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Jeanne Mordoj in her "Eloge du poil." Photo © Marie Frécon & courtesy
Theatre de la Bastille.

Jeanne Mordoj, Kataline Patkai, Isabelle Esposito & Marie Chouinard -- Reflections on forms of beauty

Copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

"Elle va entrer vivante dans un pays etranger."

-- Jeanne Mordoj

PARIS -- Sure, dance has aesthetic, musical, geometrical, and narrative rewards, but the sexual or if you prefer purely aesthetic appeal of the body as one of the art's major attractions -- to dance fans and critics alike -- is not to be denied. And yet does the body have to be perfect in its depiction to compel us? Can a body that doesn't conform to typical beauty standards nonetheless tell a beautiful story that beautifully communicates to the audience? Can beautiful bodies fail to communicate? Three shows seen here offer an opportunity for reflection.

If Marie Chouinard's "Orphee et Eurydice," which has toured extensively, and which I caught at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt in May 2009, had been a choreographic monstrosity, all its beautiful topless bodies (male and female, take your choice) and enthusiastic humping couldn't have saved it from my critical dagger. I also like to think that had the women been ugly and fat and the men sported pot bellies, it would not have diminished my enthusiasm for this work from the Canadian choreographer, which I rave here. But I have to admit that the beauty of the women made me more open at the beginning of the work to receiving it, whereas if they had been, say, spikey-haired, butch ladies in their 60s essentially bare-breasted (the men and women wore golden nipple rings in strategic spots) I might well have resisted the work's innate choreographic and narrative charms. My awe at the 20-something, well-honed, hour-glass women parading across the stage where 'La Divine Sarah' once commanded made me more open. A good thing, as it turned out, because their garb (or lack of), as well as the sexually-charged tone of much of the action was essential to conveying what is after all a romantic tragedy in a universal fashion.

Jeanne Mordoj, on the other hand, does not fit the typical ideal of feminine beauty in at least one respect: Since the age of 11, Mordoj has sported a beard. She must be aware that this outstanding feature can provoke a degree of disequilibrium in her audience, as they're alerted to it ahead of time in giant kiosk posters around town (notably on the promenade that faces the Moulin Rouge, a bastion of idealized feminine sex appeal, not coincidentally memorialized by another 'freak' of nature, Toulouse-Lautrec) and in the promotional material for her one-woman show "Eloge du poil" (rough translation: "In praise of skin-hair"), directed by Pierre Meunier and also seen at the Theater de la Bastille in May 2009.

Knowing in advance that Mordoj is a bearded lady and that this would be part of the shtick certainly disarmed me. It might have been different if I had not been prepared before I entered the theater on May 14. Without skirting around the bush: Objectively speaking I find the concept of a lady with a beard off-putting. The response is visceral and a little defensive; I assume that women can shave just like men, so that if a bearded lady's made a choice to keep hers, what's on her face is meant to be in mine. (Although I guess shaving would invite bristles and five o'clock shadows, so maybe I'm being unfair and idiotic.)

Even though being a performer would seem to give her license, Jeanne Mordoj's confrontation is a bit more nuanced -- I'd even say respectful of the audience's sensibilities, however unfair and prejudiced they may be. She begins the one-hour piece -- for which we've been arrayed around and above her on circus-like bleachers at three sides -- with the lower part of her face hidden by a veil. This also emphasizes the eye contact -- for Mordoj has a captivating manner of scanning the audience with her penetrating brown eyes, making contact like the master of a three-ring circus. (And indeed circus arts are part of her training.) She does a little dance to canned corny '50s-era music, rolling around the floor and always being careful to re-establish contact when she rises. Then she pulls long crochet-like needles out from the folds of her dress and hurls them at a target like a magician throwing knives. Next, after the veil's been removed and her neat, Walter Raleigh-like beard revealed, an assistant scatters sea-shells across the stage, and Mordoj places a large bowl on her head and gathers the shells into it in a fashion that is anything but routine. It's not just that she uses her toes to pick up the shells but that before doing so she twists her body into various contortionist bends.

This work done she diverts her attention to two other personages, both lieder-singing animal skulls; one appears to have been a ram, the other perhaps a lamb. You see, in addition to being a bearded lady, knife-thrower, and contortionist, Mordoj is also a ventriloquist.

After the singing shenanigans -- the ram is trying to be serious, but the high-pitched lamb keeps throwing him by twisting the lyrics -- Mordoj packs the lamb and a sister lamb into a box, through which she thrusts the long needles. When she opens the box and places her hand inside, one of the creatures bites her and she retracts the hand bloodied. Enraged, she opens a slat in the stage which reveals a pool of water, into which she lowers the box from a quickly erected hangman-like pulley, hoping to drown the lamb skulls. One survives, complaining that "each time you leave us down longer."

As the skulls repose, Mordoj turns to more refined work, cracking a half dozen eggs (once with her noggin) and cascading the raw and amazingly intact yolks over the rivulets of her body, eating some of them. Then there are more shells, this time belonging to snails, with the recovered lamb-skull puppet returning to regale us with a tale of (I think) an escargot-eating contest which ends with him vomiting and collapsing face-first into the pile of shells. And where do snails come from? The soil, and it's there that Mordoj returns, opening another slat in the floor to reveal a pit full of (amazingly clean-looking and fine) dirt, in which she first bathes then buries herself, pulling the slat over her, whereupon a chorus of about two dozen skulls (divided into baritone rams on one side and tenor lambs on the other of course) pops up out of the stage to punctuate her finish and the work's with a baroque requiem.

You may have noticed that I've not mentioned the beard for the last two paragraphs, and that's because for most of the show one forgets about it, except for a section where Mordoj makes a point of confronting us, addressing various parts of the audience to ask if her beard frightens us, as well as making the claim that the beard is a useful tool in sexual interplay, enabling her to exclaim, for example, "Enter into my beard!" I say claim because I'm not sure I buy it or if the lady doth protest too much. But the beard is ultimately irrelevant. What the author/performer and her director have successfully done is welcome us into her world with all its personages and accoutrements, in a one-woman show which embraces us all with a story of life and death, of the shells and pits in which we often entomb ourselves and others.

By contrast, Kataline Patkai's "Sisters," one of three works I saw in an evening directed by Patka that same Springi at the Studio Le Regard du Cygne (which also happened to be my landlord) as part of its Cabaret des Signes series (this one humbly titled "Jesus and the 12 apostles"), was remarkably self-referential and closed. It starts with five very bored looking women in sweats reposing across the stage, while a sixth reads a book with her exposed back to us. Next the work traverses a promising choreographic passage that has the women attaching themselves until they form a centipede, the only head showing being that of the woman in front, who recites a text which references things like nascent death. The text notwithstanding, I kind of wished the women had continued to explore the possibilities of a centipede (perhaps I was still stuck in the Earth with Mordoj). Instead, they stripped each other -- in slow-mo, yet -- down to their bikinis or one-piece bathing suits and became a sort of rolling blob of female pulchritude. Had they been wearing working dancer tops and bottoms, or even neutrally topless I might feel different. But the bikinis -- not to mention at least one interchange where a woman caressed another's head as it rested in her crotch -- made titillation at least a possibility, intentional or not. But what bothered me most was the self-absorption; unlike Mordoj, Patkai seemed more interested in displaying before her audience than communicating with and reaching out to it.

A second piece 'conceived' by Patkai seemed even more solipsistic. In "Krack," described as a work-in-progress, two women from Latin America, Viviana Moin and Jesus Sevari (in a new bikini), gave us their life stories -- first just in Spanish, later with one translating for the other -- from their childhoods to the present day. I have nothing against the personal stories of dancers, some of them are quite interesting, but when I go to the (dance) theater I'm there to see dance, not to hear dancers TALK about their personal lives in what is usual, without the mitigation of a professional playwright, a mundane fashion. Yes there was some rudimentary movement -- cavorting with maps, sidling against walls, head-standing -- but nothing to justify the program promise of a work which would "question the many origins of dance...."

Rescuing the evening, or at least the three works I saw (I had to leave early to catch another performance in another space) was Isabelle Esposito's "La sombre sautillante" (roughly, 'the dark jumper'), which proved that one can create a world that's self-contained and all-embracing at the same time. My reading, from the disheveled state of the character, from intermittent "Are you there?"s and from her searching throughout, even under the pile of spaghetti noodles she prepared live on stage, was that this was a woman (Esposito) who had been abandoned by her partner. The defeat was signaled immediately by her slumped posture as she wandered about the stage performing mundane tasks -- cooking, vacuuming -- listlessly and automatically, She revived a bit after squiggling out of her underwear (very chastely, under her dress), doing a little brittle jig and even dancing in the same brittle, restrained fashion when she played "Johnny B. Goode" on the record player, but ended up sitting before the television watching herself in close up eating the spaghetti, finally giving up the eating to sift through the noodles for the absent one. Goosing Esposito's emotional immersion in the character -- and ours -- through the 18-minute work-in-progress was the physical restraints she placed on herself, mostly in slumped, restrained, and thus jittery walking. The body here was neither as beautiful as those in Marie Chouinard's "Orphee et Eurydice" nor as unique as Jeanne Mordoj's, but like them Isabelle Esposito used hers to tell a story that resonated universally.

Jeanne Mordoj's new work "Adieu Poupee (La femme sans passe)" -- or "Farewell Doll (the woman without a past)" opens its national tour of France November 18 at Le the Theatre du Merlan in Marseille.

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