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Paul Ben-Itzak
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Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt
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Shock Treatment - Vandekeybus in Alaska - Ultima Vez performs "NieuwZwart"

by Paul Ben-Itzak
June 9, 2009
Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt
2 place du Chatelet
Paris, OT (France) 75004
0142742277
PARIS — At a certain point in Wim Vandekeybus's "NieuwZwart," seen in its French premiere and ninth performance Tuesday night on Vandekeybus's company Ultima Vez at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, I asked myself, "What are they so angry about?" A man violently throws another into the audience and laughs diabolically even as his victim grunts in evident pain. A woman straddles/strangles a man between her thighs. Another repeatedly knocks the white-suited narrator (Ultima Vez veteran Gavin Webber) on his side as he's talking. Men or women repeatedly kick their colleagues when they're down, violent actions usually accompanied with contemptuous regards. And overall, the tenor of the physical contact between performers, particularly in the partner dancing, was of the genre that pops up regularly in European companies, where the dancing seems more like dance-fighting, or if you prefer dance-wrestling, or at least dance-grappling.

I decided to just ask the choreographer, after the performance, "Where's the anger coming from?"

"It's not anger," he said. "It's shock."

On a literal level, the explanation would seem to make sense. Vandekeybus pulls his text, spoken throughout by Webber (in English; a French translation was provided in the program) from poems by Peter Verheist which seem to involve going back to nature, confronting it and being re-born. (One poem is even called "Alaska.") The confrontation with the elements is violent; the author/narrator seems to be looking for that. And I guess violence could produce a 'shock' on the part of those subjected to it. There are even some moments where, indeed, the mood and movement definitely read 'shock,' as when the seven naked bodies of the dancers emerge from a gold aluminum sea under which they've been moving and squirm like larvae.

But elsewhere, the felt sensation of shock seems to be translated as violence and, yes, anger. If I'm right — if the reading isn't just coming from one critic with his own baggage of anger — then the disjunction may be explainable by the youth of Vandekeybus's performers and their unfamiliarity with his aesthetic, all of whom are new to his company and between the ages of 22 and 30, with the exception of Webber, who seems older and who knows the choreographer's aesthetic. Young performers in general, here in Europe anyway, have a tendency to readily incline to anger and alienation. (It may be young people in general, particularly as pertains the alienation; if 60 percent of French voters abstained from the June 7 European parliamentary elections, the figure jumped to 81 percent among young people.) The difference between anger and 'shock' may also be too subtle for some of them. Especially if they're unfamiliar with the choreographer's aesthetic. (Even though this is what Vandekeybus says, in a program note, that he wanted, new dancers who would not have the body memory of his previous work and thus in theory be more free.)

Indeed, if there's one performer whose tone seems more one of shock than anger it would be Webber, the Vandekeybus veteran. Except for maybe one moment, when he repeatedly hits himself and falls on the stage, his movement — when it surprisingly kicks in about mid-show, surprisingly because one assumes that because he's the narrator he's a non-dancing actor — is composed in tone. At another juncture, he jumps up to and then straddles the bottom of the elevated (by about 10 feet) platform on which a rock band (whose singer also seems angry) plays Mauro Pawlowski's live score. He looks at the ground beneath as if assessing the distance, releases his hands and falls. This too he repeats several times. Amazingly enough considering the physical violence which he's inflicting on himself, the phrase is delivered more or less with emotional neutrality.

In the program notes, Vandekeybus explains that as many of his dancers had taken off to start their own projects, he decided to seize the occasion to "entirely renew the troupe. I had a need to confront myself with other personalities, to re-activate my creativity in the face of these different bodies." Fair enough, but young bodies also often have minds that look to obvious solutions and don't yet understand nuance. If Vandekeybus's intention here is to convey "shock" — I still see a heckuva lot of anger, violence, and defiance — he may need to pay a bit more attention to those personalities.

… Which is not to take anything away from their incredible physical facility, which ranges in its manifestation from a woman who traverses the lip of the stage for an incredibly sustained period of time, held by another dancer in her middle, in a bridge with her head leaning back so far it's facing us, to a loosey-goosey guy who does a sort of soft-shoe. They actually are able to do calm; my favorite section — perhaps in part because it was a much-needed respite — was that in which the dancers formed and threaded through a line, facing and gently bouncing off each other's heads and bodies before continuing along the line. Except for this, though, it was more or less 90 minutes of high-voltage dance, dominated by inter-body action, and all pristinely articulated. Getting the credit as interpreters and creators are, in addition to Webber (whose movement was more select), Tanja Marin Friojonsdottir, Dawid Lorenc, Benedicte Mottart, Olivier Mathieu, Mate Meszaros, Ulrike Reinbott, and Imre Vass.

Ultima Vez performs Wim Vandekeybus's "NieuwZwart" through June 13 at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, before continuing its tour in Marseille, Tapei, and elsewhere.
Ultima Vez in Wim Vandekeybus' 'nieuwZwart'

Ultima Vez in Wim Vandekeybus' "nieuwZwart"

Photo © & courtesy of Pieter-Jan De Pue


Ultima Vez in Wim Vandekeybus' 'nieuwZwart'

Ultima Vez in Wim Vandekeybus' "nieuwZwart"

Photo © & courtesy of Pieter-Jan De Pue


Ultima Vez in Wim Vandekeybus' 'nieuwZwart'

Ultima Vez in Wim Vandekeybus' "nieuwZwart"

Photo © & courtesy of Pieter-Jan De Pue

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