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Flash Review, 4-18: Type-casting
In the Buffeted with Alain Buffard & Ensemble

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2006 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK -- Alain Buffard's "Mauvais Genre," seen March 31 at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, begins with its unlucky 13 dancers entering one at a time to stand naked under vertically hung tubes of neon that hide their faces, reining focus on their brave, surprising bodies. Like soldiers in line for a physical or silhouettes in a Rolfing brochure, they begin to revolve in quarter turns while the neon reflections on the floor become the bars of a prison.

As their action becomes established (and a bit dull), the subtle shifts and sighs among the spectators become equal components of the performance. Whatever titillation or humor I might have been hoping for in seeing these people naked (I had announced to a group of students at NYU a few days earlier that I planned to "review" the mirth and girth of the men's cocks, to write a profane art history) rises up to taunt me and becomes somehow horrible. I face the truth of how crass and adolescent I can actually be when they tape their genitalia with first aid adhesive bandages and dress in several layers of men's tighty whitey underwear.

Apparently this piece has been performed as an installation in gallery settings (sounds like it might look then like the work of Vanessa Beecroft), and it seems much better suited for that sort of perambulatory ambience, where one might be holding booze in one hand while accepting hors d'oeuvres from a waitperson with the other. Or even a nightclub setting, with the option of leaving the event for awhile to refresh one's drink. Maybe it just needs booze. Or a floor littered with cigarette butts and bottle caps. To squeeze this kind of slowly evolving, conceptual material into a concert dance space limits the viewers' natural impulse to wander in and out of it and encourages boredom.

A second section begins with the performers wandering around, forming clumps of limbs, arms, legs, and meaty bits, rubbing and slapping each other, smacking their lips, grunting, making farting sounds. This Schneeman Lite relaxes the crowd. The stark nudity had created a certain uncomfortable tension that seemed palpable, even among these sophisticates. I had begun to wonder if one of us might crack under the weight of our forced, awkward gaze.

I find myself watching the members of the cast with whom I'm not familiar and "enjoying" them the most. (The bulk of this cast consists of NYC veterans; only a few French originals have traveled with the show, previously seen at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and reviewed here.) I've seen some of these dancers perform so many times that I feel I can anticipate their rhythms and phrasing, their choices within the score. Rather than reading their bodies as abstract forms within Buffard's structure, I read them as personalities. I am impressed at their commitment to the material. But their air of sanctity worries me. How ponderously they walk from one tableau to another. I see effortful bodies, not ill, fragile or vulnerable. Imperfect I suppose, yes, whatever that means. Personally I find beauty in their oddnesses and imperfections. I would happily crawl into any number of their nooks and crannies. I've always been more attracted to unfinished and flawed processes than airbrushed and glossy products. So if Buffard expects to manipulate my sympathy by choosing older or "flawed" dancers, he has missed his mark.

They begin to walk in heel-thumping rhythm around the edge of the performing space; the act becomes quite beautiful visually, and an effective sound machine -- a room-sized heart pumping a lifetime's pulses. They pass quite close to the front row, I can feel the breeze of them, smell their fleshy sweat.

A second set of lighting tubes, these fluorescent, bathe the dancers in flesh-colored light as they strap what look like pill bottles to their feet with more adhesive gauze. They line up in gender-specific sides across from one another as if at a '50s prom. Once shod in their readymade high heels, each dancer tries to carry a carefully arranged stack of empty boxes of Retrovir (a brand of antiretroviral), that had lurked on the edges of the dance floor, across the stage. This task rapidly erodes into a mess as the boxes slip through their grasps and they limp about amid the debris: a fairly heavy-handed metaphor.

When it comes to the apparent topics of this piece, the "ravages" of AIDS and aging, I am an expert witness for the prosecution. Even my professional (meaning my current livelihood, not my dancing life) sensibilities are engaged. I work as an editor for a pharmaceutical advertising agency, assigned to the account for an experimental HIV treatment. So I know that man does not live by Retrovir alone. Any current anti-HIV regimen (in the "developed" world) uses at least three components, if not more. And anyone who has read my previous writing on this subject knows that I am a long-term "survivor" of the disease. In fact, I'm so pilled up that I rattle. In "deep salvage" now, I must rely on the most toxic combinations, taking six separate medicines each day. That doesn't include the prescriptions I use as needed to treat specific side effects when they emerge, like constipation, diarrhea, nausea, anorexia, anxiety, insomnia, etc. So seeing a stack of empty Retrovir boxes, even though they are visually interesting in their blue and white austerity, doesn't move me, and seems simply factually inaccurate.

Other referent ghosts that visit me are so dated, so '80s, I feel I'm in a time warp. For instance, New York choreographer Jonathan Kinzel and I collaborated on a duet when our paths crossed in Washington, DC, in 1987, where we wore only white dance belts and large squares of white carpet tape over our mouths. General Idea's "One Day of AZT/One Year of AZT" also comes irrevocably to mind, an installation of styrene pills that filled the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio, among other sites. I now see AA Bronson, the only surviving member of General Idea, for healing energy work.

To be fair, my nostalgia for a simpler time slaps me so hard in the face that it's impossible to see this piece for what it is. Just because it invokes so many personal ghosts (demons?) doesn't mean Buffard had any of these references in mind when he created it. Nor do these ghosts invalidate his authenticity. Believe me; I understand the impulse to memorialize our comrades who have fallen to this insidious pandemic. And to tag moments of our lives as if with graffiti, saying, "I am here." However, what might be intensely, painfully personal and self-revelatory to one can seem stale to another who's been in the trenches as long as I have.

 

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