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Flash Flashback 2, 3-24: Bad Boys & Supergirls
Buffard goes Bad; Mantero Vulnerable; Spooky Sputters

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive; the DI is the only national and international dance publication to provide free unlimited access to all past published reviews. This Flash Journal originally appeared on December 2, 2004. Alain Buffard's "Mauvais Genre" comes to Danspace Project in New York City March 30 - April 2, with an altered cast inluding New York-based artists Cedric Andrieux, Erin Cornell, DD Dorvillier, Neil Greenberg, Miguel Gutierrez, Trajal Harrell, John Jasperse, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Heather Kravas, Lucy Sexton, Jeremy Wade and others.)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004, 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- It's too bad that Alain Buffard and the rest of the all-star cast for "Mauvais Genre" (Bad Type) didn't arrive at the Centre Pompidou about six hours before Buffard's new show bowed there last night. They could have caught, in the cadre "Cinema for Infants," a screening of Francois Truffaut's 1958 "The 400 Blows," a masterpiece of a portrait of a pre-teen bad type (Jean Pierre Leaud) with the heart of an angel. Truffaut could teach Buffard something about precision and making choices; "Mauvais Genre" unravelled as unsupervised child's play enacted embarrassingly by adults. This is the kind of compositionally sloppy, indulgent, 'insider' dance experience you should never take an initiate to. Mauvais Danse Contemporaine with a capital M.

Disregard for the spectator began with Christophe Poux's lighting scheme, which relied entirely on glaring fluorescent bulbs: in the beginning in sets of three or four suspended cylinders which lit up before the faces of each of a parade of 18 naked dancers (most of them members of France's choreographic illuminati) who situated themselves upstage, so that one had no choice but to regard the lower extremities of the performers. Well, there was one other choice: to close the eyes, which I did on occasion; critics not receiving hazard pay, my commitment stops short of physical pain such as that to which this lighting subjected viewers. When I opened my eyes, here's some of what I saw:

First I should tell you the line-up, most of whom are considered leaders of various French scenes ranging from the eighties to the present: Jerome Andrieu, Trisha Bauman, Regine Chopinot, Matthieu Doze, Hela Fattoumi, Simon Hecquet, Christophe Ives, Anne Laurent, Vera Mantero (Portuguese, but a fixture here in recent years), Julie Nioche, Rachid Ouramdane, Pascale Paoli, Mickael Phelippeau, Cecile Proust, Laurence Rondoni, Mark Tompkins (American, ditto), Tomeo Verges and the choreographer, who studied with Alwin Nikolais here and went on to dance for Daniel Larrieu and Philippe Decoufle, among others.

"Mauvais Genre," which continues at the Pompidou through Saturday, is a sequel to the solo "Good Boy," and at first it seemed as if the concept here was for each of the 18 performers to render an identical solo, with their unique inflections. In the contemporary chorus line that opened the evening, once everyone was in place, facing us, they began to turn in a sort of staccato canon. Then each reached, at different times, into black plastic garbage bags before them to find white men's underwear, which they donned with different timing, in multiples -- achieving a sort of diaper effect.

Eventually, also one by one and carrying their own individual fluorescent flashlights to illuminate them individually, the performers spread out across the stage and executed various ground maneuvers, initially in isolation: kneeling on all fours; awkwardly projecting one leg in the air, sort of like a dog urinating while balanced on its side; and simply collapsing. The trouble really started when they began grouping; some interesting tableaus resulted, but the body-clapping percussion has been done before and the exploratory mouth-farting on each other's various limbs and joints was just silly. This was the point where I said to myself, "Thank Goddess I didn't pick this one to invite my non-dance friend to. She's open to new experiences, and I don't want to abuse that by taking her to a mauvais experience.

Start spreading the news: Vera Mantero in Alain Buffard's "Mauvais Genre." Photo by Marc Domage, courtesy Centre Pompidou. Image copyright Alain Buffard & Marc Domage.

One of the evening's redeeming moments came at the conclusion, when, swaddled some of them waist, breast, and head with more pairs of white underwear, the ensemble minus two float in all their god- and goddess-ness downstage facing us, to the tune of "New York, New York" played by an orchestra of car horns. This segues to the actual song. As the white-underwear clad ensemble descends the stage and exits through the right aisle of the audience, the singers are revealed as Tompkins and Mantero, clad in form-fitting skirts evidently composed of black underwear, there torsos still bare. Both wielding microphones, he underplays as she vamps. They're a hit and could take it on the road; whether Alain Buffard's "Mauvais Genre" would make it anywhere where the audience didn't know the performers is doubtful.


I've known Mantero's work since she presented a fascinating Kitchen solo which terminated when a suspended pointe shoe-shaped candle had melted down and dropped off its wire to the ground. Seen last fall at the Theatre de la Bastille, her 1999 "Olympia," which probed the model who was the subject of Edouard Manet's painting of the same name, confirmed my initial impression of her genius. In my review of that piece, I noted that Mantero "eventually takes the famous position, freezes in it for a few seconds, and then slowly becomes hyper-aware of her right arm, dangling listlessly over the pillow. Still maintaining her eye contact with the spectator, she fidgets it into various other positions, but can't get settled. She sidles her legs and other hand around into different arrangements. She slides off the bed. She sits on its edge, back slumped, hands folded between her open legs like a TV zombie. (The position is not very sexy, but then I'm not sure the one captured by Manet was meant to be either.) Finally she gets the idea to remove the flower and toss her frizzy auburn hair out. She rises and walks tentatively, jerkily around the room. Then she returns to the bed and perches stretched out along the top before -- and we know what's coming here -- falling and disappearing behind it."

Like Sean Curran, Doug Elkins, and Ben Munisteri -- you probably have your own favorite -- Mantero is that choreographer-performer you can watch forever do just about anything. From her skin emanates her working mind. Her expression is neutralized without being impassive, giving the impression that her body has taken control and she has no choice but to follow its instincts. Were I to have spent the entire time focusing exclusively on the choreographer-performer, I might have found her 2002 piece for Vera Mantero & Guests (the actual title is difficult to transcribe), seen Friday at the Pompidou, compelling. Initially, I was hopeful.

The stage was ringed on three sides with walls made of what looked like up-ended translucent dark green air mattresses. One expected that much bouncing off the walls and hilarity would ensue; beyond a few forays, it didn't, leaving one to wonder what exactly was the intent of Nadia Lauro's set, beyond providing a unique and colorful frame and unique entrance points for the performers, who regularly disappeared or appeared from the cornices.

Each had his or her own business -- and it was at least highly and individually kinetic. The aspect was of a troupe of Supermen/women who, perhaps, have been disabled by Kryptonite (it's green too) surroundings and are struggling to find their legs again. This fits Mantero's typical mode; a doll come to life and moving jerkily, somewhat tentatively. When a short, bearded, older man zoomed onstage pushing an easy chair ahead of him and plopped down to watch the spectacle, the spectacle became more droll; another man leaned diagonally on the chair-back, supporting himself on it. The tiny man looked behind him, irked, and became even more annoyed when the other threw his cape over him. Later, they were joined by a woman who leaned on the chair's arm, rocking, before collapsing backwards on the man's lap. She sort of humped (or thumped, if you prefer) him with her butt, repeatedly falling backwards off the chair arm onto his groin before the other man threw the cape over them both and things calmed down.

This and other hijinks between two performers or, in two extended segments, with the tiny man directing the others or racing Tasmanian-devil like across the stage while they quietly watched, were often interesting; but I can't help thinking they would have been more interesting if all the performers had been on Mantero's level. I get the feeling that she sought artistic collaborators -- the cast is credited as co-creators -- when she might have been better served by looking for dancers whose training and talent matched her own. (The other two woman were decent here; two of the three men weak.) She could also reign in her co-creators in the service of attaining a bit more thematic unity.


Speaking of costumed characters, I celebrated Thanksgiving by catching DJ Spooky's "Rebirth of a Nation," which gives D.W. Griffith's 1915 "Birth of a Nation" a visual remix and a master DJ's new sound mix, in a one-night stand at the Theatre du Chatelet. This is the storied house where Michel Fokine's "Petrouchka" and many other Ballets Russes productions had their premieres a century or so ago, and being a part-time DJ myself, I was looking forward to drawing parallels. Nominally a dance critic, I'd scored the press tickets with the Festival d'Automne, which co-presented Spooky as well as Buffard, on the grounds that selections from Bill T. Jones's "Last Summer at Uncle Tom's Cabin / The Promised Land" were also advertised as being in the mix.

Spooky was aware that he was standing on hallowed ground. In an introduction -- danger Will Robbins, the DJ is speaking! -- he proudly shared that this was the first time a DJ had performed in this opera house. He also shared that he wasn't one of the Americans who voted for "that idiot Bush," a sort of obligatory apologia which, well-intended as it is, I and other ex-pats are over because it implies that the French can't distinguish. (Although I admit the "I voted for Kerry" note and accompanying sad face is still posted on my door.)

Technically seamless, visually stunning, and musically marvelous, as a work of art "Rebirth" falls flat because it's not clear that, besides the music track, Spooky has created something new. He insists in a program note that he's just raising questions, but whatever comment on the original film or questions arising from it as juxtaposed to current circumstances may lurk in Spooky's mind are not clearly enunciated in this spectacle, beyond a certain menace layered under the film by the new and killer soundtrack. Images from the Jones work interspersed or mixed with the Griffith film are over-manipulated; if I wasn't looking for them, I might not have noticed them, at least not enough to be able to distinguish the work of the choreographer and the dancers.

In a dance club, "Rebirth of a Nation" might have stunned with the prowess of the mixer. In an opera house, it reminds us that a DJ is not a creator of art but a tasteful and creative selector of others' art. (And I say that with native respect for DJ science.) Most of the emotional response is to the original film. One finds oneself simply recoiling at Griffith's politics, really not much of an accomplishment for Miller considering the film's overt racism.

 

 

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