, Zuccolo & Co. Hit One Out of the Park for Hans

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

BOBIGNY, France -- With "The H.C. Andersen Project -- Tales and Costumes," which opened the Rencontres Choregraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis Friday at MC93, director/conceiver Michael Laub, choreographer-in-chief Greg Zuccolo and crew have delivered a stunning tribute to the greatest story-teller of the modern age, in one of the most effective uses of dance and text in years. But that's not all. Aided by a multi-talented cast and a deft team of designers and composers, more than simply tell some of the stories of Hans Christian Andersen and some of Andersen's own personal story, they have tapped into the story-telling genie and created a paean to its eternal role in our lives.

Not to go 'me' on you again, but as a baby-sitter, my stories for my charges often were dual-purpose: getting them to go to sleep and mitigating my own real-life traumas by working them out in parables that somehow elevated them to the level of the universal. This is just one template Andersen set. "'The Ugly Duckling' is Hans Christian Andersen," Kristian Jensen, curator of a new bicentennial Andersen exhibition at the British Library told the Guardian recently, "and he is also 'The Little Mermaid.' That's how he saw himself, as an oddity, an outsider -- and he was."

With their own dual aim of revisiting some of Andersen's tales and visiting with their creator, Laub & Co. intersperse highlights from the stories with excerpts from Andersen's autobiographies, often dark windows into a bittersweet life with its own good fairies and relentless demons; at one point he ruminates on deteriorating testicles. The best story-tellers -- like the best actors and dancers -- draw on their own vulnerability to relate to their audience. Laub isn't content to simply profit from Andersen's labor or his vivid accounts of his own life. The actor-dancers themselves recount real stories from their lives. (They also contributed to the choreography.) The sometimes underplayed delivery and intimate nature of the recollections make it easy for these interludes to be mistaken, at first glance, as just more post-modern masturbation, but on reflection, the memories shared are often embarrassing and therefore risky.

Levi Gonzalez emerges in a pair of white-striped blue track pants and explains that he didn't wash them for five years, because he wasn't sure they could be washed. When a lover peed on them in bed, he relates, he had no choice, and discovered they could survive laundering. Zuccolo (a Tere O'Connor regular) recounts a Chinese double who would emerge from his 13-year-old self whenever he masturbated and who, after being jerked-off by Zuccolo, would be absorbed again. Astrid Endruweit tells us "These are the (red) gym shorts I wore when I was 13" which, mysteriously, fit her again as an adult. Then she takes us back to gym class, executing a series of tumbles, runs, cartwheels, push-ups and other moves which evoke the P.E. drill but are retarded (in the movement sense) and off-kilter. Endruweit plays on her petite stature and a certain naive quality again later, when she's the daisy in the story of the daisy and the bird. "This is my stem," she announces to us, indicating her green pants, "and these are my petals," rolling her eyes upward at a fake flower beret. She sings "Trah lah lah," about how happy she is, and how the bird makes her happy and she him, until some wicked boys capture the bird and then uproot her and put her in the cage with him to make it seem more like home, but they both die of thirst. Then to punctuate the tragedy and pluck us from it, Zuccolo, who's been implacably perched on an upstage bench, swivels his head to us and belts (to the tune of "She's a Lady") "She's a daisy, whoa-whoa-whoa she's a daisy!"

That line probably came out of a rehearsal inspiration, but others, while seemingly tossed off, later seem to have a direct line to the story-telling theme. In between re-tellings of the Andersen tales, a chorus line of Zuccolo, Gonzalez, and Stephanie Weyman (another American) pop-up, Laugh-In-like, to banter in between boogeying about their first encounters with Andersen in the American pop-culture landscape. One of the men explains how "The Princess & the Pea" was made into the Broadway musical "Once Upon a Matress," and another recalls a Carol Burnett version. "I love Carol Burnett," beams Weyman, whereupon Gonzalez does a take and pivots his head to her with an air of surprise. "I love Carol Burnett." The pattern is repeated later when, after Zuccolo reports that Andersen loved Jesus, Gonzalez now turns to him to insist, "I love Jesus." Perhaps you had to be there to appreciate the humor, but the resonance goes beyond the immediately droll: Burnett in her sketches, like the Bible, told stories and thus they, like Andersen, are part of the never-ending story -- as are these interpreters.

Burnett and her cast also were unafraid to make fools of themselves, and let's get back to that vulnerability. After Zuccolo and Gonzalez, clad in torn pants and shirts, give a brief dance prologue, stomping intently with bent knees and elbows to Larry Steinbachek's rocking score, "The H.C. Andersen Project" opens properly with what the US-based Joyce Theater might call an 'un-family friendly' moment, Hildigunn Eydfinsdottir taking off all her clothes to tell the story of the little Matchgirl. Whether due to latent American prudeness or fatigue with indiscriminate use of nudity in European dance, I cringed at first, a response amplified when Eydfinsdottir started sobbing from the get. It was too easy and left no room for build as, shivering, she descended towards the tragic ending. But thinking back now, I see that, about to expose his subject -- Andersen -- Laub was in a way levelling the field by making his first performer naked.

"The H.C. Andersen Project" is full of moments like this, simultaneously narrating the story at hand, exposing the story-teller (whether the performer of the moment or the original author), and revealing and reveling in the art and act of story-telling. As for the work's craft, it's a perfect synthesis of brazen, communicative, full-frontal post-1990 American dancemaking (acting as a sort of chorus or 'wash' between the stories, as my dancer companion nicely put it) and engrossing European theater (augmented by Nigel Edwards's lighting). After touring the rest of the world for two years, it's time this work was seen in the US as well.

The Rencontres Choregraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis continues tomorrow in Montreuil at the Centre Dramatique National, where there's more story-telling afoot, with Daniele Desnoyers, Lia Rodrigues and Boyzie Cekwana taking on the fabled Fables of la Fontaine.

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