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Flash Review, 3-20: Return of the Narrative
Story-time with David Rousseve

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2009 Philip W. Sandstrom

MONTCLAIR, New Jersey -- Sniffing diesel fuel while on a bouncy bus to Montclair helped establish the mood for the stories of David Rousseve in his dance drama "Saudade," presented by Peak Performances February 15. Rousseve is a master of the tale, but on the Montclair State University stage he was not the lord of the dance. While his company David Rousseve/Reality skirmished, he spun his signature narratives of undeserving pain and suffering.

The evening began with Rousseve, planted in a downstage left pool of light, his upper body undulating, reciting the phrases "meaning of life," "I love Lucy," and "a story about me," endlessly repeating and then terminating this monologue with this last phrase. There should have been no doubt that the proceedings were to be referentially Roussevian, but I kept hoping for more.

The dance continued as Rousseve repositioned himself upstage right, the towering full stage background of black and white checks becoming a video wall of trees while the dancers moved to Fado music by Camoes/Alain Oulman. A woman in red began a strip-tease downstage right and a group of dancers formed a tableau in the trees upstage in what appeared to be a ritual. Okay so far, but I begged them to tell me more.

Rousseve delivered his stories spaced evenly throughout the dance like milestones dividing the 90-minute show into discrete parts. At the end of each of tale, a bollard, like those which protect the front of buildings from suicide car bombers, took his place. The dancers inserted a performance vignette between each story while Rousseve continued his languorous journey, on a diagonal path that began upstage right, and continued downstage left to the spot where he opened the show.

While he slow-walked his trail of life, the company danced, acted, and moved around the stage in a vain attempt to confer in movement what Rousseve painted so beautifully in words. With few exceptions, the vignettes performed by his company seemed completely detached from the spoken stories. At other times they served as a visual tableau in a supporting role. In one vivid and disturbing passage, Rousseve's account of a slave owner beating his female slave for teaching her slave sister how to read is touchingly supported by a female performer miming applying soothing salve to another woman's back as she lies lifeless in her lap.

"Saudade" is described on Wikipedia as "a Portuguese and Galician word for a feeling of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. It often carries a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return." With its Fado accompaniment the evening conveyed some of this feeling but that was not enough to connect the title and its promise of a Fado-inspired and connected evening. Where the music underpinned the dancing and acting the marriage was successful, where it didn't, confusion reigned. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how the music, stories, and movement connected. Rousseve's smooth presentation appeared to endorse a through-line but the incoherent vignettes performed by the company quickly dissipated any cohesion fostered by his stories and slow diagonal journey.

The stories, all compelling but oddly similar in structure and cadence, consisted of "The story of me," "The sick man with pneumonia," "My name is Sally," "Love story about an alley cat," "Sally learning to read and write," "The slave beating," "The rape of Sally," and, finally, an account with commentary on Katrina and the suffering of New Orleans and its people. Each tale was remarkably effective, with Rousseve's command of different voices and accents the most potent elements in the show, with the exception of the visuals.

The set by Peter Melville and the lighting by David Ferri were a marvel; to call them visually stunning does not capture the sense of magic and mystery that this team produced. The setting had a life of its own, seizing the imagination, sparking untold imagery in the mind and making a visceral impact on the body. It mesmerized and provided an emotional content that extended beyond that of the stories, acting, and dancing. The overwhelming presence of these visuals carried the potential to serve as a guide to the dance but, surprisingly, was somehow not sufficient to make this disparate production cohesive.

In one incongruous moment, a video vignette was projected on a blackboard-sized screen that was unceremoniously rolled out of the wings and placed center stage. Next the screen filled with the face of Sri Susilowati, who chewed and spit out countless hot chili peppers as her eyes welled with tears and her lips swelled. You could hear the audience moan in sympathy at this gripping non sequitur.

The mature and steady cast, well-chosen for their gravitas, movement particularities and capabilities, included Esther M. Baker-Tarpaga, Olivier Tarpaga, Nehara Kalev, Marianne M. Kim, Taisha Paggett, Sri Susilowati, and Anjali Tata-Hudson.

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