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Letter from London, 3-7: Next Stop, Rosas/P.A.R.T.S.
On the Brussels Express with De Keersmaeker & Charges

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2008 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- To be able to arrive in Paris from London in two hours is a small miracle. To be able to do so in comfort and style is a big one. St Pancras International was officially opened on November 14 as the new London destination of the Eurostar; consequently continental Europe has never seemed closer to the British capital. Besides signifying an attempt to revive the jaded Anglo-French relationship by reaching across the Atlantic with outstretched arms, this opening represents a welcome rejuvenation of an intriguing central London neighborhood which has been until recently badly neglected. St Pancras station includes two of the most celebrated structures built in Britain in the Victorian era: the main train shed, completed in 1868, and the frontage of the station formed by St Pancras Chambers, a huge Victorian Gothic pile and formerly a hotel, built between 1868 and 1877. Dubbed the 'cathedral of railways,' in the 20th century it fell rapidly into disrepair following the closure of the hotel in 1935, while bombing from WW II inflicted damage to the roof of the train shed. In the '60s neighboring Euston station was rebuilt and expanded to become London's principal terminus for trains to Scotland and the north of England, which had previously departed from St Pancras. This left only a few suburban train services running from St Pancras, and the general inclination in London was to close the station once and for all, as it had become pretty much redundant.

While the surrounding area has for centuries housed some of the most notorious slums in London and has been at the center of some of the city's worst crime and prostitution, it has also been the home to a thriving community of artists and writers. Since the regeneration program that was part of the Eurostar installation started in 2000, the seedy, dirty, down-at-the-heel look and feel of the 'hood' which made it a place where outsiders didn't want to linger, have been transformed. The restored station is spectacular, with its huge glass roof, long platforms to house the 400 meter trains and plethora of glamorous shops and bars, including the longest champagne bar in Europe. The imposing and over-ornate Victorian Gothic architecture of the station front remains untouched to retain historical coherence, but new 21st-century materials and objects inhabit the interior, such as glass, smooth concrete floors, and the famous statues: a nine-meter, 20-ton bronze of entwined lovers kissing by British sculptor Paul Day and another of the poet laureate John Betjeman, who campaigned to keep the station open in the 1960s. The feeling of light and space which the architecture has created pushes the station optimistically into the future and out of its murky past. Sitting next door to St Pancras is the equally majestic British Library completed a few years ago, while Bloomsbury, an oasis of literary, artistic and academic life, lies directly south across the busy Euston Rd., enjoying its own recent face-lift.

It was therefore fitting that the opening of St Pancras International should be marked by a celebratory festival aptly called 'Arrivals,' which took advantage of the vivacious cultural activity in the expanded vicinity: poetry, music, literature, dance, visual arts and film featured in this 12-day bonanza, November 14 - 25. Dance students from the nearby London Studio Centre, a theater dance college, performed site-specific work on the generously broad platforms of the station, along with various musical contributions made by local schools and bands, while exhibitions, poetry recitals and gigs were held in local cafes, galleries, the British Library and numerous venues in Bloomsbury. Further down the road from St Pancras is the Place, London's main home for contemporary dance, which embraced the new proximity of Brussels by hosting a weekend for its long-standing friends, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, her company Rosas and students -- both previous and current -- of her school P.A.R.T.S.. As John Ashford, theater director of the Place, said in the venue's brochure, "Stroll along to St Pancras International and enjoy a fast modern train ride. Get off at the other end and take tram 82 a few stops -- and there you are at Rosas and P.A.R.T.S." Entitled 'Sum/Some of the P.A.R.T.S.,' this weekend transformed the Place into a truly continental venue, with workshops and round-the-clock performances. At one point on the opening night of Friday November 16, as I waited in the bar for a show to start at 9:30 (British dance concerts never begin this late), I noticed that I was surrounded by an international dance crowd which created a buzzy, nocturnal and distinctively non-English atmosphere.

I saw both Vincent Dunoyer and De Keersmaeker perform his solo, the ultra-deconstructed "Sister," as the closing shot on Sunday November 18, and enjoyed the body knowledge, wit and camaraderie shared between these iconic figures. I found the edginess and fluidity of De Keersmaeker's physical language as captivating as ever, but this time I was fascinated by her stage persona, which at times resulted in charmless performance: hostile glances at the audience, wiping nose on arm, slouched body, shrugs and grunts. This leakage of 'off-stage' behavior is juxtaposed bumpily with the more seamless dance phrases and sometimes makes De Keersmaeker appear arrogant, as if she just doesn't need to engage positively with the audience. Ultimately she does make more generous connections with her viewers and I'm riveted by her idiosyncratic style, but it takes a bit of time.

It was, however, Arco Renz's solo "Heroine," performed by Su Wen-Chi and seen on November 16, which remains to this minute etched in my memory. Renz, one of the first generation of students to pass through P.A.R.T.S. in 1988, has developed choreography that is inspired by German Expressionist films of the '20s, Eastern dance and theater forms. Wen-Chi, who had arrived just one hour prior to performing, delayed by a French national railroad strike whose tendrils stretched to affect Eurostar departures at Paris's Gare du Nord, appeared stoically unphased. (Such frustrating action on the part of the French is emblematic of the Anglo-French 'childish' liaison: trains connect the two countries faster than ever, but on the opening day of this speedy link, the French can't transcend their hereditary labor strife and effectively block it, with little concern for their English partners.)

More than half of the solo happens in the dark. Intensity mounts in the pitch black; I can sense someone on stage but can't see the person. Gradually the grainy contours of Wen-Chi's body appear as she performs repeated vertical rotations with the upper torso. Most of the movement is mechanical, but uses the vertical axis of the body rather than the horizontal, as favored by so much Western dance. Lighting is introduced and the dizzying repetitive actions flow up and down Wen-Chi's taught yet liquid body. She jumps round to gaze at us and her face contorts in emotion, snarling anger, humor, concentration and surrender. Tension flows through her body like electric currents; her hands clench into animal claws as she swipes through the air; Expressionist angst results in fractured, angular positions. But this is followed by a meditatively calm trance-like induced physicality. Her arms describe huge sweeping circles from her head to her toes and through this never-ending sequence traced in the fading light, she appears to levitate.

Such an extraordinary mixing of German Expressionist dance and Eastern philosophy I find revelatory and if the Eurostar brings us more of this work, please don't stop blowing the whistle.

(Editor's Note: For more on the travels of P.A.R.T.S., click here.)

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