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Flash Review, 2-15: Organ Failure
'Bharata/Bach' on the Butte a Bust

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Today there's more travaux on Paradis, dance insider, Paradis no e in French being the street where I live and travaux in French being work, that being what makes Paris's rue de Paradis hands-down more noisy than New York's W. 8th Street, where I lived for six years 'round the way from the ol' Joffrey/Arpino digs and next door to Electric Lady. Oh that Jimi were here to drown out the drilling! In lieu of that, I decided to try to kiss the sky Monday, hiking through the terrain of my latest Maigret adventure to the Butte Montmartre, or just about, to catch the Maria-Kiran/Claudio Brizi show, "Bharata/Bach," at the Theatre de la Ville's Theatre aux Abbesses. Even if I weren't a critic, simply growing up in a musical household (merci belle-mere!) would have left me aggravated at the way Bach was butchered by Brizi and his invention, which is supposed to be a harpsichord-organ hybrid but which often sounds like a Casio, as well as by Brizi's failed attempts to hum-a-long like Glenn (Gould); and even though I'm no expert on the Indian form of Bharata natyam, I've seen enough dance to expect more precision than Maria-Kiran was able to achieve. As for any kind of fusion, that was never in sight.

After the first few minutes of the spectacle, I thought that perhaps I was finally seeing the elusive 'noble failure.' A wise and seasoned dance observer -- perhaps it was Richard Philp, my editor at Dance Magazine -- once advised me that no one ever goes on stage intending to fail, something we as critics should remember before wielding our barbed and poisonous pens. I agree that we should almost treat our gift as a registered and potentially lethal weapon, employing it only when absolutely necessary for the defense of the art (and the audience). That bar is reached for me when the artist presents something that doesn't just merely fail, but that offends standards of quality; that abuses the audience; or that is lazy. I think we also need to remember that though we're seeing the show for free, others are paying for the privilege, and we are their advocates.

Out of the chute, "Bharata/Bach," conceived by Milena Salvini, supposedly a doyen of Indian dance here, with the dance choreographed by Vidya, did not seem to meet the criteria for a critical screed. It was positive; in a time of warring ideologies -- or more precisely, ideologies used to justify war -- it posited a meeting place between the Christian liturgy celebrated by Bach and the Hindu enunciated by Bharata natyam.

Which detail pushed me over the edge into rant-land? For some reason, the Indian-style tunics over Western slacks and shoes worn by the musicians -- Brizi and violinist Gianfranco Borrelli -- loom large. It's cheap. It's tacky. It's more an insult than a sign of respect. It's going native without taking your shoes off. Borrelli seemed to be going for a sort of David Harrington effect, but a superficial one, neither his presentation nor his playing (the guy even tried to pluck) reaching the level of the Kronos Quartet first violinist and leader. As for Brizi, his invention, the "claviorganum" might seem like a clever idea, putting both the organ and harpsichord at the player's (and the composer's) disposal, but in the execution, when the two were played together one often sounded out of tune. And the higher registers of the organ really did sound like my Casio electronic keyboard. It was ennerving to listen to favorites like the Cantata BWV 140 being rendered in such a chopstick fashion.

According to the program notes, the securing of Brizi for the musical half of her concept was, er, fortuitous; Salvini encountered him accidentally on a trip to Italy. But every curio does not a concert make; I believe she did herself and the audience a disservice by not doing more research.

As for the dancer, except perhaps for her splayed-finger friezes, Maria-Kiran's edges were mostly fuzzy. To be fair, no doubt the clarity of her legs was sabotaged by another bizarre costume choice (in the program, no one takes the credit. Hmmm.) -- sleeves joined by an expansive, trilly, accordion-like gown fragment. But really, no dancer in so fine a form should land with a galumph; and could she not have come up with more facial expressions than bemused surprised and variations on delight? And where was the attempt to bridge -- to really delve, in her own medium, into this other medium? I didn't see it. To be truthful, it was substandard; I felt like I was watching an ill-coached recent college graduate with little professional performing experience. The repertory she was given, as well as the textures with which she rendered it, were thin. Oh give me the carefully considered cacophony of Jimi!

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