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Flash Review Journal, 6-23: Discomfort Zone
Hacked by Huynh; Dazzled by De Keersmaeker

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- I don't know what Emmanuelle Huynh -- up until yesterday my favorite French choreographer, bar none -- was thinking about when she began her show last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt by asphyxiating an audience that had already suffered through record heat all day long, not to mention severe pollution warnings earlier in the week, but it sure wasn't the comfort or health of the spectators. Looking at the program notes for Huynh's new "Heroes," the chalk dust that enveloped the stage and floated cloud-like into the audience may have had something to do with trying to re-create the ambience of a rock concert. Newsflash to Huynh: Rock concerts which feature chalk dust or dry ice usually take place in the much better ventilated outdoors. I remained in my seat for about 15 minutes, pondering the white cloud hovering above and around me and infiltrating my lungs, and considering whether any choreographer was really worth inhaling chalk for 90 minutes. As my job as a dance critic doesn't include hazard pay, I decided to amscray, chased by the smoke and hounded by troubling questions about the direction of French dance today.

In five short years, Emmanuelle Huynh has jumped, or been propelled, to the front of France's contemporary dance expedition. I've been a champion, enthralled at the grapple-fest of "Distribution en course," seen at Montpellier in 2001 with an all-star cast including Christian Rizzo, Rachid Ouramdane, and Julie Nioche; and entertained by the 2002 "Bord Quatre," which caused me to write that Huynh seemed intent on putting the humor back into modern dance. Above all, at a time when her contemporaries seemed to disdain, uh, dance, Huynh always offers up highly charged, deftly executed, and tightly composed kinetics.

Lately, however, Huynh has been dallying with the dark (non-dancey dance) side. In her 2003 "A Vida Enorme," actual dancers didn't appear until the second half of the piece; the first is taken up by giant speakers emitting the sound of a man and a woman dialoguing in Portuguese. Okay, I thought at the time; Homey don't play dat but Homey believes in this artist, so he'll cut her some slack in the name of encouraging experimentation. Last year's "Numero" was even less dancey, beginning with arrows careening through the dark and ending with the choreographer srunching herself up in crumbly material. In between, she stuck 'swords' into a box in which huddled the designer. Still, I didn't mind; perhaps Huynh's skin-tight Emma Peel outfit helped.

If you -- or at least I -- really believe in an artist, that support should ideally be unconditional, not dependent on temporary successes but an overall belief in the direction of the artist's 'research,' as they say here -- in her intentions. However, I'm no longer sure what Huynh's intentions are. Is she truly moving towards a form of dance performance that integrates other arts, or has she, like the fumes at last night's performance, drifted into the land of dazzling trucs, playing with whatever non-dance gimmick takes her fancy, even at the expense of alienating her supporters. Because my support stops at being asked to inhale noxious substances, and that point was reached last night and with this show. Huynh has the kinetic chops; it's a pity she seems to have lost direction. "Heroes" may be fine choreographically, but I (and my readers) will never know, because the choreographer forced me to choose between her and my health.

Unfortunately, bad choices by this particular choreographer have ramifications that go far beyond her own work. Huynh also directs the Centre national de danse contemporaine in Angers, essentially France's only higher education institution devoted exclusively to modern dance. There she's expressed an interest in inculcating young creators with a broad conception of dance that incorporates the other arts. If "Heroes" is what she has in mind, I'd advise apprentice dancemakers to stay away from Angers.

.... And I'd direct them instead to nearby Brussels and P.A.R.T.S., the college-level institution where Professor Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker is truly interested in turning out DANCEMAKERS. Thank G-d for De Keersmaeker! She is the touchstone -- a choreographer still concerned principally with... choreographic challenges, not scenic distractions. Like the group works for her company Rosas presented the previous week and reviewed here, "Desh" (the second half of the night)," a new trio seen June 15 at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, explores with movement the musical landscapes of Indian raga and John Coltrane, in four segments by De Keersmaeker and one by Rosas dancer Salva Sanchis, danced by the choreographers with Marian Ballester, a Rosas veteran.

Where the group work "Raga for the Rainy Season" met the music -- with choreographic composition inflected by the gestures of Indian dance without pretending to be it -- in "Desh" De Keersmaeker opposes the music with more traditional post-modern dance arrangements. But if she's less adventurous with form here, she does offer a breakthrough solo for herself.

One of the reasons I like -- okay, LOVE -- watching De Keersmaeker perform is that notwithstanding what might seem to the non-initiated to be a dour expression, ATDK likes to play. Sometimes she plays so subtly as with a sudden knowing smile -- it may be over in a second, but it transforms the tenor of the dance. Sometimes she's even (to this heterosexual male eye) flirtatious, tossing up her skirt to show some thigh. (Here she wears a slit skirt, the most revealing outfit of the three performers.) Fundamentally, she harkens back to the place where we all first found dance -- as children, dancing to music as a form of play.

There's some playing here but then ATDK comes out to roll in agony across the floor, and proceeds to rent her clothes and pull herself as if in torrents of pain -- perhaps the memory of pain. It's a new face for De Keersmaeker. And as with most of her experimenting, it's not cheap -- this isn't the type of unearned angst that pops up in other European dance.

What we'll never see in De Keersmaeker's aspect is disengagement from the spectator. It may seem that way at times to those who haven't seen her before, but what she's absorbed in is not herself but the music, and being its muse.

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