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New York Soaks in a Spring Rain of French Dance

Walking from the Joyce after Compagnie Josef Nadj at seven to the Kitchen to catch Boris Charmatz at nine, you could almost believe "France Moves" to be one of those small-city European festivals—except that there was no 11 o'clock show and nary a sidewalk café along 19th Street. But for those tracking the celebration of French dance at various venues through May 6, subway rides are inevitable.

Despite the acknowledged influence of Merce Cunningham on French modern dance, many of today's choreographers are involved in drama, with elaborate scenery. For Josef Nadj, who began his career in a Budapest art school, "dance" becomes the mechanism for expressing a dislocated reality. His pictorial sense animates Les Veilleurs, even as his reading informs it. Magritte's surreal visions of bowler-hatted men come to mind, as do the writings of Borges, Beckett, and Kafka (the primary source). Nadj enmeshes his marvelous actors in surreal predicaments, which they accept with a practiced blankness. In an elaborate but dingy set, they are boxed, hemmed in, wrapped up, attached to walls, tied in knots.

Nadj's images have a macabre brilliance. As we file in, three valets attire the passive Jozsef Sarvari as if he and the suit were contaminated, even using gleaming surgical instruments to push buttons through buttonholes. Sitting crammed together, three heavyset men place a tiny table over Sarvari's head, unpack cutlery and a plate of pasta from a little black box, tuck in, put away their picnic, and move on. Cécile Thiéblemont clambers on the same guys as if following a tortuous mountain path. A lamp descends to within a few feet of the floor, and three nimbler men cluster and jockey for position under it like zoo monkeys investigating a new object in their cage.

Eventually, I too feel trapped in the myriad cabaret acts with these beleaguered people and objects. The stage begins to look cluttered, the actions pointless. Boxes within boxes within boxes. Help!

At 27, Boris Charmatz is the festival's youngest choreographer, and his work is both simpler and more movement-driven than Nadj's. In herses (une lente introduction), he harrows an ironic if tender Eden. Pastoral greenery takes the form of fluorescent lights on the floor, covered with green gels; the low platform on which the action takes place is edged with green paint. Spare ambient sound comes from 22 boomboxes mixing and disintegrating the music of Helmut Lachenmann. We sit on three sides of the Kitchen, wires snaking at our feet.

Four naked people wander in. They're wearing wigs (almost undetectable). They stare—seldom at one another (Julia Cima's eyes flick about, as if embarrassed to alight). They pace, stumble into running, make self-conscious, idyllic moves, as if gathering imaginary water or stretching gracefully to the sky, then thud into jumps. Little bursts of energy erupt, then settle. Cima and Charmatz fall and tangle. Given the sliding, twining intimacy of nude bodies, the effect is sensual, but it's also untutored. Cima walks on the prone Charmatz, gazing out as if she's forgotten he's there. Myriam Lebreton and Vincent Dupont continue waiting for something unknown; after a while Dupont wanders away. Sylvain Prunenec brings a new vitality to the scene—thrashing about the perimeter, dancing with a freedom that looks "natural" but never easy. These four merge in a long, twisted column, head to belly, leg wrapped over back, arm reaching between legs. This beautiful object slowly rolls to reveal its intricacies. It absorbs Dupont when he returns, creating a community of constantly shifting constraints that takes immense vigor to maintain.

At various times during Philippe Decouflé's Shazam! at BAM, four different men (including Decouflé himself) wearing jackets and little else shyly tell the audience that the work isn't finished, as well as other useful facts. While Stéphane Chivot dances, Christophe Salengro attempts to translate the abstract flow into the speech we've already heard; Chivot testily repeats the moves Salengro gets wrong. When it's his turn, Salengro attempts a lighting demonstration, with dubious cooperation from the booth. In fact, nothing is inept or unfinished about this entertaining piece. In the 80-minute string of acts, you can discern the influence of circus, of Cunningham (in passages of "pure" dance like an impressive display by Alexandra Naudet in a dress resembling a pierced lampshade), and above all of Alwin Nikolais, who headed the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine in Angers for three years. To circusy music by Sébastien Libolt and La Trabant (played live), the dancers—seen onstage, projected on screens, and multiplied by mirrors—mutate into one another, fly into bits, and perform apparently impossible acts like vaulting (on video) into a pyramid that curves like a backward C. This is high-level pop. The pace only occasionally slackens, and everything gets a hand.

Decouflé has some entrancing screwball ideas. Just before the end, his cast of nine appears in an elegant tableau, and to the song "Hernando's Hideaway," from The Pajama Game, wields pretend castanets with tremendous style and accuracy. Wit prevents Shazam! from being sheer trickery—wit and the fact that, like Pina Bausch, Decouflé lets us get to know his performers as individuals. But he hasn't Bausch's pessimism. His people turn insecurity into sometimes poignant comedy and give acrobatics a winning "Look at me, Ma!" edge.

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