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Flash Dispatch, 5-21: Shedding Light
Dancing in the Dark, Talking in the Dance with Dias and Roriz, Silva, and Rizzo

Teresa Silva in her "O que fica do que passa." Photograph courtesy Theatre de la Bastille and copyright Joana Patita.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2014 Paul Ben-Itzak

PARIS -- For more than a dozen years, European choreographers have been trying to dance with words. At first the infatuation was self-denigrating, with the dance-makers sacrificing their own art at the altar of Text. The nadir came when Emmanuelle Huynh, the most physically adroit of the generation of French choreographers who came of age in the 1990s (many of whom, like Christian Rizzo and Rachid Ouramdane, once danced in Huynh's company), mounted a one-hour show at the Centre Pompidou the first 30 minutes of which consisted of two giant speakers from which emanated voices decanting poetry in Portuguese. (Huynh would rise to direct the country's only university of modern dance before being ignobly replaced at the end of her first mandate by a non-choreographer, the American Robert Swinston; last week's decree allowing the government to interfere in foreign takeovers of French enterprises came too late for Huynh.) But words, my French choreographer companion reminded me April 8 at the Theatre de la Bastille as we analyzed Sofia Dias and Vitor Roriz's "Out of any Present," performed by the choreographers on their company Materiais Diversos, don't have to be anathema to movement; they can add their own music and even rhythm to play with the instrument of the body. My friend was more open to this than me, as the words were in English, making it easier for her to disassociate herself from their meaning and hear their music, but once I blotted out the sense and tuned in just the sound, I agreed that, working with the visual artist Felipe Pereira, Dias and Roriz had created a tightly structured piece that inter-wove and integrated words, movement, and art into a multi-dimensional mosaic. The dance spoke, the words moved, and even the art cascaded, le tout making for an equilibrium that usually eluded similar French and American talky dance efforts in the 2000s. Considering this high-caliber work and several from the oeuvre of the queen of Portuguese post- modern, Vera Mantero, seen in that decade in New York and Paris, it occurred to me that perhaps Portuguese dance-makers have figured out a way to open their mouths without shutting down their bodies.

Before they had uttered a word, Dias and Roriz established their physical virtuosity, she with robotic, staccato swiveling of her head, he with blurred head-pivoting that would turn even the rubbery Jim Carrey's face a livid green with envy. The relentless, frenzied physical whirring did not lose a single rpm even when the words joined in.

Creating context were Pereira's black and white tableaux, which -- introducing a fourth element into the mix -- he rotated by unraveling them screen-like on a trundle twice his height. The bearded Pereira's deliberately laconic demeanor also set off the dancers' more fully invested presence. When the text became more pervasive, though Roriz was the stronger singer -- evoking an American revivalist of the 1930s in the apocalytic trebling of his throat -- the contrast of his vocalizing with Dias's high-pitched, feline talk-singing added texture to the text. Late in the dance, when Pereira's art depicted a simple cobalt highway with a weaving white line giving the illusion that the dancers were advancing even as they remained intractably in place, the image of flight reached its apex.

Sofia Dias and Vitor Roriz of Materiais Diversos in their "Out of any present." Photograph courtesy Theatre de la Bastille and copyright Joana Patita.

By contrast, Teresa Silva, whose performance of her "O que fica do que passa" preceded Roriz and Dias's in the Theatre de la Bastille's downstairs theater, should have confined herself to the body -- in Silva's case, one finely attuned instrument. Silva didn't try to pretend the audience wasn't there -- a refreshing change from the still-popular French modern dancer's anti-presentational preference to treat the stage like her living room and pretend she's alone witih her solipsistic self. Instead she vibrantly addressed us directly, her axis planted firmly on the lip of the stage, delivering precise, rapid-fire fidgeting of her elbows, fingers, and feet full-frontal. My companion marveled at how she was able to maintain her gaping mouth open, attenuated cheeks frozen, and big bright eyes illuminated at 150KW, for what seemed like five minutes. Given that the image is still imprinted on my retina a month later, it occurs to me that when it involves such staggering muscular control, a body standing still can still be a dance. So thrilling was her stage presence, I even initially stayed with Silva when she stepped behind a scrim and started doing shadow dancing tricks that were old (and borrowed) already when Momix began to play with light 30 years ago; it was intriguing to guess how she deployed her real body to produce the shadow images. But after a while -- and especially in light of the control she'd exerted in the first part of the dance -- it devolved into n'importe quoi.

Not that this lapse in an otherwise tight evening affected my experience! Ever since I first set foot in this theater, shortly after I arrived in Paris 13 years ago, for the month-long P.A.R.T.S. a Paris marathon -- a festival of work by students and staff from Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's Brussels school highlighted by a duet between ATDK and the Ballet Frankfurt's Elizabeth Corbett, immediately preceded not by a red carpet but a solo in which Tom Plischke literally bepissed himself on the stage, both of which announced that I was now in Europe! -- the Theatre de la Bastille has never disappointed me in either its consistency or catholicity. The bread and butter here is theater (long before the bearded Austrian who was the sensation at this year's Euro-vision song contest, the Bastille was turning over its theater to Jeanne Mordoj, who used but didn't rely on her beard to court her audience), which means the standard is often higher for the dance than at more dance-heavy venues like the Theatre de la Ville, perhaps because artistic director Jean- Marie Horde is not just looking for dance that will please the inbred dance audience but appeal to the more demanding theater public.

Because it involves words, theater more often than dance is grist for heady post-performance discussion and debate, which effectively extends its impact beyond the walls of and the hour or so one spends in the theater. The final proof that "Out of any Present" was effective was the long conversation it provoked between my French choreographer friend and I as we returned home, on the way passing in before Pere Lachaise, where both Bernhardt and Duncan (not to mention Nikolais) lay interred.

I wish I could say the same about Christian Rizzo's 2013 "After a true story," reprised April 9 at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt after what I'm told was a sensational premiere at last summer's Avignon festival. The first time we reviewed Rizzo in these pages, our critic Tara Zahra complained that the theater was too dark. I've always been a fan of the somber tones created by Caty Olive, the de fact lighting goddess for the '90s -2000s generation; indeed Olive was as much the draw as Rizzo for seeing this performance. This time, though, whether it was Olive's somber tones, the trance-like music, or the weaving circles of Rizzo's all-male ensemble (most of whom sported long beards like their leader, proving the maxim that choreographers often seek mini-me's for their vessels) -- it could also have been the jet-lag from the 16-hour plane ride catching up with me, or the before-show beer on the Ile St. Louis -- I had trouble keeping my eyes open. (Before you cry "J'accuse!," I am not the only member of the Paris culturati culpable of dozing off in the audience; I once sat next to the director of a major Paris dance company, at this same theater, who didn't let the fact that she'd spent half the spectacle in slumberland keep her from embracing the choreographer afterwards with a bubbling "C'etait magnifique!") It could also be that the movement patterns, which involved a lot of circles and reeling in and out of them, was repetitive and boring. The last time I saw Rizzo -- one of his pieces I mean -- there was a lot of standing around and baskuing in Olive's light, so it could also be that the applause that greeted the finish were by way of encouragement for this particular dance-maker's foray into pure movement, although I spotted some grumbling among at least one French dance insider.

According to the program notes, Rizzo's folk dance was apparently inspired by the real thing. The real-thing -- so-called 'ethnic dance' performed by its ethnic originators -- is regrettably under- represented under the stewardship of Theatre de la Ville artistic director Emmanuel Demarcy- Mota, a theatre-centric leader who continues to rely for his dance programming on presumed experts who in turn rely on what the circuit of gate-keepers has by consensus already crowned. Spotting Demarcy-Mota's predecessor Gerard Violette at the post-performance reception, and remembering how elated he was to present a regular series of Indian dance artists every year, I couldn't help noting the lack of representation of this most virtuosic of dance forms in the theater's programming under Demarcy-Mota. A little less Rizzo, a bit more basmati, s'il vous plait....

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