From Switzerland, Ireland, and the U.S.: Guys on Guys
As I worked my way down the aisle of the Joyce, after the opening-night applause for Philippe Saire’s Lonesome Cowboy died 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 GuÃ©nÃ©gou, MickaÃ«l 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.
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 “touchÃ©!” and “marquÃ©!” 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 Cowboy goes. 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.
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”).
But they also talk to each other—asking to stop and start a passage over, or calling out the names of the moves as they go. They take turn impersonating (very briefly) the heroine of a Spanish soap opera. Snipe tells a joke. They embark on a punching sequence, and Snipe criticizes his pal for getting too fey with it. Snipe announces that he will do a series of about-to-explode moves—locating the urge in an arm, a leg, the floor—and asks someone in a front seat which he prefers.
Does this sound a bit corny? It’s not. It’s wonderfully enjoyable, skillfully paced, and full of small surprises. When did you last hear a man in the act of hoisting another, larger guy, gasp out, “Oh sacred heart of Jesus!”? In its own way, Actions tells us much about affability under pressure, diligence, and a feistiness that doesn’t negate the men’s respect for each other.
The revival of the controversial 1986 THEM—a collaboration among choreographer-director Ishmael Houston-Jones, writer Dennis Cooper, and guitarist-composer Chris Cochrane—is, like Saire’s Lonesome Cowboy, rife with men flinging themselves at other men with a terrifying violence. But it’s profoundly different in intent and effect. THEM premiered at P.S.122 during the years when the number of deaths from AIDS was mounting at an alarming pace, and the carefree sexual hedonism of the 1970s was becoming a kind of Russian roulette. Maybe that’s why Cooper, reading his text in a quiet voice at a side wall of the Abrons Art Center’s Experimental Theater, speaks just of his teen-aged epiphany on seeing, at a distance, youths making out in a park. No only does he enumerate the many men he subsequently slept with; he catalogues sudden deaths by suicide, disease, or accident among people of all ages and genders.
In Them, love and life and death are violent businesses; they kick the legs out from under you, fall on top of you, violate you. Seated in a corner, Cochrane tackles his guitar as if it needs to be wrestled with before it can snarl and howl and sing out. The seven dancers rarely exit the cramped, brick-walled black-box theater (dramatically lit by Joe Levasseur); between encounters, they lounge, prowl, watch one another. Because they improvise their movements based on a score created by Houston-Jones, their physicality has a reckless edge. They bang into one another sometimes, stumble into or out of embraces, or fall with a crash. Watching Niall Noel and Felix Cruz tussle near the beginning, I think of contact improvisation performed at the edge of a precipice—fluid, yet dangerous, expert but innocent of peril. The movement seems to start things it can’t finish: Becoming becomes being.
Twenty-four years after the P.S.122 performances, Houston-Jones cedes some of his role to Arturo Vidich. Yet in the first few minutes, after embarking on an amazing, twisty solo—swiveling and staggering smoothly on bent knees, slinging his legs around, coming very close to the first row of spectators—Houston-Jones introduces two gestures that will reappear near the end of the piece; he palpates the lymph gland in his armpit, staring into an imagined mirror, and traces the vein running up one arm.
The men—all uncannily wonderful dancers—sometimes tangle in an orgiastic group, freeze there, separate, and re-form. Enrico D. Wey explodes into a disastrous, corkscrewing solo. The challenges flung between text, music, and dancing seem to get darker and more perilous. Cooper describes looking down at a pickup the morning after sex and thinking, “What did I ever see in you?” Gone are the boys of summer. Noel systematically pushes Jacob Slominski onto a mattress that has been dragged in and presses his victim’s head to one side; I lose count of how many times Slominski stands up to be pushed down again.
In the last horrifying scene, Vidich is led blindfolded to the mattress, and the eviscerated, de-boned carcass of a goat is thrown at him. He wrestles with it as if he can’t get rid of it, even as he’s pressing it closer to him; he sticks his head into the bloody cavity of its belly. When he collapses, Jeremy Pheiffer covers him and the animal with a cloth. Then, while some of the men speculatively touch their armpits, the glands below their ears, and their crotches, Wey tries to hold Joey Cannizzaro up on legs that keep collapsing. Finally Pheiffer tackles the men one by one and lays them out, tossing Cannizzaro back and forth with Wey for a while. He’s stalking the last person left standing when the lights black out. A death guide? Or a man burying his memories?
The goat. I couldn’t watch it. I tried to think what it meant to Houston-Jones, Cooper, and Cochrane. I thought of sacrificial victims and of the goat song, the tragos, of ancient Greece—that precursor of tragedy. I accepted the struggle as a gory metaphor for fighting against death’s embrace. Yet the goat stubbornly retains its own identity as an animal slaughtered for food, and THEM’s climactic image comes dangerously close to endangering this stunning work’s impact as a whole. As someone who’d seen THEM before said, “After a while, what I remembered was the goat.”
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