Theater archives

Hell and Heaven


You peer out through the blinds. Outside your window, two people meet, seem about to speak, become aware of something happening down the block, and rush away. You open your door. Across the street a man falls. People walk by him. Then he’s dragged away. Better go back inside. Maguy Marin’s Les Applaudissements Ne Se Mangent Pas (One Can’t Eat Applause) evokes a society in which no one can be trusted and no one is safe, where victim and oppressor are equally oppressed, where constant brutality and fear have numbed the populace. Marin’s piece for her France-based company was created for the 2002 Lyon Biennale de la Danse, which had requested works on Latin American themes. Its title comes from a statement by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano: Exploitive outside forces may “applaud” a country’s corrupt government while its people starve.

The stage’s three sides are curtained in bright-colored plastic strips, but there’s no fiesta here. François Renard’s lighting creates irrational dusks and noons. “Inside” and “outside” are shifting concepts. There’s no refuge. When the actions of the nine powerful performers intensify, their entrances and exits make the strips lash and clatter. Denis Mariotte’s electronic score hums and roars ominously, and explodes in a musical simulacrum of machine-gun fire. People fall after a blast, or not. For over an hour we watch them do things whose purpose even they seem to have forgotten: peer out between the slats, walk, meet, stop and stare, rush away, herd, fall, shove, drag. They cooperate rarely and almost inadvertently. Isaias Jauregui lunges, and Thierry Partaud helps Dominique Uber run up his back, the better to sight trouble. Once, Partaud and Uber embrace. Twice Partaud is left lying onstage after all roll desperately across; twice Ulises Alvarez gently raises him and pulls him away, feet dragging.

In the endless cycle, the fallen rise to fall again. The patterns shift ingeniously, but the atmosphere of dread never really changes. We come to recognize the dancers in their ordinary clothes (Manuel Chabanis, Teresa Cunha, Sylvie Pabiot, Cathy Polo, and Brigitte Valverde complete the cast). We think we see relationships that might develop; they never do. Nothing lasts more than a few seconds before fear or death interrupts it, and no one reveals emotions. Individual humanity has been hammered away. Les Applaudissements, probably the most dramatically minimal of Marin’s recent works, isn’t easy on audiences. She bravely takes the risk of making those watching want to shriek, “Stop it!” or numbing us to the implications of nonstop repression.

There’s nothing minimal about David Dorfman’s works. Or tidy. If they were food, their flavors would explode in your mouth and juice run down your chin. And it’s rare to see performers as fearless and warmly lavish as Paul Matteson, Heather McArdle, Jennifer Nugent, and Joseph Poulson. They’ve developed a kind of ease in not holding back; there’s no violence or tension in the way they sometimes hurtle around. And whatever the purpose of an action, they always appear to know it.

Dorfman’s new Lightbulb Theory begins with a marvelous solo by the choreographer. He’s a frisky fellow in a long, full overcoat, joyfully wheedling secrets out of the air with soft hands, launching himself into big, spongy, tilted jumps, then hunkering down. His beloved father died last year, he tells us; maybe this solo captures him and a son’s delight in him. The expiration of a lightbulb becomes a metaphor for dying. At various times, someone says, “Have you heard the one about the two different kinds of lightbulbs? One flickers, the other just goes out.” And each performer gets to do a take on the sentences. Nugent sexes them up; McArdle stammers so she can hardly get them out; Poulson (no flickerer he) falls like a log from a headstand.

To Michael Wall’s bittersweet piano music (played and occasionally sung by the composer), the dancers convey that they’re interested in one another’s welfare, at home with everyone else’s body. They goad, cajole, comfort, and trick. Matteson dives recklessly onto his back and says, “Ow!” The others incite him to try again; his “ow” and their “woo” join in a silly rhythmic two-step before he runs and dives again. A perky little line dance that they first perform up on the Duke’s rear catwalk, plus moves from Dorfman’s solo, becomes fodder for rich group dancing. They’re upside down as often as they’re upright, in someone’s arms as often as alone, in the air as often as earthbound.

Impending Joy seems a little less finished; when it’s over, it doesn’t feel resolved. Some audience members have been given sticks and asked to inscribe theirs with words about being in a place. These are collected, and the performers scan them before mingling them with other sticks poking out of a tangle of chicken wire. At the end, McArdle gets seriously enmeshed in the wire. We never see how—or if—our words are being used. Poulson is repeatedly burdened with sticks by the others, told he’ll be OK, and urged to leave. The mixture of cordiality and cruelty is both amusing and scary, as are Chris Peck’s live electronic music, the obsessive gestures, and the slash-and-burn movement. Dorfman’s very individual choreography is full of entrancing contrasts, and, lord, what dancing!