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Flash Flashback, 11-8: With Post-Mod Irony on Her Side
De Keersmaeker's Cynical New Solo to Baez

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 Review originally appeared on December 4, 2002. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's "Once" opens tonight in New York.

PARIS -- Just over two decades ago, as Dance Theater Workshop executive director David White tells it, a student dancer from New York University, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, strode up to the Fresh Tracks panel at DTW before beginning her solo "Violin Fase" and warned the judges, "And don't give me any shit about using Steve Reich." Well, last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, less than a week after its world premiere in Brussels, De Keersmaeker gave the Paris premiere of only her second solo since "Fase," and I am here to give her major shit about using, abusing, mocking, not understanding, and failing to apply her usual intellectual and kinetc rigor to the music of Joan Baez, in some relation to which she was ostensibly dancing.

Taking a page from my Dance Insider colleague Aimee Ts'ao, before getting to and at ATDK's new "Once," to the music of the fabled 1967 Joan Baez In Concert album, I should lay my biases on the table. Not only was I weaned on Joan Baez like many children of the '60s; when I was four, my mother introduced me to her at my first concert, given by Bob Dylan at Winterland. Years later, as an adult interviewing her in about 1989, I recounted this story to Joan (she is always Joan to us), and that fact -- that I had encountered her first when I was four -- distressed her. In between these two encounters, as a senior in high school, the first time I was able to cry about the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk was at a day-after vigil, when Joan stood on the steps of City Hall and sung an aching, a capella "Amazing Grace" that expressed all our grief exactly. (If you're not familiar with Baez, what you need to know is that her soprano pierces your heart with well-chosen crescendos.)

The other thing you need to know about Joan is that while she was embraced by the counter-culture, she was not just its herald but its songbird, more hippy chick than Gloria Steinham. With her haunting voice as apt to serve a sad love song as an anthemic call to action, Baez agitated for the Cause and the heart. Before she was the darling of the anti-war and civil rights movements, she was the darling of the Cambridge coffee-house circuit. Even today in her late fifties, like De Keersmaeker beginning her forties, Joan is still a flirt.

Perhaps a little because of her flirtatiousness but mostly because of the fire she brings to even frigid music like that of Reich, I began last night rooting for De Keersmaeker, anticipating a dream collaboration between these personal idols of song and dance. (To read my previous laudatory words on De Keersmaeker, just enter her name and mine in the search engine window on our Home page.) Before pattering over to a 'record player' to symbolically lower the needle on Baez's "in Concert" album last night, ATDK, in dark blue slit dress and tee-shirt, her hair in a short pony-tail, gave us a preview, in silence, of some of the phraseology that would follow. There were the disjointed weight shifts and sudden shoulder shrugs, scans of the audience and lingering high lifts of the leg, and the slightly off-balance freezes, but there were also new twists drawn form the 'ugly dance' bag. Ape-like, De Keersmaeker squatted on her haunches. Like some spoof of an unmotivated child, she slouched her back and sunk her chin into her chest.

Because this was De Keersmaeker, in my book she had a lot of lee-way in which direction she chose to approach this music. As the dance was entirely to Baez, except for a brief Bob Dylan cameo and interludes of silence, and as the connection to the music was hyped extensively before the show, I think it was fair to expect that there be some relation to the music. It didn't need to be literal. It didn't even need to be adulatory. But it had to treat the music directly in some manner, even if that manner be satirical or otherwise ironic.

But De Keersmaeker didn't really make a choice, relying mostly on vocabulary we've seen before, from her or, more specifically, Trisha Brown -- plenty of isolations and release. So where she did make a choice, be it narrative or mocking, the gestures seemed hackneyed. For example, in Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," Joan sings: "I once loved a woman/a child I'm told/I gave her my heart/she wanted my soul." And De Keersmaeker makes a gesture of grabbing a soul from another's body, curling her elbow and clenching her fist. To the same song, she holds up first one then another finger. (Don't think twice.) To the lullaby "Hush Little Baby," rather patly, she mimes the diamond ring, the billy goat, the dog named Rover, all the other things mama gives baby and, of course, cradling the baby itself. On the other hand, to a Portuguese song, she waves a hand and rocks her head looking knowingly at the audience, in the universal gesture for "Yada yada yada." This isn't satire; it's just cheap, lazy mocking.

Appallingly, for two of Baez's most-requested anthems -- "We Shall Overcome" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- ATDK has Baez's singing roughly faded out, and replaces it with her own. She might have been going for some effect here; in performing both of these songs, Baez usually invites the audience to join in, and in such cases might even fade herself out. But the effect was lost with just De Keersmaeker tooting out the lyrics. With her dance to "We Shall Overcome," she may have been going for another effect: As she sings the lyrics, her neck and then head slump. But if the message here is that we are not overcoming, De Keersmaeker totally misses the essence of Joan and her music, which is not to induce wallowing but to empower us.

But with the climactic "With God on Our Side," a Dylan tune famously sung by Baez, Aaron Neville, and others, De Keersmaeker reaches the peak of her ridicule. Having basically ignored narrative (except for some elementary mime) for the entire evening -- a legitimate choice -- she's suddenly listening to the lyrics. Joan is faded out again, to be replaced by Dylan and then De Keersmaeker singing, the lyrics which have rolled across the screen all evening joined by war footage. Then, before you can say "make love not war," another Belgian dancer has popped her top and I've blown mine.

Pour quoi? you ask. As I left the theater and walked up the Boulevard Sebastapol, I passed a bookshop where, before the performance, I'd picked up a copy of "Belles Algeriennes de Geiser." It's a collection of what look to have been postcards of Algerian women, from photos taken by the house of Jean Geiser between 1848 and 1923. The intent, says the book jacket, is to show the jewelry and costumes worn by women of the era...but some of them show a little more. I have a curiosity for all things Algerian, particularly during the period when the country was run by the French, but I also wanted to check my own and the book's intent, so before purchasing it, I contacted a dancer friend from that part of the world, just to see if the book struck her as exploitative.

I think what makes me indignant about Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's "Once" is that these songs and this troubador are part of MY culture. So I feel more than a little like what an Asian person watching a revival of one of Ruth St. Denis's 'Orientalist' exercises must feel: My culture is not there for you to exploit. It has meaning, and it is not there so that you can create a meaningless heedless dance. I don't say that my culture is off-limits to someone outside of it, but I do say that if she's going to parlay with it, she's got to treat the source with respect. She should be free to forge her own response, be it loyal or oppositional, adulatory or ironic. But she's got to know the material first. Even if I didn't feel so proprietary regarding Joan Baez, I think my investment as a believer in the work of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker would have left me disappointed that the intellectual and kinetic rigor she usually applies to her work is so absent here. What we witnessed last night was a classroom improvisation as insulting to its musical source as to the previous record of the choreographer who signed her name to the work.

 
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