Brave Bodies


In 1965, Anna (then Ann) Halprin brought her Parades and Changes to New York. The dancers began the work by this San Francisco choreographer teacher (a foremother of such vanguardists as Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Simone Forti) by slowly removing their clothes and piling them neatly. Halprin allowed us a few moments to take in their nakedness; then they re-dressed, then undressed again, and so on. Nudity was not an accepted costume on the New York stage back then, and Parades became a cause celebre, but Halprin’s presentation was both innocent and lovely. “We’ve all got bodies,” she seemed to be saying, “Forget prudishness, forget shame.” As I remember, after the dancers had ripped up brown paper covering the stage, they gathered huge armloads of it, turning themselves into warm-hued, ambulatory sculpture.

French choreographer Alain Buffard acknowledges having been influenced by American dance—first by Alwin Nikolais, then by Viola Farber during their respective tenures running the Centre Nationale de Danse Contemporaine, but more particularly by Halprin, with whom he studied in the U.S. (A film Buffard made, My Lunch with Anna, was shown once during his Danspace season.) Buffard’s provocative and beguiling Mauvais Genre (2003) is a development of a solo, Good Boy, that he made in 1998, but it could be considered an homage to Parades and Changes. Buffard’s tone is darker, despite its wit.

Halprin wanted to acknowledge the human body as healthy and handsome and worth looking at, whether or not it conformed to some ideal image; Buffard wants also to affirm its fragility and vulnerability in the aftermath of the AIDS epidemic and the inevitable onslaughts of age. We first see the performers naked, walking one at a time into a lineup. Except for Buffard and Matthieu Doze, they’re well known on New York’s downtown dance scene: Cedric Andrieux, Erin Cornell, DD Dorvillier, Neil Greenberg, Miguel Gutierrez, Trajal Harrell, John Jasperse, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Heather Kravas, Jennifer Lacey, Lucy Sexton, and Jeremy Wade. But when each reaches his or her place, three vertically hanging fluorescent tubes light up, partially effacing identity, while the harsh, egalitarian light that molds them all spares no sagging flesh or postural irregularities. I suddenly remember Jill Johnston’s memorable 1968 review of Steve Paxton’s Satisfyin’ Lover, celebrating the assortment of people who simply walked across the performing area: “. . .that’s you and me in all our ordinary everyday who cares postural splendor.”

Buffard’s ambience colors our perception of his individuals. They might be in a hospital examining room (or a prison lineup), as, at various times, they turn 90 degrees to show us side views, a back view. The image of possibly compromised health is furthered by the long, wide adhesive strips with which they censor or protect their genitals. The garments they take from individual black plastic bags in front of them are men’s white jockey shorts. One pair, two, three—some performers layer eight or more until they resemble babes in diapers (your basic whole-butt condom).

There is very little music. Most of the sounds are those made by bodies. When the performers first spread out into the space, kneel, and start collapsing in various ways like downed cows, you hear the thunk of an elbow or a shoulder or a flank as it hits the floor. They also create some of the lighting, arranging small columnar lamps in neat formations.

Buffard sets up stations in particular areas of the church where shifting groups of performers can improvise on given themes. In one spot, they shake and gently pat themselves and others. In another, they devise ways to blow on one another. Off to one side, up the carpeted steps, the directive seems to be to bang against colleagues; in the center of the floor, rubbing might be the key word. Since these are very intrepid folks, their solutions are clever and often funny; five people rhythmically smacking various body parts against those of others can look like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Nevertheless, the thought does come to mind that these activities involving intimate contact can be viewed as abstractions of the sexual activities by which the virus spreads.

Determined glamour melds with uncertain physicality when the dancers tape little white knobs under their feet and strut around on these shaky high heels, carrying stacked empty boxes of Retrovir and offering them in the manner of cigarette girls beset by shyness. Before long, the floor is littered with dropped boxes and unstuck white tape. A male voice sings sardonically approving words. “Good boy!” “Well done!” “You did the right thing.” For their big “dance,” all return to the black bags and don more underpants in highly creative ways. Harrell turns his head into a huge white ball, Lacey hampers her arms and legs so severely that she can hardly do the ballet-class steps they’re all dredging out of their memories. Again echoing Halprin, Buffard turns bodies into oddly sculptured objects, but the implications here are of gallantry in adversity.

The ending is upbeat. Shedding and laying out their shorts, people progress along a diagonal path to the exit. As they go, they also help strip some of the encumbering garments from Gutierrez and Jasperse, dark angels who’ve layered black underpants all the way down their legs and mince along, continuing to belt out Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York” (“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. . .”). They disappear out the door, leaving a trail of white garments and small, bright lights.

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