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Flash Review, 11-29: Erasing Anne
Doing a Rauschenberg on De Keersmaeker

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- What a pleasure it is, jaded as I've become about the current generation of (mostly) dance-disdaining French choreographers, to behold a work (albeit not French) that engages the spectator in me and calls all my critical faculties to attention. I don't have the aesthetic chops to do justice to Joji Inc's "Erase-E (X)," a dance riff on Robert Rauschenberg's seminal 1953 "Erased de Kooning drawing," with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker replacing de Kooning as the putative subject. As with the original work, I think it would take more than a single viewing to penetrate all the levels explored by the 'erasers,' in this case the Wooster Group, De Keersmaeker herself, fellow Belgian choreographer Isabella Soupart, and video-maker Kurt d'Haeseleer. So I will just try to give you the flavor of the project, which opened last night and closes this night at the Theatre les Abbesses in Montmartre.

In 1953, as Ed Krcma of Stammtischforum explains it in this synopsis of a recent talk by the artist, Rauschenberg, "feeling nervous and holding a bottle of whiskey as a gift," visited Willem de Kooning's studio and explained his intentions to the older artist: "... that de Kooning should give him a drawing which Rauschenberg would then erase and exhibit as his own artwork. De Kooning, perhaps understandably, wasnÍt keen at first, but he eventually acquiesced muttering 'I'm not going to make this easy for you.' He rifled through different portfolios and eventually chose a drawing both that he valued and that had been heavily worked, thus raising both the potential for waste as well as (making) the erasing more difficult. It took Rauschenberg about three weeks of work, using a battery of different erasers, and the result is 'Erased de Kooning Drawing,'" now in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

When Joji Inc -- Rosas alumna Johanne Saunier and New York-based Jim Clayburgh -- decided to translate this concept to dance, it was natural that they should approach Saunier's former director, who in 2006 occupies a place in dance similar to that occupied by de Kooning in art in 1953. Like de Kooning, De Keersmaeker cooperated by providing the starting place: a five-minute fragment created for this event. (Notwithstanding the clever title of the clever concept, as Krcma points out in discussing the earlier work, "the kind of labour and attention involved in erasing the drawing might speak more of homage than destruction.")

Saunier begins the performance with a clearly etched rendition of the original fragment, a vintage (if new) De Keersmaeker essay of loosey-goosey limbs that suddenly freeze in a pointed pose, full or arrested swirls and whirls and, reflecting the choreographer's current trend, a lot of floor work. The sudden, seemingly impromptu amused smiles are there, as are the minutia, most noticeably a fluttering hand beating gently against a cheek, about the only phrase I recognize in the subsequent four erasures. Watching Saunier's interpretation, I am struck -- as I rarely am seeing anyone but ATDK herself describe her vocabulary -- by what a unique voice De Keersmaeker's really is.

If the object of the rest of the evening is to erase, the Wooster Group gets things going, going, gone by not just obscuring but obliterating De Keersmaeker's demeanor if not the actual steps. Notwithstanding the occasional flirty smiles and tosses of a slit skirt, ATDK holds with the general abstract approach that the choreography should provide the drama; leave emoting at the door, please! Wooster, and the interpreter -- Saunier, who never really leaves the stage in this 90-minute marathon -- demolish this right away. To extracts from the soundtrack -- and dialogue -- of Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 "Contempt," Saunier tears through the movement. On reading more about the 'erase' concept this morning, I guess I can understand what Wooster was trying to do here. But the choice to do it to this particular dialogue (enacted mostly by Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli; the late Jack Palance also starred) from this particular film by this particular filmmaker confuses the task by confounding sources and subjects. What helps us receive Godard's ideas is the deadpan playing of his performers, also often the perspective of his camera. While Wooster's choice to have Saunier over-emote is a valid approach to the task of 'erasing' De Keersmaeker, it also misunderstands Godard, or gives the impression of doing so anyway. That could be a provocative choice if Godard was the subject, but here it's just a distracting if not irritating one. And it's not helped by the choice to mike Saunier's cheeks and thus amplify her breath -- a trick that was old five years ago -- which only makes us think they chose the wrong Godard movie.

One of the things that makes De Keersmaeker an oasis in the post-modern landscape is that she doesn't compose in spite of or apart from the music, but engages it. Lately, she's interested herself in Indian music, and that's the direction she goes for the bulk of her own attempt to erase herself in part two of "Erase-E (X)." I use 'erase' because that's the stated objective, but here she seems to be not so much erasing as increasing the BPM, which left me breathless to get such a kinetic feast in these days of non-dancey dance here in Europe, especially in Saunier's tour-de-force rendering. When De Keersmaeker switches to Dolly Parton's recording of "Jolene," the dancer returns to over-emoting (even mouthing the words at times), and I'm over it.

Just when we're in danger of taking ourselves too seriously, actor and B-Boy (this guy can cling to a wall sideways with his feet like Spidey himself) Charles Francois arrives on the scene for Isabelle Soupart's part three, in which he's a sort of repairman in shades constantly on the phone to headquarters to report on the job. His task here seems to be to wrangle Saunier's out-of-control modern dancer; at one point he even reports, "She keeps throwing herself on the ground!" Eventually they get together in a sizzling duet all over the floor to the Staple Singers' apt "I'll Take You There."

Video-maker d'Haeseleer, in a closing segment commissioned by the Theatre de la Ville (which operates les Abbesses) for this run, brings on the real white-out conditions. An alien-looking camera on a stand contraption is positioned on the stage; Saunier takes her position in a softly lit, semi-dark circle to its left; and the camera captures and subtly morphs her into black and white projected on a narrow screen just above her. She's soon placed in a David Lynch-like landscape -- snow-whitened trees, a white field around a freeway overpass. Half-cartoon, half-real, her diminished screen image -- no longer a morphing of what she's performing live, but presumably previously captured -- pops up in odd places on the landscape. Francois even makes a return cameo, a lone figure standing aside a country road in this landscape, morphing his own face.

After it's over, indeed after the first curtain-call, Saunier primly returns to the stage to post a sign: "To be continued...."

 

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