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Paris Journal, 1-12: Release Techniques
Scott Transcends Torture; Always After Midnight Laughs at Murder
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 The Dance Insider
PARIS -- In a time when nations which used to provide a moral compass have now become the perpetrators of torture, kidnapping, and unprovoked war, it's understandable that well-meaning artists might want to use the stage to fill the void. And yet from an artistic -- and even moral -- standpoint, they have often failed. William Forsythe's much-anticipated response to Iraq, last year's "Three Atmospheric Studies," was -- for as much as this reviewer could sit through, anyway -- at the least embarrassing, at the worse offensive, as dancers who probably haven't experienced the harsh reality dashed spastically about responding to a market-place bombing, and Forsythe offered hackneyed satire of a local's interview with the occupation authorities. Wim Vandekeybus's 2005 "Puur," which promised "an act of resistance in the face of the violence of the world," instead simply replicated it, even showing a torturer seemingly cutting off a child's hand. Where choreographer responses to our fear-drenched times have worked, it's often been in depicting Beauty -- and Love's -- valiant struggle to survive despite the violence, as in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's 2006 "Loin" (Far), created on and for the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve.
In reviewing "Loin," I wondered out loud, "When your country is defending its values by shoving tubes up the noses and into the stomachs of prisoners it seems to think are guilty until they are never given a chance to prove they are innocent, and when your state (California) is arguing about the most humane way to kill someone on your behalf, can dance -- can art -- really make a difference? Does it even matter?" My interest in posing the question was a bit selfish; I was looking for mitigation of my own horror, despondency, and guilt. But what about re-formulating the question more practically: Can art -- can dance -- directly help the survivors of war and torture?
In 2003, Dublin-based choreographer John Scott, director of Irish Modern Dance Theatre, was approached by the city's Centre for Care for Survivors of Torture, which serves refugees who, during examination, have been found to have been physically or mentally tortured. "They approached me because the clients asked for dance as a form of art therapy," Scott told me recently. "They were not responding to therapy and counseling and felt working with only their bodies and not words would help. I was worried what the right approach might be and I went in with a blank book but some tricks, the tricks being things I had learned with Meredith Monk and Pablo Vela in workshops -- improvising with names, sound and movement exercises. I wanted to try to generate possible material and to make a sort of movement passport using their names as center, then using their own languages as a soundtrack, and to heighten how they spoke and magnify it with gesture. They responded well, generating the movement they could make -- and they gave me some delightful surprises, too. It was less interesting when we tried making a phrase and rehearsing and cleaning it -- too well-drilled looking. We tried to make a piece for them to show to each other -- no public performance was in mind."
"Their advisors in the center advised against discussing or probing their pasts unless they wished to do so," Scott continued. "I was trying to create a way of working together and was willing to try anything. I was impressed by how they make abstract movement so powerful and carry real weight and dignity and yearning. The first moment Kiribu lifted her arms over her head I started to cry. When they held their arms out I felt shivers. I felt way out of my depth but I hung in there and they held on to me."
Kiribu, I should explain, is the family pet name -- not her real name, for obvious reasons -- for a woman from an African country where her husband was shot in front of her and the children. To answer the question of whether dance works as a soul survival mechanism for refugees from torture and other violence, one needs merely to look at Kiribu's smile -- and behold those all-encompassing arms -- onstage, as I was able to do Friday when an excerpt from "The White Piece," the performance that did indeed evolve from Scott's work with the survivors, was shown at the Centre National de la Danse on the outskirts of Paris.
"The White Piece," created with and performed by a team mixing violence survivors with a fierce cast of professionals, is not overtly political and, in its true triumph, if it began with therapeutic intentions, it is not "Still/Here," the Bill T. Jones piece on terminal illness sufferers which rightly prompted Arlene Croce's very public New Yorker refusal to review 'victim art.' They don't dance torture but rather, the persistence of the human spirit to emerge in spite of it. Thus, if the survivor-performers are not on the same technical level as Scott's other dancers -- who include the virtuosic Cunningham veterans Cheryl Therrien and Ashley Chen -- they are just as adept at tapping into the font of dance's fundamental utility for performers and audience alike, the liberation of the spirit through the freedom of the body.
This is one performance you need to see to believe. For instance, if I told you the excerpt I saw has the 11 performers (including three violence survivors) taking turns pronouncing statements that begin with "Love as..." (... a refuge, a survival instinct, a way of defining yourself, a way of finding the divine from within, a take-off pad, etcetera), which they then lead the rest in dancing out, you might roll your eyes, as I initially did. The acting out of overt joy has become embarrassing in our cynical age. But really -- and without meaning to diminish the sometimes-creative movement invention and its rigorous execution -- this exercise is essentially a release mechanism.
"I'm not redaly thinking of the torture during the dance," Kiribu told the BBC. "I'm thinking of releasing."
Less successful than "The White Piece" is Scott's "Close Ups -- I don't want to die yet," a new installation piece which got just its second performance -- after a Dublin premiere last year -- Monday night at the Irish Cultural Center here. In theory, this building, or complex of buildings, located in Paris's Latin Quarter, is a perfect setting for a work which ended up -- because of the participation of some of the same torture survivors -- taking on similar themes, though more obviously. At the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Army used it to house displaced persons claiming U.S. citizenship. From 1947 to 1997, it hosted a seminary for Polish survivors of Dachau who didn't want to return to a homeland dominated by Communism after the war.
I start out prejudiced against performance installations, at least the sort that have the spectator wandering throughout the building. Clever concept often takes precedence over actual invention, and the construct can seem artificial. The latter was definitely the case with this performance of "Close Ups," in which we were told we could wander where we wanted, but in fact were inevitably directed to follow the performance in its set trajectory. I would have liked to see more wordless vignettes which really used the space and fully exploited the possibilities for vantage points -- such as one moment when, watching from a small courtyard, we see hands grasping at the inside of the windows of one of the rooms that encircle it. And I would have liked to see less spoken narrative intervention -- as when Scott tells us towards the end that a table everyone's about to tape themselves to by various body parts "represents everything we are afraid of." (Which fears, yes, the dancers then verbally enunciate. "I have a cold but I'm afraid it's going to get much worse," "I'm growing dangerously thin," etcetera.) I would have also liked to see more movement cohesion; an intricate and fierce duet between Therrien and Chen seemed to have no or little connection with a flat-against-the-floor solo by the equally fierce and fluid Becky Reilly. Perhaps the piece will evolve as it wends its way to and through new spaces; it should be noted that the group only had one run-through in this building before Monday's public presentation.
Coming on the heels of shows with real torture survivors, one might think that a black humor romp built on recitations of mundane murders for mundane reasons might seem objectionable. This is the essential textual basis of Roser Montllo Guberna and Brigitte Seth's "Recitatifs toxiques," the final in a trilogy from their company, Toujours Apres Minuit (Always After Midnight), built on excerpts from Max Aub's "Crimes Exemplaires" and seen Tuesday at the Theatre aux Abbesses in Montmartre. Educated on the background of the author, one immediately grants him the license to get as black as he wants: Born in Paris (in my neighborhood) in 1903, exiled to Spain during the First World War and until the Civil War, back in Paris ahead of the next one before finally landing in Mexico after escaping from an internment camp, it was Aub who, so say the program notes, suggested "Guernica" to his homeboy Picasso.
Black the narrative basis of "Recitatifs toxiques" certainly is, usually just in its spoken narrative -- as three dancer-actors recount their characters' barely-provoked killings of others. (A subway groper who got too physically close, a best friend who got too mentally close, a husband who got too boring, a waiter who made his ultimate killer late for an appointment.) But one death is graphically enacted -- twice! -- as Seth, trying to orate in French, attempts to (literally) put an end to Guberna -- who keeps interrupting her to orate in Spanish -- by appearing to stomp her to death and, when she miraculously revives, smothering her, a death scene indicated by the victim's frantically kicking and eventually subsiding legs. We're meant to laugh at most of this I suppose -- aided by the contrasting beatific musical setting, the Ensemble Quam Dilecta's live, and eloquent playing of music by Baroque composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. (Although the ending is more somber and reflective.) And perhaps at another time I might have laughed more (I admit to a few giggles) than I did Tuesday. I just don't know if in these lethal times there's room for a spectacle that mocks murder.
It's unfortunate because from an aesthetic standpoint, "Recitatifs toxiques" is one of the more successful melanges of music, theater, and dance that I've seen, with standout dance performances by the finely etched Guberna and flamenco-limbed Dominique Brunet (uncredited for her dance performance in the program, unfortunately) and violinist Marie Rouquié. If you're not as closed to black humor as I am, the work continues through Saturday at the Theatre aux Abbesses, and all three parts of the trilogy will be on view in various Paris venues through March.