Beyond Child’s Play

French Mix Masters Blend Cultures and Media

It would be a mistake to speculate about French contemporary dance on the basis of the companies that performed here as part of "France Moves," but I was struck by the ironic playfulness of some of the work—as if the choreographers had searched for their inner child and found a midget Marcel Duchamp. Dada (minus its serious iconoclasm), surrealism, theater of the absurd, circus, and riffs on popular culture cropped up in dissimilar ways in pieces by Philippe Decouflé, Josef Nadj (both reviewed on this page two weeks ago), José Montalvo and Dominique Hervieu, Maguy Marin (reviewed last week), Angelin Preljocaj, and Blanca Li. Many of their creations evolve in fragments—like dreams or nightmares dislocated from events of the day.

Montalvo-Hervieu's Le Jardin io io ito ito is an enchanting, exuberant, take-the-kids salute to Dada and Max Ernst. But here creature-headed women aren't fearsome as they are in Ernst's drawings; they're a school of little fish that swim across a white backcloth at BAM. (These choreographers, like Decouflé, expertly integrate camera illusions into their work.) Horses with women's legs strut on pointe. A man jumps over tigers with human heads until an enormous one looms over him. Three dancers stand at the back, and a tiny image of a dog-legged satyr materializes out of them, grows huge, and races away.

As in their 1999 Paradis, Montalvo-Hervieu celebrate France's multiculturalism and exploit their performers' individual styles and skills. Popper Salah Benlemqawanssa is a virtuoso at birdcalls. Chantal Loial from Guadeloupe vibrates her ample hips. French dancer Sabine Novel embellishes a song with baroque quavers. Bruno Lussier and Valerie Sangouard do acrobatic stunts. Hip-hop, ballet, modern dance, African, and Afro-Caribbean meet in duets like intense conversations. Ivory Coast dancer Clarisse Doukpe ululates for flamenco artist Erika La Quica. Merlin Nyakam from Cameroon swings his long hair around, and on her way past, leggy ballerina Mélanie Lomoff, as if infected, suddenly ripples her torso. On-screen, hybrids reign; onstage, cultures mingle joyfully but retain their uniqueness.

Preljocaj's Paysage Après la Bataille asks us to imagine the cultural landscape after Marcel Duchamp has jousted with Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness, meet the famous urinal. The result juxtaposes clever puzzles and silly games with scenes in which instinct rules. Adrien Chalgard's set edges the stage with gaudy curtained booths and backs it with a hanging pink shag rug. There are striking passages of aggressive dancing, knife-sharp in line. But that is not Preljocaj's main business. Take this sequence of events: A man in a gorilla suit tries to teach a dance routine to three other sweet and puzzled gorillas, with iffy results. Afterward, the three strip naked and lie supine. While a fully clothed woman slides erotically over them, placing their inert hands on her body, two other women in feathered bathing suits strut through a flirtatious number, and a fourth blowtorches a bench.

There are some elegant games: Six men sit in a cluster and repeat a fluid pattern of beyond-musical-chairs. There are also horrifying bouts of violence. Preljocaj crafts such scenes brilliantly, but partly because collaging contrasts seems to be his sole purpose, they feel gratuitous, and nothing affects anyone for long. People yell, shoot one another, scream, fall, rise. Over and over. Then men in dresses wheel shopping carts around.

Although Blanca Li now runs a dance company and is mounting a work for the Paris Opera, her Zap! Zap! Zap! is a one-woman live TV variety show that leans on her early career in cabaret. While Ricardo Bobay untangles wires on the Kitchen floor and operates a camera, and a director's exasperated voice issues commands from the booth, Li's talking head mostly appears on a monitor planted on a dummy. This dippy, petulant, frequently rude female introduces a host of characters: a peasant clogger from Brittany, a gymnast, a movie star, a hugely fat Wagnerian. She portrays 12 in all.

Li often has the on-target nuttiness of Carol Burnett. She's particularly funny as a sour European postmodern dancer in a little black dress and boots (a de Keersmaeker satire?), a weather forecaster who points at one place while giddily predicting snow in another, a '60s folksinger with a pot-befogged brain, a hyperkinetic exercise bike salesperson, and a Dying Swan overcome by the dimensions of her (dummy) partner's basket. One hilarious tidbit: a video of a cooking show in which chef Li's colleague, a refined drag queen (Laurent Mercier) with sous-chef ambitions, heedlessly slices bits of her long red fingernails into the onions. Li, who trained as a gymnast and a dancer, brings formidable expertise to her impersonations. Because her target is TV, many of her characters lay on the faux seductiveness, which can get tiresome, but the script is shrewd and her versatility dazzling.

Sally Silvers offers a different sort of "cabaret"—a refreshing downtown postmodern show in which the raw and the cooked are smartly and unpretentiously served up together in the small white Construction Company loft. We immediately sense the atmosphere Silvers tacitly creates: "Here are some ideas I'm working on. Want to see?"

Even Swapshot Trouble, a certifiably spectacular collaboration with Bryan Hayes (to be repeated on Hayes's concert June 2 through 4 in the same space), nonchalantly displays its rough edges. While Silvers moves in her inimitably quirky way, Hayes tracks her with a camera. We see the wires, the moves to new locations; at the same time we see projected images of Silvers (and sometimes of Hayes filming her) multiplied and magicked in striking and lovely ways.

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