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Flash Review 2, 11-6: NeeDCanDream
Dance Theater that Dreams are Made of

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- The main reason I love dance is its ability to dream, and to help me dream. It dreams every time a dancer leaps for the sky, and everytime she contracts her abdomen. It dreams when a lover instinctively clutches a partner and when the partner instinctively falls into the lover's arms and is caught. It lives from image to image, with the flow of a dream; nothing seems pre-meditated, everything seems instinctual. As in a dream, the connections aren't always logical, or even readily decipherable. But also like a dream, the images convey a tangible, not always describable, feeling. With "DeaDDogsDon'tDance," which sold out three performances this weekend at the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre de la ville here, Needcompany and Ballet Frankfurt have upped the anti, creating a danced play that presents as totally unpremeditated. This is as rough and raw as it gets, folks -- the stuff that dreams, and nightmares, are made of.

Some of this raw extremity was there in Needcompany's "Morning Song," which I caught last fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. But while Needcompany certainly has some capable in-house movers -- I couldn't take my eyes off Carlotta Sagna then or in this weekend's fare -- the 11 virtuosic dancers from Ballet Frankfurt have given director/writer Jan Lauwers the power to create movement as extreme and unbridled as his text.

Let's take the text first, to get a caveat out of the way. The full title of this piece, which premiered May 12 in Frankfurt, is: "DeaDDogsDon'tDance/DjamesDjoyceDeaD." Originally, Lauwers wanted to create a work using the writings of James Joyce, but the late novelist's grandson and heir told Lauwers "no, non, niet, nein." So Lauwers, with the writing contributions of Needcompany actress Viviane De Muynck, decided to author a work inspired by Joyce, his writings and life. Here's where I tell you that I don't speak French, and the company, to accomodate its Paris audience, delivered much (tho not all) of the dialogue en Francais. I was going to take a pass on even reviewing this work, because the text is important, and I didn't think I could give it a fair review not understanding much of the text. But that was before the dream/nightmare.

It's not often that the characters in a performance come home with me to the extent of inhabiting my own dreams, but Saturday night, after I caught the performance, these ones did. We all converged, for some reason, on the Douglas Park, San Francisco playground of my childhood, where the personae of "DeaDDogsDon'tDance" continued their physical and psychological grapplings and gropings, and I felt like Sisyphus, trying to scale a mountain and getting nowhere fast.

So, obviously the performance affected me. As well, unlike "Morning Song," in which the individually evocative dance and theater elements didn't quite cohere as a unit, here Lauwers, more than aided by his virtuosic performers, has come closer than anybody, I think, to melding these two forms so that you can't really see a division. So, er, to help me understand the plot, I've read some of the reviews included in the press kit, and I'll now try to reconstruct:

Keep in mind, first, that 11 of the 13 performers were members of the Frankfurt Ballet, in other words primarily trained as dancers.

Often, when dancers speak in a performance, it looks and sounds forced and awkward; a gimmick unfairly imposed on them by a choreographer who fashions him or herself a playwright too. And un-owned by the performer. Not the case here. Typical, I think, is the breakthrough performance of Dana Caspersen, which I'll start with because I think by doing so we can get an initial hook on the plot-line.

In the dance and speech babble that is the beginning of the ballet, Casperson is dressed conservatively in a business skirt suit. She is very poised and proper, and formal. Suddenly, from nowhere, a Holocaust theme is introduced. Caspersen picks up this thread, and is soon sobbing; it's a sob that's not really to leave her body for the duration of the 90-minute piece, as she emerges as a tyro whose compact body harbors the extremes of both physical throes and ecstacy.

Towards the middle of the play, during a ribald orgy, Caspersen's coupling -- I'm sorry, I don't know the name of her partner -- is the most explicit, sensual, and luscious that I've seen onstage in a while. It's HOT. (Speaking of which, this would be a good juncture to give props to Alison Brown, who, dance-wise, gets this sequence going with a little front-center, subtle but sexy hip-centered solo and monologue that continues throughout the segment, as all Heaven breaks out behind and around her.)

But the ghost has not left her; for the last segment, Caspersen has a sort of delerium tremens, as she is handed and tossed about by two guys, with Francesca Caroti trying to help out or maybe just wanting equal attention. Muttering, wavering, tottering, contracting, stumbling, seeming about to vomit, haunted -- she's still in post-traumatic shock. The last vignette is of Casperson, alone, stripped to her undies, arms reaching out alternately to each wing, face imploring, as if trying to beckon the others to return to the stage, but they won't, and she is left utterly alone, trembling, feet planted, torso weaving side-to-side, arms still outstretched, as the lights black out.

Did I say alone? Well, not entirely. As in "Morning Song," Carlotta Sagna, this time bedecked in black wig, orange jacket and slacks, and black shirt, is on the stage the entire time. Sagna has got to be the most riveting actor-dancer working in the theater today; I could watch her alone onstage for two hours. Here she spoke mostly French, but frankly, I couldn't take my eyes off her even if she was speaking Esperanto -- even when standing still, Sagna's got one of the most utterly communicateive bodies and presences around. One gets so used to seeing her, that at one point, when it looked like she wasn't onstage, I asked, Where is she?-- and was re-assured to see her lurking at the downstage left corner.

Here's where I use the cheat sheet of the other reviews and note that in Lauwers's scheme, Sagna's character represents James Joyce or "J.J." -- in particular, a view of James Joyce that he was a creator of art removed from the fleshy and messy experience of real life. De Muynck, in turn, represents the woman of passion who really experiences life in all its muddy glory. She plays this role with her usual brio, and with great comic timing, judging by the reaction of the French-speakers in the audience.

But I identified more with Sagna, probably because as a critic (monkey critique others, monkey doesn't do) I could relate to the visual-physical hook she found into her character. It's a grotesque of a desolately physically-inhibited person -- the walking very-wounded. She moves haltingly. Every body part, from her head, to her arms, to a hip that suddenly, but slowly, gets bent out of joint -- all move at Butoh tempo. Occasionally Sagna winces, contracts, and clutches a point above her hip in pain. Even the dark shades she's wearing hint that her capacity for directly experiencing the passions busting out all around her is blocked. The only moment where Sagna is able to release is, fittingly, when she ditches the orange jacket and sits down at the drum set, starting the slow beat that injects everyone on stage with the sex bug, and gradually acclerating it to heat up the sweaty sex, and it is sweaty, and it is sex. It's a crystal clear image.

I know I haven't exactly described the plot-line to you, nor even catalogued all the images. But that's how dreams are. All it takes is one image to haunt you, and after this one, believe you me, I am...haunted.

Haunting my dreams for a long time, in addition to those mentioned above, will be the rest of this flawless cast: Toni Rizzi, Crystal Pite, Stephen Galloway, Alan Barnes, Timothy Couchman, Jone San Martin, Richard Siegel, and Sjoerd Vreugdenhil. Music was by Dominique Pauwels, costumes and set by Lauwers, and lighting by Lauwers and Dries Vercruysse.

"DeaDDogsDon'tDance" closes January 17 and 18 at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg. And when I say closes, I mean closes. That this is a two-company collaboration makes it unlikely it will surface again; unless, er, the programmers out there among you beg and plead!

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