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"Ook"-Theater Stap-Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui-Nienke Reehorst

by Marisa Hayes
July 25, 2009
Paris, OT (France)
Palais Royal
Paris Quartier d'Eté Festival
When the Théâtre Royal de Namur in Belgium hosted a performance event comprised of professional adult dancers with mental disabilities, one director insisted, "You don't sell tickets to a pity party. With disabled dancers, you must be sure to put something of quality on stage if you're going to advertise it and approach it as professional work." Belgium, a country particularly successful at developing professional training grounds and performance opportunities for adults with disabilities, is also home to Theater Stap, one such company that recently embarked on a tour to Paris' largest summer dance festival, Quartier d'Été, to perform "Ook" at the Royal Palace.

Under the umbrella of the Dagcentrum Kasteel, a non-profit day center for 15 mentally disabled participants, Theater Stap flourishes with assistance from Belgium's Flemish community. The center is specialized in drama and residents, who are selected based on talent, work in an intensive, professional setting. Rigorous training is based on the active participation of rotating guest artists who make up a pool of successful, non-disabled producers and directors from various performing arts backgrounds. Enter Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Europe's "it-boy" when it comes to contemporary dance. His already-long list of diverse accomplishments includes a prolific period of new work for Les Ballets C de la B in his native Belgium (where he trained at Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's famed school P.A.R.T.S), collaborations with Akram Khan, Sadler's Wells, Shaolin monks, Ultima Vez and the Royal Danish Ballet, to cite a few. His presence is also gradually on the rise across the Atlantic in the United States where a recent commission for Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet made Cherkaoui's fan-base expand even further. His consistent use of innovative dance, humor, voice and gestural theater has mass appeal and provides accessibility to an array of performance companies and audiences. These theatrical tools provide the choreographer with a means to question notions of identity and culture, themes that recur often in the young choreographer's work. "Ook", created alongside Nienke Reehorst — another accomplished member of Les Ballets C de la B and longtime collaborator with Wim Vandekeybus and Meg Stuart — and with the members of Theater Stap, is no exception.

Dutch for "Also", "Ook", as its inclusive title implies, invites audiences to peel away multiple layers beneath the surface of the Theater Stap performers. The company members are each allotted a generous amount of time to spend alone on stage, addressing the audience through text, movement and, at times, video projections. Through these intimate portraits, we glean more than simply autobiographical information. Personal fantasies, dreams, important memories and experiences — fodder that transcends ability status and inspires most works of art — provide a more dimensional view of the individual. Theater Stap is not an organization pretending to be non-disabled, nor is it a company of robots, simply following the instructions of a non-disabled director. It's a troupe that proves disabled adults possess a rich interior life that's worth sharing. The company's development and embodiment of stage material gives rare and much needed insight into disabled adult artists' awareness and sense of self. In "Ook", one performer speaks of rejection and his longing for a girlfriend whom he'd "treat like a princess". He then reaches out to grab the breast of a female company member who slaps his wrist, breaking the fantasy, and gives him an earful before storming off stage. Another Theater Stap member craves popular adoration, like that of a pop singer or a martial arts star. After completing a Kung fu sequence, he waves his shirt above his head like a boomerang and tosses it out into the audience, as if someone might run to catch it and treasure it as a prized souvenir.

Collectively, the company handles simple gestures and props with success while playing with stereotypes about their own disabilities. In one scene, performers gradually file off stage while one woman remains huddled in a crying fit on the floor. Hunched over herself, loud sobs punctuate the theater for several drawn-out minutes and leave audience members wondering if the crying is actually part of the show or a real breakdown. Three men then enter from the other side of the stage with an ironing board and create an assembly line. One presses a handkerchief, the second folds it neatly and the third ceremoniously drapes it over the crying woman's head. The now-veiled performer immediately stops crying and silence ensues. This abstract use of dance theater is both open-ended and potent. Scenes like the one described above open a dialogue about perception that audience members would do well to internalize personally. While the Theater Stap performers are accomplished, the audience — if their sympathetic laughter and "awwwws" normally reserved for cute children are any indication — must question their own expectations and attitudes pertaining to disabilities.

Cherkaoui and Reehorst's "Ook" is both credible for the performers, and remains true to the their own artistic pursuits as choreographers. Their diverse movement influences including contact improvisation, gesture and even athletic feats such as bicycle flips, provide the performers a rich palette to display their talents. "Ook", a word that underlines acceptance and possibilities, not only questions our relationship to ability, but to perception in general and how we interpret a world overrun with images and stories that cause us to make important qualitative judgements on a daily basis.

-Marisa C. Hayes (France/USA) creates choreography for stage, screen and new media. She recently created video dance commissions for the National Theater in Burgundy and the City of Nancy (France). In 2009 she received awards from the New York Dance Films Association, Move the Frame (New York), and was nominated to the US State Department's cultural envoy program. For more information, please see: http://www.marisahayes.com
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