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Flash Review, 5-26: Underground
Beres burrows beneath the visage

Julie Beres's "Sous les visages." Alain Monot photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS -- One problem with a lot of the modern dance I see is that, in these times of crisis, with so many facing the very real challenges of keeping a roof over their heads and food in their bellies, it often seems frivolous and self-absorbed, as if beamed down from a planet where people don't have to worry about making ends meet and basic daily survival. A second problem is choreographers who think they don't need to be talented and trained dramatists to add text to their creations, with the result that the words they come up with are often... self-absorbed. Et voila Julie Beres, whose "Sous les visages" (under or behind the visages), which opened last night at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses in Montmartre where it plays through June 5, takes a real problem, massive impersonal lay-offs or firings, and treats it with luminous movement and lucid, if not always original, dialogue.

"Sous les visages" begins with two stark if not startling images, the one parallelling the other: a downstage, squirming human blob, at the bottom of a pile of earth Goury (no last name) has installed on the stage, and an upstage, more translucent human form, legs in the air, perhaps projected via video. It turns out that the blob is a woman who has just been fired from her job and is retreating into her own world, a quicksand of immobility (albeit portrayed in a mobile fashion). Already, this movement -- coming from the direction of a theater sensibility -- is more interesting than 99 percent of the text I've heard coming from choreographers. And a lot of the choreography I've seen from choreographers. Perhaps this is because Beres doesn't come with a ready choreographic vocabulary -- and perhaps because she's actually designing movement which fits her story, as opposed to just for the helluva it as is often the case with process-oriented choreographers. And it's not just the choreography itself, but the way Beres alters its equilibrium amd disturbs the balance of her performers by setting them on a sloping surface and slowing down their tempo.

Later, an element of marionette is introduced when a mother or friend arrives and harangues the heroine to get out of her funk and do something about her situation. This character's movement dynamic is messed with too using an ingenious tool: while we can't actually see it through the darkened background, the actress appears to be reciting from a swing or rope, which intermittently jolts her, the legs suddenly clipping, or her whole body getting turned upside down as she continues to harangue.

Where the drama suddenly becomes a scary reflection of the real world is in the second half, largely taken up by a burlesque of what's called here in France the Saturday night divertissement, an insipid television concept where a panel of guests, usually with something to promote, watches and comments on endless video clips around a given subject, e.g. "the 100 worse bloopers of all time." Having caught the tail end of some of these spectacles -- they often run over time, so I catch them while waiting for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit -- I can tell you that Beres's crew perfectly caught the environment of false back-slapping, barely-veiled and barely funny double entendres and above all exagerrated fake smiles.

What I caught -- thanks to an able assist from the astute young woman sitting next to me -- was the connection between the lay-offs which have hit France like every place else the last few years and this variety of Saturday night divertissement, which in fact is not a divertissement but a diversion produced by a commmercial television network, which as a large corporation has an interest in diverting attention from the cold-blooded firings its brother and sister corporations have been perpetrating. In the world these semi-celebrities inhabit, tragedy doesn't appear to exist, especially that which arises from the very real circumstance of losing one's employ and consequently means and esteem.

One can assume that the scenario has the fired heroine watching such a show and trying to get lost in the false good humour, but it doesn't work. In the end the t.v. panel becomes a cadre of undertakers carrying a coffin, hers, after which her co-workers deliver eulogies comprised of send-offs. In a final sad duet between the heroine and a giant bear, her only recourse is the one that comforted her in her childhood, her do-do or stuffed animal. But even his mask comes off in the end and she's left standing alone.

Sponsors for Paris coverage on Dance Insider include Pro Danza Italia/USA Summer Dance Workshop in Italy. To find out about becoming a sponsor, for as little as $49, contact DI publisher Paul Ben-Itzak.

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