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Flash Review 1, 1-31: We Danfe
Montalvo-Hervieu puts the Joy back in Dance -- and Sends a Message to La France

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

Photo copyright Laurent Philippe

PARIS -- When was the last time you left a dance concert wanting to dance? Well, okay, perhaps for my readers who are professional dancers, this is not necessarily the ideal indice that the show was good; you either want to dance all the time anyway, or, aware of the work entailed, a good dance show may just leave you vicariously exhausted. But for the rest of us, this is a classic indice, and one met all too rarely these days, at least here in the city of heavy dances. Yet "On Danfe" -- which I think is meant to be "On Danse" ("We Dance") with the 'f' evoking the 'f'-like 's'es in vogue when composer Jean-Philippe Rameau hit the turf -- is a work which, seen Friday at the Theatre National de Chaillot across the river from the Eiffel Tower, stimulated my non-dancer companion right in her dancing feet and this critic right in his cerveau. As sophisticated in its construction as it is simple in its messages, this latest work from Jose Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu, created in 2005, is the antidote to the anti-dance dance that has ruled French stages for the past five years and -- more important globally -- to the racial frission that has seared this country.

Franchement, I didn't call it this way. From "Le Jardin io io ito ito," which thrilled me in 2001, I knew that Montalvo-Hervieu would likely be juxtaposing African and hip-hop, flamenco and ballet, with a dash of modern, on their self-named company, and that my companion would probably dig it. Not that I needed a 'safe' show for her, as she'd already proved more than equal to Maguy Marin and endured Vim Vandekeybus's latest gorefest; as we were leaving "On Danse," I quipped, "It's nice to see a show where kids are being thriled and as opposed to depicted being killed." (The Vandekeybus includes a film focusing, graphically, on a massacre of the innocents.) What surprised me is that in its aims and accomplishment, "On Danse" is far from kid's stuff. For here, the choreographers are after more than simple exotic juxtaposition; a flamenco dancer stomping while a hip-hop b-boy locks and pops in reply. What's happened here is the different schools don't just meet and exchange any more; in the grand experiment called Montalvo-Hervieu, they are starting to change each other -- to morph as easily as the manimals and womanimals in the Montalvo video projected on the back of the stage space.

Thus Salah Benlemqawanssa, the hip-hop and whistling artist (he says more by putting his lips together and blowing than I can by opening them; I heard that!), announces that he loves to 'danfe' to Rameau, and what follows is not just an amusing juxtaposition of hip-hop rhythm against Baroque melody; Benlemqawanssa becomes if not a slave, than certainly a servant to the melody, which winds through his body, making his torso supple before issuing from subtly serpentine arms. And he's not mocking it; he's given into it. At another passage, he interprets a classic ballet move -- barrel turns -- in an appropriate hip-hop fashion: they're identical with what you might see from City Ballet's Damian Woetzel, with one variation -- he executes them upside down, but with equal finesse.

In the chorus/refrain, which riffs on a horse's gallop -- evoking Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo" -- the choreographers even find one group movement that joins all the schools AND expresses the music. That's the the other, uber-achievement of "On Danse"; the advance PR promised that Montalvo and Hervieu would respect the music, and they did. In fact, what they reveal -- to a Baroque music ignoramus like me, anyway -- is that Jean-Philippe Rameau utterly rocks. It's an unrestrained joy met with this troupe by unrestrained comedy and exuberant dancing.

There's a message about what dancing means -- or can mean -- to the rest of us as well. At one point, a somewhat frumpy women in a flouncy blue dress (Katia Charmeaux) enters and, excited to find the stage deserted, takes it. In less loving hands, the not entirely pretty dance that follows -- a bent knee freezes in a not-quite-perfect position mid-air, as Charmeaux mugs -- might have seemed mocking. But Charmeaux's pride and generosity in what she's able to do makes it impossible for you to ridicule her character. The portrayal is sympathetic.

Less successful -- in fulfilling her desire to dance, I mean -- is a red-nosed sad clown, Muriel Henry. Even when she does a dance of shooting her heart out to the audience, then inviting them to shoot theirs back at her, her inhibition (on purpose, I mean) is evident; she can't let go and give in to the joy of dance. Later, she returns to marvel out loud at the "articulation" of a bare-backed African dancer (Serge Dupont-Tsakap), asking him, "Do you have a back?", but when they're joined by a hip-hop dancer and the two try to make a clown sandwich around her, it's too much; she can't make the leap from distanced commentator to participant. This sad restraint becomes even more clear later when she tries to hold a dialogue with a swimming tiger projected on a mammoth screen above the platform where she stands. The choreographers bring their point home, poignantly, when what might be called the joyous dancer penned inside the clown (the sublime and serene modern dancer Delphine Caron) enters below her on the level of the stage and, well, truly floats in a transporting solo. The tiger can swim; but the sad clown just can't release the dancer inside her.

Muriel Henry (standing, with red nose) and the Montalvo-Hervieu company in Montalvo-Hervieu's "On Danfe." Laurent Philippe photo copyright Laurent Philippe and courtesy Theatre National de Chaillot and the Centre Choregraphique National de Creteil and du Val-de-Marne.

And yet, the task is really not so hard for the rest of us, if we ponder: In fact, we dance all the time. This point is made by the suited Nicolas Peper who, after announcing he doesn't dance, adds, "Except when my dog Fifi is taking a pee-pee" (I may be misremembering the dialogue), inadvertently kicking the canine into the stratosphere ("Sorry Fifi!"); or "when I go to the super-market," which he illustrates by a dance of discombobulation before shelves of too many choices; or when he's at the artists' unemployment office, a very "slow" dance, he tells and then shows us, because of the lines, and that terminates by a dramatic show of his empty pockets and bended-knee supplication.

Indeed, dance does not need to be something the rest of us "don't understand'; we all do it. Let's hope we -- and the self-hating anti-dance choreographers and their enabling presenters -- can take Montalvo-Hervieu's generous refresher.

And let's hope France can take what may be a larger message as well: Premiering as it did a year ago -- before the manifestations of discontent and alienation that raged in the Paris suburbs and throughout France -- this work, created in one of those very suburbs, Creteil, offers an alternative to the separation complacently accepted by much of white France and by-and-large ignored by their elected representatives. Many of the young (mostly) men interviewed during the unrest said they don't feel truly accepted by France. And despite that most of these young people were born here, many in white France regard them not as French but as Arab, North African, Maghrebian, Muslim, or simply Black; in fact, they complain, it's these young men who have refused to be integrated into "La France." I can't think of a more eloquent response than the image of Salah Benlemqawanssa, no doubt a product of the hip-hop culture of the suburbs, dancing against a projected backdrop of Versailles (albeit one occasionally intersected by enlarged baby chickens in the foreground), joyously giving himself to (and giving it up for) Jean-Philippe Rameau.

"On Danse," a.k.a. "On Danfe," continues through February 5 at the Theatre National de Chaillot. In addition to those mentioned above, the breathless cast includes Abdallah "Azil" Akindouch, Emiline Colonna, Court Circuit, Fonky Foued, Marjorie Hannoteaux, Blaise Kouakou, P. Lock, Chantal Loial, the fierce hip-hop and increasingly classical danseuse Hajar Nouma, Pascal Sogny and, as the vervacious flamenco dancer in hot pants, Veronica Vallecillo.

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