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Paul Ben-Itzak
Performance Reviews
Special Focus
Paris, OT (France)

Will dance in Europe be enlarged to oblivion?

by Paul Ben-Itzak
June 28, 2010
Paris, OT (France)
Susanne Linke & Jan Fabre, or From Purity to Dilution
PARIS — Fittingly enough, the last weekend of the Paris dance season ended with a dance concourse at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, "Dance Enlarged," in which submissions from other fields were not only accepted but encouraged. As if what has passed for 'dance' here over the past decade has not already 'enlarged' so much it sometimes resembles a tumor in which poor 'dance' is being poisoned by so many other elements — rarely presented at the standard those elements, particularly theater, would have to meet if presented under their own rubric — it often shrinks to nothing. So knowing that my editor shares my aversion to dance that doesn't have a lot of dance, I decided instead to spend the weekend visiting some favorite Paris haunts, such as the cupola atop the Jardin des Plantes (the oldest metal structure in Paris), overlooking the green-tiled roof of the Moslem mosque/restaurant/baths, and devote this piece to considering two works which closed the season proper at the Theatre de la Ville and which reflect what's at stake and where the threat is coming from.

We'll start with the negative, supposedly multi-genre artist Jan Fabre, and end with the positive, throwback Susanne Linke.

While I haven't seen a lot of Fabre — walked out in the middle of a piece in which torture of animals alternated with vomiting humans and haven't been back since — based on "Another Sleepy Dusty Delta Day," seen June 15 at the Theatre de la Ville's Abbesses theater in Montmartre, I don't understand what French presenters see in this Belgian artist, who to me is startlingly unoriginal. The work is supposedly inspired by, or launched by, or has something remotely to do with Bobby Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe," the ballad about a young man who jumps or perhaps is pushed off Tallahassee Bridge, as recounted by the girl who might have been there with him and seen or done the deed.

The first place where this supposedly multi-genre artist falls short is in the metier of theater — in which the show was listed by the Theatre de la Ville. The solo performer, Artemis Stavridi, recites snatches of the lyrics from the fabled song throughout the one-hour piece, but the hitch is that, apparently a non-native speaker, she does it in accented English and in the process often butchers them, particularly when it comes to emphasizing the wrong words in her cadence, the net effect of which is that she sometimes appears to be mocking the song, words, and story which is supposedly the springboard for the dance-drama. French presenters would presumably never let a non-native speaker trample their mother tongue while traversing the boards; I'm not sure why they regularly think it's acceptable to abet the massacre of English. The rest of the text — a letter, presumably written to Stavridi's character, from someone standing on a bridge about to commit suicide — is penned by Fabre and almost unbearably trite, consisting of the usual grandiloquent justifications of ending it all. (I recently went there, and believe me there's nothing grandiloquent about peering into that abyss, it's all about not-so-quiet desperation.)

As far as visual art — where Fabre is also supposed to be a laureate, judging at least by the program notes — here if it's charming, it's certainly nothing new. The set is littered with working miniature electric train sets running through mini-mountains of cobalt rubble, some even with illuminated headlights which add to the ambience. (At one point Stavridi, after the obligatory-in-Belgian-spectacles dropping of her dress-top to reveal her breasts, smears them and her face with the coal-like black dust of one of the mini-mountains.)

Fabre fares slightly better on the movement front, if only because of his performer's strong physical charisma and presence, starting from pre-curtain, when she sits slumped in a rocking chair in a blouse and skirt with a bottle of beer at her side…. Later, she staggers around drunkenly like a mannequin or puppet who can't control her own movements. This doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the beer she's imbibing, one of whose bottles ends up in her crotch (see above under obligatory gratuitous lewdness in Belgian spectacles.)

…. If I told you that the most compelling work of the five in German legend Susanne Linke's program in the same space, seen June 8, involved the 60-something choreographer balancing on, dancing in and around, and hauling a bathtub in a piece which begins with her sitting contemplatively on a toilet, you'd probably roll your eyes and groan, "Not another silly prop dance." In fact you'd be wrong — not just by the result, which is eloquent, poignant, sweet and lyrical — but about Linke's pure motivation, which she explained to me after the performance when I complimented her that the dance didn't seem like a prop dance invented for gimmickry's sake. No, she said, she got the idea when she was sitting on the toilet, and thinking about how much time we spend in the bathroom, enough so that it would be interesting to make a dance situated in one. The most elegant moments are those in which she executes penchees with the rim of the bathtub as support, head looking seriously down, leg extended sublimely behind and above her. What helps these phrases work — and not seem ridiculous — is Linke's straight-ahead seriousness. In a word, this is task-oriented dance at its best: The point is not the prop, but how it determines and inflects traditional, age-old movements with new colors. That said, I did have to marvel at how Linke succeeded in hauling the tub around the stage.

The other sublime passage was delivered by the sylph-like Mareike Franz, evoking also Isadora Duncan (or what one imagines of her) in her both balletic yet free lyrical dancing to Franz Schubert's "Der Tod und das Madchen, 2. Satz" in Linke's "Wandlung." Less successful, and even at times groan-producing, was "Flut," in which Urs Dietirch danced, often sitting and rolling, on a perpetually unrolling narrow carpet. The evening closed simply, with Linke elegant and statuesque in "Kaikou-Yin" (Transmigration), to Mahler's 5th Symphony, reminding one that you don't have to be a ballet dancer to be a ballerina.

My only worry — to bring us back to our opening theme — is that while there are still enough Susanne Linkes around to represent dance in the dance programming of the Theatre de la Ville and France in general, this might be because she, and other purists like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, are such giants that one can't not program them. But when they're gone, will the European dance scene be left with a 'dance enlarged' in which dance continues to shrink into oblivion?
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