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Flash Review Journal, 6-10: Where Dance is Supreme
Ragas (and Coltrane) from Rosas; Verret Does Faulkner

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- For viewing Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Salva Sanchis's new works "Raga for the Rainy Season" and "A Love Supreme," performed by Rosas Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, where they continue through tomorrow, I had the unique pleasure of a dancer-choreographer-dance critic companion from the States, plus her mother. Besides benefiting from my colleague's perspective on the works at hand, I also realized that there are certain aspects of European dance performance that I have come to take for granted, assuming it's like this everywhere, but that perhaps I need to note for our North American audience. So let's start with these.

First off, as opposed to the collection of short pieces one usually gets at a New York concert, here an evening of modern dance-theater usually comprises one sole work, typically presented without an intermission. On occasion that work can be as short as 40 minutes, but more typically it's 90, sometimes stretching to two hours. (The Rosas concert offered one 50-minute work and one 35-minute, which followed a rare intermission.) If I read her right, my colleague expressed some frustration with the American mode, which doesn't give an audience (or a critic) a substantive meal of a choreographer's work, but just a sample. Not only that, these days the short works are often surrounded by short works by other choreographers, each artist getting a 10-minute shot at making an impression with the audience -- what might be called the Dancenow model, after the popular New York festival. As I understand it, one of the reasons for this model was that festival organizers like Robin Staff wanted to reach beyond the 'dance insider' audience and make an evening of dance more palatable for the initiate -- cool even. They seem to have succeeded on this light level -- making an impression on the surface -- but I wonder if they've really made a profound impact and produced any new committed dancegoers -- spectators willing to sit through a whole evening of work by one choreographer.

To understand why the European model is not like this, first you have to realize that dance is not separated into its own rarified ghetto here. Dance works are 50 minutes to two hours long because so are plays and movies. They are all creations, and so of course the creator would have this kind of space with which to work, and the audience creations of this length to experience. (And often at prices not much higher than those for movies.)

Additionally, companies have the backing of theaters like the de la Ville and its counterparts throughout the European capitals, which present troupes like Rosas on an annual basis. (In France, many companies benefit by being given charge of and backing from choreographic centers in the different regions.) Contrast this with the States where even New York's Joyce Theater -- considered by many the US's leading theater for dance -- does not make an annual commitment to presenting any company besides Pilobolus, which frankly doesn't need it! (Or at any rate, needs it less than companies like Doug Elkins's, which have floundered in the States while their European equivalents flourish.)

Choreographers in Europe are also given that essential ingredient to creative thinking: the permission to fail. While the relatively generous funding model here is often abused -- notably by companies from Flanders, where 60 percent of those requesting state funding receive it -- disciplined artists like De Keersmaeker (also from Flanders) use it to their and our advantage. They grow by knowing they can take chances, while we in the audience grow by not having to see established artists just regurgitate the same thing over and over. (Unless they are creatively spent, as is the case with France's Angelin Preljocaj.)

With "Raga for the Rainy Season," set to Raga Mian Malhar (the program is unclear about whether this is the name of the composer or the composition), and "A Love Supreme," De Keersmaeker, aided on the choreography by Rosas dancer Salva Sanchis, ventures on musical expeditions. My colleague thought the first piece -- the one that clocked in at 50 minutes -- lacked a throughline. While I could see her point, for me, relative to some other De Keersmaeker works, De Keersmaeker (the program credits her for the choreography, Sanchis for the "dance vocabulary") here is very focused. She doesn't take short cuts; the Indian music, masterfully played in a recording by Sulochana Brahaspati, Sultan Khan, Zakir Hussain, Amod Vardhan and Usha Sastri, is not treated as exotica but rather, De Keersmaeker tries to meet it with her (and Salvis's) vocabulary. In terms of that throughline, her usually approach sabotages her a bit. Quirky choreographic subplots suggest a story, even though in fact they're just the usual De Keersmaeker winks. For example, one woman suddenly appears to be pissed and huffy about what she's being asked to do, before this thread peters out. A slide projection of who knows who lingers on the upstage wall; the slide even joins in for the curtain call.

A more consistent theme is that delivered by De Keersmaeker's newest muse, Elizaveta Penkova. My trick for finding a throughline is to anchor with one interpreter, and this time I picked the puckish Penkova, who opened the piece with a fluid center-stage, full-frontal solo. Much of this -- like too much of the choreography -- began with a sideways extended arm which took the rest of the body, starting with the head, rippling along after it. But Penkova's larger theme or image was of the possessed woman -- like the dancer/devotee who gets swept away in a trance in an Orixa dance rite. Only here, instead of shaking uncontrollably, Penkova's main solo (echoed later) involved hurling herself repeatedly to the floor and rolling across it sideways, while others tried to coral her and calm her down. (And she wasn't wearing knee-pads!) While she certainly regarded the other dancers from the side when she was 'offstage' (another uniquely European approach, I'm told: offstage dancers don't actually leave the stage, they just stand around on its periphery), she took her cue -- her impetus -- from the music. In a spell cast by the genie of the haunting music, she put me in one too. Penkova performed in a zone -- she is in a zone -- and watching her was throughline enough.

Talk about zones, have you ever caught Bessie-winner Cynthia Loemij? Man! Really, it was unfair to make other dancers perform with her in De Keersmaeker/Sanchis's "A Love Supreme," to John Coltrane's music of the same name, as recorded by Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. I think what the choreographers were doing here involved assigning each of the four dancers a musical part, and Loemij not only got Coltrane's sax (an instrument invented, by the way, by another Belgian, Adolphe Sax), she got inside it. She seemed to be perspiring from the get -- in the way of someone who is absorbed in her task. (I'm not saying she was necessarily actually perspiring, but that her drive and dedication suggested this.) Even when she was 'offstage,' she was not relaxed, but at the starting block, intently watching what everyone else was doing and priming for her next entrance. Her dancing was jazzy, but not stereotypically so. She embodied her instrument and its legendary player.

The lanky Igor Shyshko surprised me by not being so awkward as his size suggested would be the case, but the choreographers did not give him anything unexpected for the drum solo. Ditto with Moya Michael, whose choice to interpret the Jones line left me feeling, Right, choose the dark-skinned ('soulful') woman to interpret the bass. As for Sanshis's dancing, he appeared to be trying to evoke the throwaway jazz approach, and I didn't buy it; it was a pale imitation of the American original.

For me, De Keersmaeker and Sanchis seemed to be going for a straight-on interpretation of a music outside their culture, and, with the exception of the unfailable Loemij, just failed. BUT, I should note here that my colleague -- who, unlike me, actually is an American choreographer and dancer -- thought they got it, producing what she called (and subsequently had to spell out for me) an onomatopoeia, defined by Webster's as "The formation or use of words such as buzz or murmur that imitate the sounds associated with the objects or actions they refer to."

One final note, returning to our initial theme: My colleague's mother's immediate response was to look around at the packed theater and marvel at how dance fills houses here, as opposed to in the States.

For his new "Contrecoup," seen May 27 at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, Francois Verret also had an American source, William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" (Mispelled in the program as "Absalon, Absalon!") My French is still, uh, far from perfect, especially when it comes to comprehending modern non-professional speakers whospeaktoofast for me anyway, so as French text (translated from the English original) figured prominently here I'm not really qualified to give this work of dance-theater a full-out review. Looking solely at the movement, I can say that I wish choreographers using bungee cords would find other uses for it besides just arresting the fall of a performer; that Verret's dancers are fierce; and that I loved one repeated motif between Verret and another male interpreter in which they repeatedly tried to hug but jolted and repelled each other. Musically, the piece was inconsistent, mixing country-ish songs (like Johnny Cash's interpretation of Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," uncredited in the program) with more modern beats. And I was entranced by Goury's set, a sort of vintage carousel which utilized many levels: Most of the interactions took place in the center of the merry-go-'round, but performers also walked around or swung from an upper level, turned the carousel from the outside, and reflected on swings strung between its posts.

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