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"Saudade," A New Work by David Roussève/REALITY

by Rachel Levin
April 1, 2009
Freud Playhouse
B100 Royce Hall
Box 951529

Los Angeles, CA 90095
310.825.4401
April 1-4 at 8 p.m. and April 5 at 7 p.m.
Tickets: $46, $34 ($15 for UCLA Students)
In his new work "Saudade" — a string of poignant monologues punctuated by global, avant-garde movement set to heart-wrenching Portuguese Fado music – creator David Roussève seeks to answer the time-tested question, "What is the meaning of life?" He assumes the identity of several different African-American characters from the South during the course of the piece, one of which offers a potential answer to the question of life's meaning: "Dance a little boogaloo."

That dance emerges as a strategy for solving the riddle of life and negotiating its joys and pains is no surprise given Roussève's background as a prolific dance-theatre master and UCLA choreography professor. "Saudade" marks the return of his company REALITY after a 10-year hiatus. The title, a Portuguese word loosely translated as "bittersweet," conveys the theme of simultaneous rapture and agony coursing through the human experience.

Roussève serves as a kind of oracle who, in between monologues, walks in place in slow motion while his competent, multicultural cast – all choreographers in their own right – acts out variations on this theme through movement and text, often to the wistful strains of Fado, a music likened to the blues. The dancers are like the fictional creature one of Roussève's characters meets in the woods: "shivering" in such a way that makes joy and pain indistinguishable. Their shivers, shimmies, stomps, and spins meld postmodern and traditional dance styles, from Bharata Natyam Indian to West African.

One of the most poignant dance moments is also a comment on the perseverance of the human spirit even in the face of harsh constraint. Dancer Anjali Tata begins the segment by frolicking in pure joy to a Fado song coming from Nehara Kalev's stereo. Kalev insists that Tata stops. But Tata's dance spirit cannot be tamed, even when Kalev stops the music. Kalev's attempts to restrain Tata become increasingly forceful; first she shackles her ankles, then binds her wrists, and finally covers her face with a hood – an eerie reference to the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. Despite such grave limitation, Tata's desires to move and hear music persist, as she inches her body toward the stereo and uses the only free part of her body – her fingers – to start the stereo, flicking them in time to the singer's lament. It's an exceedingly powerful segment, elegant in its simplicity of meaning and complexity of emotion, a pure distillation of the sentiment of "saudade."

Roussève builds on this theme of the body experiencing hatred at the same time as the heart experiences love in his monologue as Sally, a slave girl. Dancer Taisha Paggett mimes the gesture of writing on a wall in synch with Roussève 's narrative. Sally recounts being brutally raped by her master at the same time as her outstretched hand feels the tears of her sister. In another anecdote, she watches her sister being beaten for teaching Sally to write. Both stories, accompanied by movements of the dancers, conveyed the way in which pain can literally be written on the body; redemption, too, is a physical act, whether delivered through writing or dance.

Other monologues touched on moments in which the agony of glimpsing death is coupled with the joy of having something to live for. An old man reluctantly warms to a rangy cat, whom he finds dead just when it has won his affections. As the character says, "[The cat] waited 'til I loved him and then didn't come back." Another character, a mother suffering through Hurricane Katrina, ponders her struggle to protect her children in its wake: "I saved them to live in a world that just tried to kill them." A man on the brink of death in a hospital bed has an epiphany that giving up on life is a sure ticket to life's end, just as his lover bursts in with flowers and a life-restoring smile.

"Saudade" was strongest in such tender narrative moments, where the ecstasy of life shakes hands with its deepest cruelties. The sheer saturation of movement and abundant kinesthetic riffs on the central theme were at times overwhelming. The choreographic shifts from slapstick and smiles to violence and tears were often jarring, but no more abrupt than in this bittersweet endeavor called living.
Left to right: Olivier Tarpaga, David Rousseve, and Esther M. Baker-Tarpaga in Saudade

Left to right: Olivier Tarpaga, David Rousseve, and Esther M. Baker-Tarpaga in Saudade

Photo © & courtesy of Jorge Vismara

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