From Switzerland, Ireland, and the U.S.: Guys on Guys

Compagnie Philippe Saire, John Scott, and the revival of THEM

As I worked my way down the aisle of the Joyce, after the opening-night applause for Philippe Saire’s Lonesome Cowboydied down, I muttered, “It’s a guy thing.” One colleague, brushing past me, flung back, “Not all guys!” Another, resignedly putting on her coat, mentioned that she had shepherded two sons through school, implying that what we’d witnessed onstage was nothing she hadn’t seen.

It’s nothing I haven’t seen either. Saire has mentioned sources for the ideas he explored in Lonesome Cowboy that range from Eadweard Muybridge’s photos of Graeco-Roman wrestling, through gender studies like Elisabeth Badinter’s XY: On Masculine Identity, to the movies Full Metal Jacket and Cool Hand Luke.But despite Saire’s choreographic and theatrical skill and the full-out, knockdown daring of his dancers, Lonesome Cowboy doesn’t tell us much we didn’t know about machismo, competitiveness, team spirit, male bonding, and good-old-boy acting up.

Originally created as a duet for the Dance Theatre of Ireland and then expanded for five members of Saire’s own Lausanne-based company, the piece unfolds like a medley of deconstructed football games, wrestling moves, and locker-room camaraderie. Whether the five marvelous performers and collaborating choreographers (Philippe Chosson, Pablo Esbert Lilienfeld, Matthieu Guénégou, Mickaël Henrotay Delaunay, and Mike Winter) wear trim black outfits or white shirts and ties with black pants or go shirtless in kilts, their goals are the same: to dominate as individuals or as a team, with a certain leveling off when the fray is over and they’ve popped the tops off their beer bottles. Any tenderness—one guy briefly smoothing the brow of the opponent he’s downed, a kiss that goes on a bit longer than one might expect—tends to happen in the background and be easily missed.

Compagnie Philippe Saire in Lonesome Cowboy
erias
Compagnie Philippe Saire in Lonesome Cowboy
THEM returns, goat carcass and all.
Ian Douglas
THEM returns, goat carcass and all.

Details

Compagnie Philippe Saire’s Lonesome Cowboy
Joyce Theater
January 6 through 9
John Scott’s Actions The Club at La MaMa
January 10 through 11
THEM By Chris Cochrane, Dennis Cooper, and Ishmael Houston-Jones
Abrons Arts Center
January 8 through 10

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The combats take place in an arena (by Sylvie Kleiber) surrounded on three sides by a low wall. Its floor is covered with tiny pellets of tire-rubber. After the men have scuffed it up and exposed the pattern of their curling tracks on the white floor beneath, they get brooms and tidy it again, like ice-rink workers. Laurent Junot’s lighting design employs banks of white lamps that convey the glare of a stadium, except that they’re aimed to cast shadows and occasionally shine into our eyes. Christophe Bollondi’s on-and-off sound design matches the movement with high-intensity turbulence and pounding rhythms.

The men first appear in trim black suits, executing in unison a lexicon of the gestures and moves that will get blurred, mangled, and individualized over the course of the hour-plus work. An event that riffs off the hunkered-down stances, passes, scrimmages, and tackles of a touch football game ends with two groups yelling at each other; their heated exchanges of “touché!” and “marqué!” draw them into a huddle and congeal into a rhythmic chant. Okay, match over; buddies again, they flop in a pile.

This is pretty much how Lonesome Cowboygoes. Dodge and punch. Slam an opponent to the floor and pin him there, fool around like high school athletes goofy with success. The men are terrific—even loveable—in the fervor with which they launch themselves into every new event. Many of their moves are so rough-edged, so daringly conceived that you can believe them improvised. Thrilling at first, the piece eventually convinces you these jock stereotypes have one-track minds and need to go home and cook an omelet or sing a kid to sleep.

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Saire’s season coincided with the beginning of the annual New York conference of the Washington-based Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). Over that long January weekend, attendees and others rush from showcase to showcase—catching as many dance or theater companies as they can reasonably manage.

Coincidentally, the only complete performances I saw involved all-male casts. John Scott, the artistic director of the Irish Modern Dance Theatre, offered Actions, a dance for just two men. Daring physical feats? Check. Competitiveness? Check. Underlying, shrugged-off affection? Check. But Actions is unlike Saire’s piece in several respects. For one thing, you can easily imagine it performed by two women. It would alter, of course, but simply because of the differences between individuals, not because of their gender. By the end of Actions, we who’ve been sitting at the back and partially along the sides of La MaMa’s very intimate club can imagine we know dancer-collaborators Philip Connaughton and Michael Snipe Jr. very well. They’ve talked to us, asked us to make choices, sprayed us with their sweat, and thoroughly endeared themselves to us.

Connaughton is Irish—slight, though muscular, wily—with a career that moves between Ireland and Spain. Snipe—tall and very erect—is an African American from Chicago, who has performed in Movin’ Out and Ailey 2, and hasn’t worked with Scott until now. Their onstage partnership turns rehearsal-studio camaraderie into adroit performance.

Scott was in New York during the 1970s (a singer as well as a dancer, he took part in Meredith Monk’s Quarry, and snatches of her songs surface in Actions). Back then, inquiries into the nature of performance—the differences between the raw and the cooked—were frequent. Actions takes that inquiry into a witty display of skill and temperament. Connaughton and Snipe dance marvelously—sneaker-footed and at ease in the vigorous, sweeping, canted, giant-step, high-kick movements that Scott’s choreography favors (and which they occasionally comment on: “one of John’s favorites” and, wryly to us, “this is a special moment”).

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