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Flash Review Revisited: When New Means New
The Miraculous Mandarin, RIP

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 1999 The Dance Insider

(Editor/author's note: The other day I was trying to explain to a friend of mine why live performances are more expensive to see than movies. My main point was that while just one print of a movie is created and then shown to everybody, dance and theater are created anew and special for each audience. What you're seeing tonight you're never going to see again. Well. Just how ephemeral is live theater and dance? When Grace Ellen Barkey's production of Bela Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" received its world premiere at P.S. 122 last October, I called the piece "a true, one-time only never-to-be-repeated-in-this-lifetime gift to the audience." My words proved more prophetic than I could have dreamed. Today I received word from Christel Simons, the manager of Needcompany (which produced the work), that "After a whole series of ups and downs regarding performance rights, the adaptation of Bartok's 'The Miraculous Mandarin,' which was so acclaimed in New York, has now been banned from further performance." In light of this development, and also because my original Flash ran as an e-mail before the site was up, we've decided to reprint my Flash Review of October 22, 1999, of what we can now truly say was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The following piece speaks for itself. I would only add a general plea regarding live art: Folks, see it now, before it's gone. P.S. I think it's appropriate to add a shout out to the presenter and the main funder of the New Europe festival, EAB.)

Shortly before the world premiere of Grace Ellen Barkey's production of Bela Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin" at P.S. 122 Thursday night, P.S. executive producer Mark Russell hailed me. "It's either going to stink or it's going to rock," he said -- well, maybe it was me that said it, but Russell concurred. The thought that it might stink was not uttered with dread but anticipation. Stinker or rocker, Russell was excited to be giving something new to his audience and New York -- new even to him.

While about 10 percent of what I see rocks, and about 25 percent stinks, the bulk of the dance that comes through here is, in my opinion, in the middle: It smells like something else, or it barely smells like anything, or it smells vaguely familiar, or it doesn't smell like anything. The morass of mundanity speaks less to a lack of original choreographers than to a surfeit of adventurous presenters. Most presenters seem to want an established work or, at least, an established choreographer presenting new work. Even when they book "new artists," they are usually artists that have been at least a little road-tested by other presenters. These presenters employ words like "daring" or "new" in their marketing, but in fact are often afraid to feed audiences anything truly unfamiliar. (It should be added that their fear is based, understandably, in fear of a bad box office.)

The beauty of Performance Space 122 is that it exists TO present new work. This adds to the financial risk-but also to the potential artistic payoff! Russell really doesn't have the option of going for the tried/tired and true. At the beginning of a P.S. season, I typically have never heard of most of the performers. By the conclusion of the year, they and P.S. have given me some of my most memorable experiences at the theater.

But to cut to the chase: Did Barkey's take on Bartok stink or rock? It rocked. In fact, it punk rocked -- not by a massive infusion of punk music, but by choreography, characterizations, and performances that highlighted the punk element. Not that it diverged from the basic text; "The story here is exactly the original text," Barkey insisted after the performance.

Barkey has wanted to make a Mandarin since she found a first-edition copy of the libretto (musicalization by Bartok, based on a scenario by Menyhert Lengyel) 12 years ago. But, she says, she didn't feel she was ready.

Boy, is she ready now. Watching Barkey's 'Mandarin' I felt could imagine what it was like for the Dresden audience that witnessed the premiere of Wagner's "Tannhauser" 154 years ago. First, both works reek of a danger in giving in to sensuality. And, as with Wagner's music, this score pulsated, making the dancers tingle and me along with them.

Barkey's company of performers (they all belong to Belgium's Needcompany) is here as part of the New Europe festival, which features another company in which each audience member gets an individual performance by an individual company member. This supposedly imbues the theatrical experience with more intimacy, more danger, and more immediacy, making it more personal. But Barkey and her multi-talented (and multi-generational, multi-body-sized) performers prove you don't need gimmicks to get under an audience's skin and in its face. This tale of unbridled, dangerous, troubled, enigmatic, problematic, and fatal sex had me on the edge of my seat, and it's been a long time since I've perched on that particular territory.

The subject matter was partly responsible for that alertness. The vivid story -- and violent music -- tell of a prostitute, the violent compadres who swoop down on, rob, and kill any man who is drawn to her, and the Mandarin who falls for her and for whom she almost falls. At the end, her crooked cronies smother, stab, and hang the Mandarin, but he refuses to die (an ordeal comically described by Misha Downey and Eduardo Torroja as the hoods) until he is embraced by the prostitute.

Barkey's entire visualization of this piece, while true to the original libretto (with the occasional Tricky or Velvet Underground vibe seamlessly integrated into the Bartok) was strikingly original.

In a sort of anti-overture, she at first signals this might be just another punk send-up. Actors are introduced one by one, not -- as might happen in a traditional opera -- in full regalia, but in states of undress and general unreadiness, as if just rising for work. A man comes out shaving, and then returns with shaving cream over his crotch as well. A woman --the one who will play the prostitute -- comes out wearing just a bra. There's no sexual swagger here; in fact, she seems very blase about the fact that her vagina is showing--effectively telegraphing that there is little romance in this seedy tale.

The first actor on stage, Misha Downey, has a Tourette's-like tic-as do all the characters, in one manner or another. The Mandarin (Simon Versnel) whimpers whenever he's stressed out. (I haven't matched all the names to the roles, so let's just list the entire ensemble, all of whom earned the mention with their multi-talented performances: Versnel, Torroja, Downey, Tijen Lawton, and Muriel Herault.

In any other contemporary opera staging, Barkey's Mandarin -- a real-life portly middle-aged man -- would not be dancing. But Barkey--who says she only recently started to like being considered a choreographer -- has her entire cast dancing. Indeed, what distinguishes this dance-theater work from "Tannhauser" and other traditional operas is that the dance is not a separate, isolated element. Everything's integrated here.

In that sense, I guess it's more exciting than being there at the creation of a "Tannhauser."

It was this taking part in the creation of something new -- by being in its first audience--that truly kept me on the edge of my seat. Many presenters underestimate their audiences by thinking they want something, well, maybe new, but not too unfamiliar, Not uncomfortable. It seems to me however, that given the opportunity, people love to feel engaged.

I've raved before about Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and how riveted I was to her performance of "Fase." But she's a known legend. Imagine being present at the birth! That's how I felt seeing this work by Barkey.

After the performance, Barkey was asked why she had brought this piece, a world premiere, to New York and not a proven work. She smiled innocently and explained matter-of-factly: "It's NEW York, so we wanted to bring something NEW." A risk for the company? Maybe. For the presenter? Perhaps. But a true, one-time only never-to-be-repeated-in-this-lifetime gift to the audience.

(Afterward: Ms. Simons tells us that, "Grace Ellen Barkey is now working on and adding to the existing material and together with an expanded cast is making a new play called "Few Things." It will open at Bergen in Norway on 7th October 2000. Performances in Brussels will start 15th November 2000." For more information on Needcompany, go to http://needcompany.vgc.be/eng/.)

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