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Flash Review 1, 11-23: Toujours Maguy
Around Your World with Marin

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- For all the shows which don't quite achieve their intentions, for all the shows whose intentions don't quite reach the audience, for all the shows founded on sand or grounded in mud, there will always be Maguy Marin. Maguy Marin, creating not just dances but self-contained worlds, dreamscapes believable even as they are fantastic, universes so mesmerizing that even as you realize, ten minutes into her 2004 "Umwelt" (Tour of the World), which opened last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, that the preface of performers threading in and out of at least three rows of mirrors situated upstage in various colorful costumes and with a cornucopia of props taken from our daily detritus is not a preface but will constitute the whole 65-minute show, you enter into it deliciously, slowly shaking your head all the while at the marvel Marin has managed to produce.

But before we get to that, if you're reading this over there (in the States), you should know that there are two things we see at dance concerts here in Europe which I believe are much more rare there. The first is called "cherche une place," and it appears on tiny placards held up by forlorn-looking would-be spectators who don't have tickets and so show up as much as an hour before curtain hoping you'll sell them yours. In the States, you might see this before a Pina Bausch concert. I've seen it at at least the last three dance engagements at the Theatre de la Ville, and I'll probably see it again next week when Wim Vandekeybus and Ultima Vez come to town. Dance -- modern dance -- not only sells out here, it sells out routinely. That's a function of price, and a function of culture.

The second phenomenon is that spectators, or some anyway, feel no compunction about walking as early as ten minutes after the show has begun. In fact, my companion of last night and I were joking that if those unable to get places before the show had waited until a few minutes after it began, there would have been a steady trickle of people leaving the theater who would have willingly surrendered their places. (I'd say between 50 and 75 ultimately left without waiting for the finish. At the finish, a duel between the 'boo's and 'bravo's broke out. We won.)

The two phenomena are related. Unlike even New York, many dance shows here have a pre-show buzz which extends beyond the dance world and even beyond the culturati into the general air. So what you get -- my theory, anyway -- is a certain sector of the audience who wants to get in because they've heard it's cool, but who, unable to understand what commences without any frame of reference, particularly when it's accompanied by astringent music and doesn't meet a narrow definition of 'pretty dance,' can't be bothered to stay, even for such a relatively short duration as the one hour five minutes at which "Umwalt" clocks in.

Context is sometimes everything. I am thinking back -- as I find myself doing more and more these days -- to Tere O'Connor's cutting (leveling?) response to Joan Acocella's recent New Yorker review of his work, which the Dance Insider published as an open letter last month. O'Connor wrote of Acocella, in part:

"Through her lack of understanding and her inability to reach out and get information from artists, she joins a group of critics whom I will call 'the literalists.' These critics do not know how to read dances created outside the restricted confines of the narrative or musical frameworks from past centuries. What's more, they don't do the work of finding out what is actually going on in the minds of artists or what are the contexts in which these works are created. They havereduced dance criticism to an explanatory, superficial, retelling of events steering the documentation of contemporary dance into an impenetrable forest, dark and mistaken.... Her bloated, oracular tone is classic. It is born out of a reluctance to say: 'I don't know what this is.'"

Well, as you might have guessed by my stalling, I am here to tell you that as regards Maguy Marin's "Umwalt," I don't know what this is. (I can also report that when I tried in 2001 to find out what was going on in the mind of the artist, she stiffed me, not showing up for the interview.) I do believe, however, that if those who walked before the curtain fell last night had the opportunity to read a critic who suggested, "You might not understand this, just enter into it," and perhaps explained how the astringent music was not just there to annoy them but an essential element to the Marinian expedition, more of them might have stayed.

For example, I know, from seeing the choreographer's 1993 "Waterzooi," that each Marin dance seems to find its own appropriate musical implements. For "Umwelt," this took the form of three electric guitars, layed out flat near the lip of the stage, 'strummed' by twine unrolling from a spool at one end of the stage to one at the other, the rope crossing over the (apparently) miked guitars on the way. Musically (and perhaps with some distortion added) this came out as a sort of loud, at times cacophonous -- like many airplanes constantly revving up before take-off, perhaps -- white noise which, once you adjusted to its astringency, could be received as a drone, a hypnotic musical foundation for the action.

That action spun out upstage, the performers threading between what are most simply described as one row of upright slats, with interstices big enough to fit one body, behind which stands a similarly-sized row of slightly distorting, seemingly shaking fun-house-style mirrors, in which we can partially see the reflections of the side of the performers not facing us, and yet another row behind these, into which the performers really disappear.

There's also a wind machine. Indeed, propulsion wise, when they're not facing us, the performers' dynamic reference points -- from which they're being blown or at which they're looking fixedly, as if to understand an event taking place a block away -- are offstage right and left. Because they don't emerge more than (occasionally) a few inches beyond the front row of slats, they're mostly moving laterally between the first two rows or pausing in the interstices to conduct their business before retreating into the third row of mirrors. They move in a constant cavalcade, appearing sometimes singly, sometimes in pairs or trios.

Okay, but WHAT ARE THEY DOING?, you ask. Well, I must confess that in terms of my notetaking and perception, for the first half hour at least I played the literalist, and here's some of what I saw: As with most of the Marin shows I've seen, if she (and in this case, designer Cathy Ray) takes her costumes from the world of the pedestrian, it's not the drably attired pedestrian of post-mod New York (or Europe for that matter). Rather, civilians -- whether in household or street scenes -- are usually garbed in pastels. Where they wear skirts and blouses, they're typically of a '50s vintage. In "Umwalt," those civilians appear holding aloft and shaking babies so obviously fake, it's funny; eating apples and spitting out the pits onto the terrain beyond the mirrors, towards us; with the women naked and embracing the men as they remove their shirts and disappear between the mirrors for the heavy stuff; with the men pulling their pants up over naked butts; yelling; shaving; reading the paper and drinking their coffee. When they don 'work' outfits, they are doctors in white gowns worriedly pacing; scientists in green overcoats tiredly removing their glasses and stroking their hair back; pimps or drug dealers in tan trenchcoats and sunglasses counting their money; secret agents in the same shining searchlights over the stage; dirty old men in grey trenchcoats masturbating (this happens once). Oh and there are soldiers, too, sometimes donning pith helmets to drag off women discarded on the stage by their partners. On this same theme (perhaps), there are naked unconscious (or perhaps dead) women, held across the shoulder blades of men, both with their backs to us. Towards the end, there are civilians or workers who toss rubble and stones onto the stage. If there's one recurrent visual theme, it involves the actor-dancers, usually turned slightly and diagonally away from us, donning and removing silvery or gold paper crowns.

After simply scrawling some of this down for the first half of the spectacle, I realized I wasn't looking for the big -- choreographic and theatrical -- picture. I think it would be cheeky for me to pretend to know this less than 24 hours after one viewing of a work that no doubt took much longer to create. So what I'll instead qualify as my educated 'guess' would be that, in addition to her ongoing interest in creating self-contained worlds -- which dates back some 25 years to the signature "May B" -- here Marin reveals the rhythm in normal, mundane, dare I say pedestrian situations.

I'd love to prattle on significantly more, but I gotta go use the bathroom. Lights, camera, action!

Maguy Marin's "Umwalt" is performed through Saturday by the Compagnie Maguy Marin at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt. Click here to read a review of Maguy Marin's ""Pour ainsi dire"; here to read about her "Points de Fuite"; and here for "Cendrillon." For some insight into Maguy Marin's creative process from her own mouth, please click here.

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