Digging Up Meaning


In Sophocles’ Antigone, the heroine fatefully disobeys her dictator-uncle by burying her brother’s corpse, which has been dishonored and thrown outside the city gates. The story has meaning for any culture in which burial customs determine a person’s status in the hereafter, and in any country where oppressive rule flourishes. Jean Anouilh laid his version of Antigone in occupied France. Four of the dancers in Mathilde Monnier’s 1993 Pour Antigone come from Burkina Faso, where an assassinated head of state was refused customary rites.

In Monnier’s enigmatic work at the Lincoln Center Festival, there are no obvious characters or plot, but elements of the tragic narrative surface. A woman kneels and brushes away imaginary earth. A man carries a woman roughly; “No,” she tells him each time he sets her down. Swaddled in white grave wrappings, Joel Luecht rocks and writhes along the floor. Salia Sanou may be a wandering soul. Balguissa Zoungrana crouches beside a toy army, moving the soldiers forward one by one as she mutters imprecations like “Tu va mourir” and “Tu pu!” Annie Tolleter’s corrugated tin walls hide and eject dancers, and Christine Vargas’s costumes change with ritual precision— now white, now black, now crimson.

But stronger than any story is the tension Monnier creates between parallel universes. Her cast is biracial. At first, she seems to be pointing out basic similarities and differences. After Zoungrana and the majestic singer-dancer Blandine Yameogo have united in resiliently earthy African steps, three white women—Corinne Garcia, Germana Civera, and Eszter Salamon—come stamping in wearing yellow boots, achieving weight through vehemence.

The Africans talk and sing; Zani Diabaté, a wildly versatile percussionist from Mali, provides live music. The European dancers are silent. When the six women (including nimble Awa Kouyaté) dance in contrapuntal trios, they exchange no looks. Competition arises when various performers pull up floor panels and brace them to form walls. In the now bare patches underfoot, the two groups briefly mingle, actually and stylistically. Monnier so clearly sets up her cast in two units that when tall, powerful Seydou Boro and the equally fine Dimitri Chamblas lash the floor with their jackets, and when Boro carries Garcia away dangling upside down, you have to wonder what statement about racial and national commonalities Monnier is trying to articulate. What she achieves is a vibrant, incisive theatricality and a display of rich, deeply felt dancing. As for Antigone, maybe we should take the title at face value; the piece was for her, not about her.

Ruth St. Denis, American mystic, and Ted Shawn, entrepreneur, were a great team. During the glory days of their Denishawn company—roughly 1916 to 1931—a gifted disciple could obtain a franchise and open a Denishawn school. For a price, a young dancer could learn a colorful routine and secure its sheet music and costume design. Last month, two companies—the Marion Rice Denishawn dancers at the “Dancing in the Millennium” conference in Washington, D.C., and Dansarté, at Jacob’s Pillow—presented programs of dances by St. Denis, Shawn, and their pupils.

What’s intriguing about these dances—learned by Robin and Rebecca Rice at their grandmother’s studio, and from Shawn at Jacob’s Pillow in 1942 and 1943 by Dansarté’s director, Sharry Underwood—is the way they combine the notion of art dance with a vaudeville structure. They tend to be about three minutes long, with reassuring amounts of repetition, structured in A-B-A form. Shawn and St. Denis captured the look and ambience of “exotic” styles, if not their steps. Dansarté’s beautiful Maris Wolff, gorgeously costumed, performs an orientalist’s dream of an Indian “nautch” dance—all rippling midriff, swaying steps, and flirtatious glances. Rice dancer Laurie Cameron appears for the circa 1930 fantasy La Peri (by either St. Denis or Miriam Winslow, who took over the Boston Denishawn school of the Braggiotti sisters), wafting swags of material that depend from her cap. The heelwork that Dansarté’s Jean-Marie Mellichamp beats out in Viva Faroan has the air of flamenco without its now familiar complexities. In the early 20th century, what did American audiences know or care about authenticity?

On these fine programs, you can see the influence of Isadora Duncan in Chopin dances performed with lovely sincerity by the Rices, or get a whiff of German modernism in Miriam Marmein’s circa 1932 mime, Argument des Boulevardiers, in which Valerie Farias Newton and Rebecca Rice wear mannish attire and gesticulate with rhythmic fury. Jess Meeker’s music for Shawn’s Gypsy-Rondo-Bout-Town nudges Dansarté’s Genevieve Pellman and Neth Urkiel-Taylor from Haydn to swing. In all these early pieces, theatrical traditions, fashion, and experiment tiptoe toward modern dance.

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