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