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