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Flash Flashback, 4-21: Isadora's Children
Lynda Gaudreau Documents Modern Dance's Journey

(Editor's Note: The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash Review originally appeared on October 30, 2000. Benoit Lachambre performs his "Delire Defait" May 31 - June 6, except Sunday, at the Theatre de la Bastille in Paris.)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- The remains of Isadora Duncan lay stored behind a 12" by 12" plaque, amidst a vast wall of urns, one of many walls in the columbarium at Pere Lachaise cemetary here. Under her gold-lettered name, "Danseuse" and "Ecole de Ballet de l'Opera de Paris" are all that identify the grandmother of Modern Dance. In the margins around Isadora's columbiarium, someone has written "natural movement." I thought of what remains of Isadora's legacy -- and of how broadly her progeny (not to mention her progeny's progeny's progeny) have extended that definition, and what they consider the "natural" terrain to be investigated -- Saturday night, a few hours after visiting Isadora's final resting place, while watching the geometrical experiments of Lynda Gaudreau's company at Theatre de la Ville's space on Rue des Abbesses, a few stops on the Metro from Pere Lachaise, and right up the hill from Paris's Red Light district.

Whew! That's a rather loaded first paragraph. But I think both juxtapositions are appropriate. On the one hand, Modern Dance's universe has expanded much since Isadora's early expeditions which, as far as I understand it (I don't pretend to be an expert) had to do with, well, yes, natural movement. Rather than taking a codified system (ballet) and making up a dance to music which she then had to incorporate into her body, Isadora started from her body, and how it naturally responded to music and other environmental stimulae. From those rather humble first steps, her successors have charted a universe which goes way beyond exploring how the body moves naturally to the psychic explorations of Martha Graham, the socio-therapeutic screes of Bill T. Jones, the chance dances of Merce Cunningham (which sometimes seem if anything more mathematical than ballet), the socio-cultural dance-theater of Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle, the illusion dance-theater of Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, Pilobolus and Momix, and all the branches of these.

Double-whew! That's a rather loaded second paragraph, so let me, er, jump straight to the second juxtaposition: Despite all this hard work, through which these and others, aided by not a few dedicated dancers, have in a hundred years developed, essentially, a whole new branch to one of our oldest art forms -- despite all this, if you tell your average Joe or Jane in Middle America that you're a dancer, he's more likely to think of the type of sex-based action that was going on near the Place Pigalle Saturday night than the abstract art that five talented dancers and a few prodigious choreographers were creating up the hill at the Abbesses.

Would the action near Pigalle be more, er, titilating, at least to the hetero male sex? Well, perhaps. But would it feed your mind in the same way as the exacting and dense repertoire virtuosically danced by Lynda Gaudreau's company? No way! This is my very long-winded way of saying that while "Document 1," the 1999 multi-choreographer collage presented Saturday by Gaudreau, is not necessarily "entertaining" for the non-dancer, it makes clear that there is a cadre, anyway, of modern dance choreographers who, if anything, from Isadora's intentions to simply make it acceptable to move naturally to music, have extended Modern Dance's mission to a search for a vocabulary which, in its pure science and, in some ways, demands on the dancers' bodies and intellects, has surpassed ballet as a complex system of movement and vocabulary for creating challenging abstract art. In terms of actually searching for new ways to move the body to create art, these choreographers are attempting so much more than just about anybody creating in the ballet field today, with the possible exception of Billy Forsythe

The choreographic mix in "Document 1" included Jonathan Burrows, Adam Roberts, Matteo Fargion, Meg Stuart, Benoit Lachambre, and Daniel Larrieu.

While it was hard to separate where one work began and the next ended -- not that I'm complaining, Gaudreau's conception of presenting the whole as one 75-minute seemless evening succeeded -- more than anything the area covered reminded me of Burrows, whose work I saw a couple of years back at The Kitchen. Like that work, much of this evening was concerned with exploring grids: grids of the body, grids clearly marked on the stage, grids of two or four bodies together, grids on one body, grids of the hands. Grids on the ground. The play area was defined by a brown paper colored marley (whose color Lucie Bazzo's lights sometimes changed to orange, black, or white). Repeatedly, dancers move confined in one of two rectangles of sometimes blue light up and downstage. Towards the beginning and at the end, the four-five dancers (Sarah Doucet, Mark Eden-Towle, Sophie Janssens, Sarah Stocker and guest artist Lachambre), dance in a chorus line, tho one whose moves are much more restricted and localized than what you might find at the nearby Moulin Rouge. Instead of kicking out, to reveal itself, a leg kicks in, swiftly. A foot beats against a calf.

In between these bookends of the evening, the explorations are also localized per dancer; sometimes with one or two on stage, but often with all four, in their own spaces, or divided with two in one rectangle and two in another. At one point, when two converged on space and selves in a taped area downstage right, I had a movement epiphany: Twister! Right foot red! Left hand green!

Choreographically as well as in execution, the most virtuosic moment was provided by Lachambre, dancing an excerpt from Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods' "No Longer Readymade." Think Trisha Brown (the minuteness of hand-jive), remixed inna lockin' and poppin' mode by Doug Elkins, at 78 rpm, and you get the idea. How Lachambre moved not only his hands, but expecially is head, back and forth like that in such a cartoon-quick blur, is beyond me! The only stop-pauses in the frantic pace were ones in which Lachambre appeared to be shooting up, precisely pricking his inner elbow.

Lachambre also shined, literally, in a self-choreographed "Solo a la Hanche." I see here by my handy-dandy French-English dictionary that "hanche" means hip in French, and that's what we saw a lot of here, in its resplendent rippling-muscled full glory, from the moment Lachambre splits open his pants to reveal thick hip, thigh, and left leg, in profile.

The guest artist also figured prominently in the wind-up toy section, where he winds up, then sets loose, a series of, yes, wind-up toys, which mercilessly pursue the other four dancers, who try to maneuver around them. Lachambre scrambles after, often on his belly or back, catching the sonic action with his microphone. The section, er, winds up with a penguin solo, as this, the largest of the toys, waddles for quite some time, alone in center stage, before finally winding down and being scooped up by a dancer.

During this section, the only sound is that of the winding up and down. And this is one more thing that reminds me of how far modern dance has travelled since Isadora's initial expeditions -- so far that many choreographers see music as unnecessary, so much has their work become about exploring space more than music. That's not an entirely fair comment as applies to Gaudreau's company, however; in fact, there was sound for much of this, but not what many would consider music: Glottal clicks, for example, also figured in the score. When sitting "off stage" at the sides, the dancers often held mikes into which they whispered the sounds for those still on stage.

Film figured heavily in the evening, as well. Most winningly, in footage of a young girl, dribbling a basketball, who is basically accosted by two men who try, mostly unsuccessfully, to steal the ball from her. (Apparently, she's a ringer.) Towards the beginning of the evening, we see Burrows's film "Hands," which is just that: hands folding, unfolding, extending, folding again. One for the hardcore localized digit movement fans, but didn't do much for me. And, at the end, a little patly, we have a film that's a lesson in needlepoint or crochet. This provides the pat ending to an otherwise refreshingly non-linear evening of geometrical experiments: "And then you just keep going," says the narration.

.... If I can keep going for just one paragraph longer: What moved me most about this very abstract evening was, well, the composition of the audience. A similar program in New York would probably have been packed, but mostly by fellow-travellers: dancers and choreographers. I've got nothing against dancers and choreographers in the audience, but if I do have a bone to pick with some post-post-modern choreographers, it's that their work exists in a vacuum: fascinating to them from a process point of view, and maybe to some of their colleagues, but just too remote to appeal to a non-dancer like me. This is not an argument against abstraction; far from it. What impressed me about Lynda Gaudreau's concert Saturday, both on the stage and in the audience, is that a crowd of mostly non-dancers who knew how far Modern Dance has travelled from its roots in Isadora, and who also could look beyond the dancer stereotype being represented down the hill in the Red Light district, had come to see high art -- and the choreographers and dancers had given it to them.

 

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