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Flash Review, 5-21: Welcome to Babylon
Brussels Sprouts from Peeping Tom's 'Garden'

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2009 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS -- In Brussels, there used to be a Black bar where a mina bird might pilfer your 2,000-franc note, a dread-locked teenager would sing about how only his mother loved him as his younger sister accompanied him on the harp, a white chanteuse delivered an unrecognizable version of Bob Marley's "Kinky Reggae," a chow-chow sipped champagne, and a stunning woman in a tutu with the face of a 30-year-old and the height of a two-year-old executed releves with stunted legs until her partner stuffed her back into his duffel bag. The bar doesn't exist any more, but the film does, and makes up the first part of "Le Jardin," itself the start of a trilogy by the Belgian-based company Peeping Tom, completed by "Le Salon" and "Le Sous-Sol"(basement), and which opened Monday at the Theatre de la Ville's Abbesses space in Montmartre, where "Le Salon" plays tomorrow through Monday, followed by "Le Sous-Sol" May 28 - 30.

I say Belgian-based, but in fact Peeping Tom is its own Babylon, directed by the Frenchman Franck Chartier and the Argentinean Gabriela Carrizo, who met while working with the Belgian Alain Platel in 1999 and are joined for "Le Jardin" by the Dutchman Simon Versnel, who long-time Dance Insider readers will remember as the star of the shortest-lived piece in history, Grace Ellen Barkey's needcompany version of "The Miraculous Mandarin," which ceased to exist after the Bartok estate withdrew the rights.

The last time I saw Paris, almost two years ago, I was still complaining about how the younger generation of choreographers seemed more interested in talking than dancing. I'm revising that opinion thanks to almost every work I've seen since returning to Paris to test the waters earlier this month: Marie Chouinard's "Orphee et Eurydice," reviewed here last week; Sasha Waltz's "Allee des Cosmonautes" and Wayn Traub's "Maria-Magdalena," both reviewed for our colleague publication ExploreDance.com and, now, "Le Jardin." (To find my reviews of Waltz and Traub, and other performances I've reviewed on this Paris trip for ExploreDance.com, click here.)

Let's talk reality for a minute: In real life, people don't dance their everyday actions and interactions. So the suspension of disbelief required to enter into a world where the personages express themselves by dancing can be all that harder to achieve. What's the harm, then, if a dancer breaks the silence, as Carrizo does several times in "Le Jardin," to announce to us, the audience, in a re-assuring tone, "I have to go now but I'll be back in two minutes"?

The assurance is important because in this garden, Carrizo is the character easiest to identify with. Versnel 'talks' more, but his subject almost hits home too much to be easy to bear. It's a paene to loss, as Versnel, who begins the piece as a fountain spouting water with nothing but a fig leaf to his name and on his body, talks about the family, house, books, records, and other things he used to have (and presumably lost). Dance is not forgotten, as he sometimes accompanies or follows these accounts with spastic if well-articulated hand and arm gesticulations, and also shadows Chartier in an exhausting sort of dance routine that the younger man escalates into rough-housing until the older man pushes him away and curses him out in Flemish. And in fact Chartier anchors "Le Jardin" in a dance sense, never speaking -- sometimes gearing up to move, sometimes rolling across the stage in a sort of Dorfmanesque upside-down 'V.' His physical actions, though, are often riffs on common moments from real life: He offers glasses of wine to his partners but before delivering he does a little off-kilter dance in which he cleverly manages to spill neither the two almost full glasses nor the bottle; he sits down next to Versnel while he's recounting his former possessions, eating custard and offering spoonfuls to his neighbor, who at first accepts but when he continues shoving spoons at him even after Versnel says enough, the latter explodes.

Simon Versnel and Franck Chartier in Peeping Tom's "Le Jardin." Photo by and © Marc Deganck and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

One of the thematic links between the live dance-play and the film is bodies and physical difference. As I observed elsewhere on ExploreDance.com, another tendency I've noticed on this Paris sojourn is how performing art seems to be opening up to a wider conception of 'beauty.' In "Eloge du poil," a circus-play running at the Theatre de la Bastille through May 31, Jeanne Mordoj is an enchanting bearded lady who casts a spell so powerful she makes you forget about the beard. Between laments of loss, physically acting out his regret, and being harassed by Chartier, Versnel may work the hardest of the three performers in "Le Jardin"; never mind that he's 62 and has a large stomach that protrudes for most of the piece. Chartier and Carrizo, who boast the tightest bodies, are in some ways the most out of place; he in his constant wanderings and the way he doesn't seem to look directly at his partners all that much; she in a segment in the film where she dreams that when she gets up on the stage at the Black bar to do a slinky modern dance, everyone throws tomatoes at her. There's also the mina bird, who drops in in the live piece to drop dead out of the sky, the franc note still clutched in its beak; a cardboard cut-out of Rika -- the girl-woman of the film -- lying on her side that sits prominently upstage on the lawn of the live work; and a baby which Carrizo draws on her tummy to show to Chartier -- hint-hint.

The piece ends mid-sentence, as life often does, accenting the notion that this is a slice of it, perhaps a dream version of reality but real nonetheless.

PS: As for Rika Esser -- the small woman with the big personality -- sources say she's getting hitched in August.

The Dance Insider and ExploreDance.com have combined forces to provide exclusive coverage of the Paris dance season. The DI's Paris bureau is also sponsored by Therese Poletti, Eva Wise, Linda Ramey, Marcello Angelini, Tulsa Ballet, Maura Nguyen Donohue, Alison Chase, Donna Scro Gentile and Lisa Grimes of Freespace Dance, Catey Ott, Darrah Carr, Robert Johnson, Mark Whitmore, Nancy Reynolds, Catherine Monnig Levine, Jean Warmbold, Stephan Laurent, Sheila Marion, Amy Greenfield, and Martin Ringel. To find out about sponsorship opportunities for all budgets as well as super-discounted advertising on the DI and ExploreDance.Com, e-mail us.

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