Monday, January 12, 2009

Movies: Tanz und Ekstase: Alain Platels VSPRS (VSPRS: Show and Tell)

When VSPRS: Show and Tell began, I was certain it would be awful. I am predisposed to dismissing conceptual and ugly art out of hand, and VSPRS was both—seasoned by the heavy dose of pretension required to put something so conceptually ugly onstage. The first dancer, shot from behind, shuddered compulsively while masticating an entire round of French bread, never swallowing, with the apparent goal of putting the entire thing into his mouth at once. At last, another dancer came onstage; he wore a suit and performed a series of compulsive ticks to shrug himself out of and back into his clothes. The next dancer, a woman in fire engine-red tights and black high heels, performed an inelegant, vampy flamenco (a dance I don’t care for from the most acclaimed, much less the theatrically indulgent, muddling novice). The fourth dancer, another ugly, big-bottomed woman, whose long, black hair hung free, had drawn herself a unibrow, and, like the woman in tights, was ranting. She rattled off a (somewhat amusing) poem about her poo-poo, but, strangely enough, did not gain my affection.

This was perhaps unexpected, as filmmaker Sophie Fiennes had before cut away to a discussion of the piece by a sympathetic audience, one member of which said that the woman in the unibrow had moved her to tears. This was a frumpy Frenchwoman (VSPRS is choreographed by the French Alain Platel, performed by the French ballets C. de la B., and the film was, thus, shot in France) whose looks did not suggest an appreciation for avant-garde theatre, so my expectations were for something more accessible. Instead, the stage, covered with an undulating, stringy backdrop to suggest something organic and internal (perhaps the inside of the mind, perhaps the inside of the digestive tract), on which a fascinating ensemble of world musicians, led by the blind violinist Tcha Limberger and including the strangely appealing, bald and black soprano, suggested a kind of Freudian gesamptkunstwerk.

The next two dancers won me over, for not only did they not speak, they also danced. Certainly, the other performers to this point had “danced,” technically, but these two (who I later discovered both worked in the circus) did astonishing things with their bodies, that brought me to quick tears of jealousy and joy, longing and ecstasy (ecstasy would become an important word, but I felt the intimations of it already). These two, who used their arms as second sets of legs, shifting with the most natural ease from right-side-up to upside-down to, seemingly, inside-out, undulated, with exquisite delicacy, terrifyingly slowly, over and across and through each other, an asexual mating ritual of no creature we know, subaqueous, feline, invertebrate. Their dancing was beautiful—not the pretty, easy beauty of the prima ballerina in her tutu turning endless pirouettes, but raw, animal beauty—the human body performing at it’s physical limit to express visceral truths that remain just out of the reach of words.

Each of the dancers, though, had words to describe the work, and by cutting to conversations in the dressing room between groups of dancers, with and without their choreographer, or the occasional one-on-one interview (always by the choreographer, never the filmmaker), we begin to gather a better understanding of the piece—why the majority of the dancers shudder with ugly tics, and why the recorded audience members had been moved to tears. The dancers had studied old footage of the emotionally disturbed, spent time practicing the movement and speech of the deranged. Each has created his or her own kind of mad character, who, at the dance’s climax, trembles with increasing force to a kind of shared apex (their hands, at the beginning of this “ecstasy,” rubbing at their genitals). The dancers describe the work as incredibly freeing—they’ve accessed the dark recesses of their own minds and emotions, tapped into them for every performance, so that the work is deeply personal, a manifestation rather than a construction. The physical release created by the more than ten minutes of trembling contractions required by the ecstasy leave them essentially naked, yielding, liberated, fresh. This knowledge enabled me to better appreciate the work as a whole, but I still kept my focus, when possible, to the circus dancers, to the rail thin ballerina with ragged hair who assumed the posture of a crucified Christ, and to the other dynamic, young dancers who worked primarily with their bodies rather than their voices and faces. Concepts are fine, but dance ultimately must always be primarily about the body, rather than the mind.

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