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Post-Modern Classics, 10-23: Dreaming of Danzon... and John Shaft
Shut Your Mouth! And Enter the Wondrous World of Daniel Larrieu

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001, 2008 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To celebrate its tenth anniversary as the leading dancer-driven publication, the Dance Insider is reflecting on the new Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past decade. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider archive was first published on November 21, 2001.)

PARIS -- I thought I'd seen it all after a performer at PS 122 made her naked breasts into puppet faces. But that was before last night at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, where Daniel Larrieu offered, among other wonders, a white skeleton, maneuvered by three black-garbed puppeteers, essaying a perfect pimp walk to a French-Arabic-Techno trance cover of Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft." Imagine a dream, where the various people and things you were thinking about before you nodded off converge in seeming non-sequiturs, but you readily sacrifice sense to marvel, and you have the mystery of Larrieu's "Cenizas," which received its Paris premiere last night.

"Cenizas" was actually worked out in residencies earlier this year in Mexico and Georgia. In the former, Larrieu honed in on the danzon, the classic social dance. In the latter, in Tbilisi, he hooked up with puppet master Rezo Gabriadze. The result is neither a campy send-up of danzon, nor a superficial dip into another culture, nor an ironic juxtaposition in which modern dancers essay staid-faced isolations, with no apparent connection to the music. Rather, after a more, er, classically post-modern beginning in which two women only occasionally slip in a danzon-y flick of the ankle, or pivot of the hips, he gives us a series of routines, in the best sense of that word. I don't know the form well enough to say to what degree Larrieu and his dancers replicated the original, and to what degree they departed from it. But it is apparent that, regardless of how much is natively his and how much the natives', for this piece he developed strict ways of arraying the bodies -- often in lines, moving as one, angled, with backs to the audience, or as two lines passing bodies between them. Sometimes in a sort of danzon mambo line -- more specific and contemplative. It's also apparent that Larrieu and the other 14 dancers drilled in the elegant, deceptively simple raising and lowering of heels and circling of ankles that makes the danzon so eloquent.

And the atmospherics, ooh-lah-lah! Pendants are strung over the proscenium, but after the house lights dim, all is illuminated by colored Christmas-like bulbs. Costumes, by Marthe Desmoulins for Absinthe (now seeing this piece on that might have been a nightmare indeed!), are festive -- pink and orange and yellow and white dresses for the women, often with shawls, and for the men, even better, Sunday dress-up in the barrio: bright pastel button-down shirts, polyester pants, patent leather shoes -- even two-tones. The music, most of the time, is that Latin music of the late thirties which, whether from Argentina, Cuba, Mexico or Puerto Rico, harkens another age. It rocks -- some of the horn and drum-driven tunes are even called Fanfares -- but it's also hopelessly romantic. The type of music that might start playing in your mind if you spent Sunday afternoon in your grandmother's attic, rummaging through her old photos and dusty fiesta gowns from when she was a girl.

What's post-modern in all this might be seen in the hands, often weaving alone or with their arms following, torsos more subtly. Larger -- and at times too jarring of a non-sequitur -- are the few, but notably different, entirely post-modernish sections. A woman in a cream-colored pantsuit lies down, her head to us, her knees up and pressed together, and strips to the buff, the lights dimming at the end as she rises and walks off. It's maybe a Pina Bauschian moment, and the dancer indeed has a charismatic, pretty but takes no bullshit Bauschian dancer's presence (she could love you but she could also eat you alive, depending on her mood), but, unlike Bausch I think, and winningly, it's all understated. I think there may have even been other things going on on the stage simultaneously (hey, I'm a critic, but I'm also a man!).

That segment blends, but not so much, for me, a section where suddenly the dancers' folkloric garb is replaced by modern, even jazzy black. They wander around in a mishmash of post-mod tilting and kicking and thrusting and jutting and releasing, not quite blending -- dramatically at least -- with a film on the upstage wall of a puppet head made up of geometrical shapes, with something like a road coursing in the background.

What did blend, however -- and, again, because Larrieu didn't press the point, but used the device pointedly -- was the segments where puppet principles were employed. The killer one here was one in which, to solely Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat" ("It's four in the morning....") and really getting the slow measured musicality of Cohen, several dancers manipulated two others, a man and a woman, puppet like. Maybe I was projecting from the words of the Cohen song, but they seemed to be negotiating -- the man and woman -- like a couple who had been through it, and were testing how close they could again safely get to each other. Finally, they have manipulated her so an arm is outstretched to him, pointing, and his are more or less open to her -- if not for an embrace, than at least a return.

By the end of the play -- for that it seemed -- the stage has been covered in pink confetti, gracefully and orderly strewn about by the dancers. A large fern is upstage right. Center-stage, approximately, lies the crumpled skeleton, spent, perhaps, after being twirled around by his controllers, a la Travolta in the white suit in "Saturday Night Fever." Downstage center, a woman has constructed an altar with bottles of potions and a Madonna on a cloth bag illuminated by a votive candle, the last light on the stage after, refreshingly, all 15 dancers have marched it slowly, in silence, after the last fanfare ends, giving us time, as it were, to slowly wake up.

I think Larrieu's admirable risk in "Cenizas" -- and it's substantive -- is that he has hued to one dreamlike tone. While the evening is leavened with humorous interstices -- like the disco skeleton, and a woman who picks away the petals of a flower declaring, "'He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me not in Spanish, he loves me not in French...." -- there is no over-the-top in-your-face Bauschian shouting. I suspect that rather than construct a traditional story, his goal was to take us into a dream-world, as conjured with elements he and the dancers picked up in their travels -- heck, they even burn incense, at which point I became a goner! And it's a world augmented because these are trained dancers describing the danzon form to us, and playing with it, and trained dancers (well, I'm not so sure about the skeleton) playing the puppets. Those dancers: Trisha Bauman, Fanny de Chaille, Agnes Coutard, Guillaume Cuvilliez, Sylvie Drieu, Dery Fazio, Christophe Ives, Anne Laurent, Joel Luecht, Bettina Masson, Gabriela Montes, Maxime Rigobert, Roberto Videl, Pascaline Verrier, and Larrieu.

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