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Flash Review, 2-8: The Connection Connection
Van den Broeck Plugs the Audience in

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Has any other society lived this dichotomy before us?: Infinitely connected, yet infinitely struggling to connect, on both a global and personal scale. I go to the theater in search of real-time connections, on the stage and with my fellow spectators. At Tuesday's French premiere of Hans Van den Broeck's new "En servicio" at Montmartre's Theatre les Abbesses, the conservatively attired young woman next to me decided to desert her seat shortly after curtain, get up on stage (wicker purse in tow), and make some connections of her own.

The performance -- and audience investment -- actually started a few minutes earlier, when the house lights dimmed, and 'audience members' were suddenly heard whispering various mundane pre-curtain preoccupations: "I wonder if there's still time to go to the bathroom," "That man sitting next to me looks interesting," "I forgot to make that phone call," and the eternal "That must be the exit." When my neighbor -- who turned out to be Carole Bonneau, one of the fiercest, drollest, and busiest dancers in France -- mounted the stage, looking curiously and tentatively about her, other whisperers remarked on her act and decided to join her, until what turned out to be the entire international cast of eight were aligned vertically on metal chairs.

What saved this device from being too clever was that these audience plants didn't instantly become trained dancers. Instead, one tall shaven-headed man suddenly darted up from his chair and executed that Kung fu move (and accompanying shout) he'd always wanted to do on stage. The others, after looking at each other to check if it was safe, quickly followed, Simon says-like, except for one late-entering, backpack-carrying man, who continued to simply watch, tentatively. Even a deft segment in which the performers -- now seated in double-rowed musical chairs formation downstage -- adroitly played hide and seek with several wallets had at its core the man whose stolen wallet (lifted while he was delivering a welcoming oration to us) initiated the sequence. And while her physical facility made it clear she was no pedestrian, my former seat-mate Bonneau regularly moved her purse to the side of the stage where she was performing, a secure link to her civil identity.

She was also involved in what seemed the poignant -- and connective -- core of the work,

Throughout the 90 minutes of organized havoc, one man (tall and long-haired Arend Pinoy) appeared repeatedly and persistently to search for a girlfriend. (Not a particular girlfriend, a new girlfriend.) Early on, as part of a group sitting at glowing computer terminals arrayed in two clusters of tables, he and a male friend exchanged e-mails with a mystery girl (American dancer Anuschka Von Oppen) sitting at the opposite cluster of tables, her back to them. She was writing from a planet running short on supplies, she said; they reported orbiting another planet two million miles away. That's too far, she responded, and they happily, with increasing excitement, announced that they were now one million miles away, now 200,000, now 2,000.... As they 'got closer,' the stage began to vibrate sonically, and she looked around, her apprehension growing. When they were finally within seeing distance, Von Oppen suddenly rose and beat Pinoy's pal to a pulp, mostly by kicking him when he was down. He kept laughing.

This set up re-surfaced later, this time with Bonneau and Pinoy seated across a vast void of table tops, typing emptily at their glowing terminals. Soon their colleagues took their computers from them, and there was an awkward moment where the pair, arms hanging limply at their sides, disarmed of the metal electronic barriers, had to face each other with no interlocutor and did not know what to say. Then the other performers, displacing furniture and lifting bodies, re-arranged them so they were practically knee-to-knee atop the tables. They were manipulated into various positions, suggesting romance, as two other performers voiced them. A general pandemonium eventually ensued, much of it under the tables, and it was finally here that -- of their own accord -- the pair become a couple.

This moment provided a rare organic island among interactions that often seemed -- intentionally -- orchestrated, most pointedly a sequence in which the tables were upturned to make a shiny silver wall at a bus-stop, where two casting director-types with forced smiles tried to recruit others waiting for the bus for a new show, or commercial, or number. After this man and woman (Von Oppen) had turned the recruits' sad countenances into equally forced smiles, a frenetic dance to the '60s rock song I know as "Monday Morning" broke out. (Badminton matches were also part of the overall mix.)

Such controlled (and highly musical) chaos was more or less balanced with quieter sequences, including some where Von Oppen, collapsed at the foot of an upstage left piano, clawed her hands up to its keys and commenced playing a melancholy accompaniment.

"In Servicio" is one of those works whose sense comes to you more in the days afterward than in real-time. Viewing it Tuesday, I thought Van den Broeck less coherent than others who work in this dance-theater vein (notably Sasha Waltz, whose creations seem thematically tighter). Two days after, I get the connection connection, but am still not sure if it is possible to connect.

PS: After writing the above, I took a mint tea with pine nuts and conversation break before the re-write, at my favorite cafe on the Canal St. Martin, and am feeling more optimistic. Connection may be possible; it helps to have a good cafe.


Hans Van den Broeck's "En Servicio," performed by Belgian-based, internationally constructed Compagnie Soit, continues through Saturday at the Theatre les Abbesses of the Theatre de la Ville.

 

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