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Peeping Tom: A lesson on how to do dance-theater right in "The Salon"

by Paul Ben-Itzak
July 2, 2009
Theatre de la Ville - les Abbesses
31 rue des Abbesses
Paris, OT (France) 75018
01 42 74 22 77
PARIS — Just so you don't think, based on my reviews of Meg Stuart and Ea Sola, that I'm opposed in principal to the idea of talking dances, it's not that I don't like theater — in fact, I come from theater so I love it — but that I don't like seeing it done badly, let alone at an amateur level, particularly by dance artists who would never dare to present sub-par dance but don't seem to have the same standards for theater, or if you prefer scripts and acting. There are ways to do this right, and the Belgium-based company "Peeping Tom," in its recent work "Le Salon" — the second part of a trilogy that also includes "Le Jardin" and "Le Sous-Sol" (basement) — provides one of them.

Seen May 18 at the Theatre de la Ville les Abbesses, the first ingredient that makes "Le Salon" work as dance and theater is Simon Versnel, not only a veteran actor but a veteran actor of dance-theater, having previously performed with needcompany, a specialist in the sub-genre. Versnel has the theatrical gifts of a natural delivery — speaking from the stage as if it's just Simon plopped into an unusual situation — and being able to absorb the goings-on around him, no matter how strange. (I first saw him with needcompany in the title role in Grace Ellen Barkey's short-lived version of Bartok's "Miraculous Mandarin," short-lived because the Bartok estate pulled the rights after the world premiere New York run.) In "Le Salon," those events place him on a trajectory that in one economical hour takes him from seeing his elderly mother carted away to a retirement home to being carted away himself after, among other things, he pees in his bed.

Except for company co-director Gabriela Carrizo, who has a crying breakdown after (apparently) something happens to her infant child, and a mezzo-soprano singer-actress, Eurudike De Beul, the other characters mostly don't talk — they dance, and to risky extremes. At one point, the other company director, Franck Chartier, not only tramples on a prone Samuel Lefeuvre but coasts on him around the stage. As for Carrizo, she is simultaneously silky and fierce in her movements and, like Carlotta Sagna, another needcompany veteran, charismatic to watch.

The key here, then, is that the acting — or at least the talking — is mostly confined to a real actor, and one who also knows how to move. (In "Le Jardin," Versnel begins as a fountain, even spouting water onto another character.) And the dancers are left to dance. Because some of those movements are so extreme, and because this actor has a normal person's body-type — he's a man in his early '60s with a paunch — the actor also provides an anchor for the audience, a reference point, someone they can identify with, counter-acting the tendency of dance to alienate spectators who can't relate to the perfect bodies doing weird things they would never be able or want to do.

The piece is also economical, clocking in at about an hour. In other words, as opposed to Meg Stuart and Ea Sola, who one could almost say abuse the audience by presenting it with text and acting that is not at a professional level and, in Stuart's case, going on about twice as long as she needed to, Peeping Tom applies rigor to everything, from the script, to the choice of the actor, to the length of the piece. The company has not yet been to the States. But if their work is available on video, it should be required reading — after, of course, the work of the late Pina Bausch — for any dance artist who wants to talk on stage.
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