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Flash Flashback, 6-23: Let Them Eat Chocolate Pistachio Mousse
Gallows Humor from Emmanuelle Huynh

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002, 2005 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: To celebrate its fifth anniversary of being online, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Flash Review Archives. This Flash originally appeared on April 9, 2002.)

PARIS -- Last night I saw what must be the ultimate in site-specific work: Just yards from where Marie-("Let them eat cake") Antoinette was imprisoned before she was beheaded, an orange-shirted dancer rattled off a litany of French pastries, from apple tart to quiche Lorraine, while behind her three others perpetrated a revolution on the set, toppling tables that had been meticulously crafted into two malleable stages at the beginning of the evening. Emmanuelle Huynh's droll "Bord Quatre," subtitled "Tentative for corps (body), texte, et tables," unfolded under the shadow of the mammoth prison cell bars of the Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cite, in a former palace to the Capetian kings, a building one of whose towers is 632 years old and boasts the oldest clock in Paris, and which found its most notorious use as the holding cell for the French queen, Danton, Robespierre and other not-so-famous victims of the Revolution and the Terror and post-Terror upheaval that followed. This sort of guillotine holding room is hardly the setting for a romp, and yet I have to say that Huynh seems intent on putting the humor back into post-modern dance.

The romping, and the evening, start with the tables. Here Huynh takes her cue from the giant fragment of a medieval marble table posted on a wall of the giant hall. From the 14th to the 18th century, says a plaque, the table from which this artifact comes was used for royal banquets, tribunals, and law courts. (The three barred arches which loomed behind the stage held Marie-Antoinette and others.)

The basement space has been flooded before -- lines about my height indicate the level the water reached in the great inundation of 1910 -- and this too Huynh seems to recognize as she begins the evening's movement by swimming across and around the stage on her back. Propelling herself by her legs, an arm extended as navigator, Huynh is exploring. She soon has more to explore, as Matthieu Doze starts unstacking a pile of orange-surfaced silver table-tops. Her space becomes more and more constricted, the narrow space between rows of table-tops a channel which she still tries to ford. Then a table-top is placed on her prone body, and soon the other dancers, Wouter Krokaert and Elise Olhandeguy (she'll read the pattiserie list later) enter to help set up two stages made from tables, using the tops and frames planted at the edges of this theater in the round.

These two surfaces become the performers' playgrounds. A slat is moved to create a gap through which they slip, twist, slowly somersault and fall into the cavities of each other's bodies. Tables become doors are suddenly dropped; Olhandeguy becomes a door, going stiff and being caught just in time by Doze.

All this is executed mostly in silence, with Manuel Coursin's spare percussive soundtrack or live mouth sounds from Filiz Sizanli occasionally adding texture, especially at moments of accelerated movement and dramatic tension. Cathy Olive's sepulchral way of prisming shafts of light was finally made clear to me on this second viewing of Huynh's work: footlights in the section of the stage to be illuminated were turned on and projected onto metal panels which overhung the stage, which in turn reflected the subdued light back on the performers.

Text was integral, read in four different parts by the four dancers, but of course, you know me -- the only one I completely understood was Olhandeguy's recitation from the shelves of a boulangerie. Physically and dramatically, this section resembled a children's game I can't quite place. While she was reading, her back turned to them, Olhandeguy's three colleagues would creep towards her, dissembling the tables and propping them against a center column. When suddenly she'd stop and flick her head around to try to catch them, they'd freeze. Finally they surrounded and made ready to pounce and imprison her with walls of table-tops, and she fled.

My one criticism of "Bord Quatre" might have been that the action ranged around all four corners of the space, and because of the thick columns -- which make those at NYC's P.S. 122 look like thin sticks! -- no matter where you sat, at some point in the evening a scene was going to be obscured from your view. But even this apparent obstacle was eventually used to great comedic effect: In the final section, one by one the dancers are flown about the room by their colleagues, sitting on their shoulders as on a throne, for example; stiff and prone with limbs spread, Superman-style; or, as Huynh in one of her turns, with a hand forming a gun. Suddenly they are dropped or, in Huynh's case, run smack into a column, the column spread-eagling their limbs out on both sides. So, when this lifting and flying took place in the corner I couldn't see, the crash-bang that ensued was almost more fraught with humor because we had to imagine what had just happened this time.

I've probably given disproportionate weight to Huynh's humor because a)the food-centered text was easier for me to understand and b)abstract post-modern dance is always a challenge for me to describe, and it helps when I have a hook like humor. But I'll try to at least give you a sense of the effect, if not a very complex description of the architecture, of a couple of the other sections.

To a text more direct and intimate in nature, Huynh and Olhandeguy broke off from the guys for an exquisite, even sensual duet. It didn't matter that their clothes were Judson-androgynous and plain, Olhandeguy in gray slacks to go with her orange blouse, Huynh in a red t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers -- as they rolled around the floor, Huynh sometimes on top gently straddling her partner, the effect produced fell somewhere between play-wrestling and romantic encounter.

The ensemble action at the start began, with a group nod after the tables had been assembled, with a sort of group hug, constantly reconfigured as if the performers were trying to find the right combination of their bodies. This huddling was not removed; occasionally a dancer would embrace another's back with her arm, or nestle her head on a colleague's shoulder. It was a sort of bonding, perhaps in preparation for the more (geographically) scattered explorations and inventions that would follow.

Setting-wise, it will be hard for Emmanuelle Huynh to match the Conciergerie with all its ghosts and caverns of sound and history -- did I mention that the repeated rattling of chains and keys was also part of the soundscore, seeming to arrive as an echo from a distant corner of the vast hall (or of the past)? But most of all what I sense from her -- both in the way "Bord Quatre" played out and in her inquisitive, always searching and groping personal performing demeanor -- is that Huynh is an investigator in the best post-modern tradition; an excavator. Whether her playground is of the spatially and historically vast model provided by a space like the Conciergerie, or simply the body, Emmanuelle Huynh is listening to what the terrain is telling her. And whether her next space is a castle or a classroom, I for one will follow her there.

If you're in or near Paris, you can follow Emmanuelle Huynh's Compagnie Mua through Thursday at the Conciergerie, where "Bord Quatre" is being presented by Monum and the Menagerie de Verre. The presentation is part of Inaccoutumes 13 - Evenement choregraphique, continuing through April 21.

Text was by Christophe Tarkos, and designs were implemented by Nicolas Floc'h.

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