Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dance: Compagnie Heddy Maalem

Shockingly, this was my first ever show at the Joyce, which, though it offers the best in contemporary dance performance in the city, does not offer the kinds of cheap tickets to which I usually gravitate. Since my mom was in town, though, I splurged, and treated us to a show about which I knew nothing featuring a company about which I also knew next to nothing. The Joyce website handily provided a 60 second video of the show, which I watched without sound, and found interesting enough. The blurb did mention that the music would be Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, which should have caused some concern, but I went ahead anyway.

Compagnie Heddy Maalem's choreographer is a (white) Algerian; his dancers are beautifully-trained, atypically shaped Africans from six different countries, including Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, and Mozambique. Their costumes were spare and simple: solid-colored bras and hot pants for the girls, short shorts for the men (two men, separated from the group for semi-narrative purposes, wore longer, baggier shorts), and showed every incredible inch of flesh: obscenely round bottoms, massive thighs, bouncing breasts, wickedly latticed abdominals—these are stunning human beings. Much of the choreography required slow and languorous movements, and the dancers had stunning control.

The choreography did not, though, provide the dancers with any opportunities to show off their more balletic training, and I think that this is why the audience responded so strangely. The show was not classically beautiful, nor particularly pleasant, to be honest. The original Rite of Spring, choreographed by Nijinsky for Stravinsky, was offensive to audiences for its blatant sexuality, its bent knees and natural (unpointed) feet, and its non-idealized depiction of peasantry (it was, I mean to say, Courbet to the expected Bougereau). Maalem works in Nijinksy's tradition; this Rite is also (I would imagine much more so) blatantly sexual—at one moment, the entire group of dancers even forms an orgy-like cluster, one male and one female at the core, where he holds her head to his hip while thrusting, the other dancers reaching out to stroke each other's bodies. He has, though, a strong eye for creating tableaux, and at moments like these, where the dancers would solidify into a sequenced and horizontal block, slowly writhing, classical beauty (the kind we identify with a gestural painting like Da Vinci's Last Supper) does materialize, despite the palpable sexuality. Less moving are what I would call the marching sequences, in which the dancers, in regimented rows, prance across the stage in various formations. I believe this also derives from the Nijinksy, but it was neither beautiful nor interesting.

The final scene is a solo by one dancer who, in semi-darkness, to a slow-rising crescendo of electronic noise, at first seems barely to move, until a tremble rises up from within his body. It's a small tremble, and he shakes, and shakes, more and more, with increasing violence. The music mounts, and he dances more and more violently, as if unable to control something within his body. I couldn't help but read this as an expression of some sickness: the Ebola virus bleeding in his belly—pain, suffering, agony, Africa. At that moment, all the previous scenes fell into place as expressions of life on that continent today: militarism, group-think, violence, chaos, disease, sex, hunger (at one moment, a female dancer points at the tallest man's belly, where he makes, unbelievably, his individual abdominals metrically tremble and roil); despair. And I realized that never had I seen such relevant choreography (Ailey comes close, but even in their real-est moments, they still aestheticize black suffering for the delectation of white audiences.) If, of course, I'm not reading it incorrectly. I left that night with such incredible gratitude to the dancers, who were all sweet smiles during their curtain call, who have to work with such emotionally challenging material, for a generally bewildered audience that expected either traditional African dance or a more aestheticized impressionism.

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