The Frenchman and -woman sipping wine at the reception are perplexed and disappointed. They came to the New York premiere of Paso Doble expecting to see a display of flamenco. What they got instead was, at its most basic level, two guys playing with clay.
All around us, however, the tipplers and the noshers are raving over this hit of the 2006 Festival d’Avignon. Sculptor-painter Miguel Barceló and choreographer Josef Nadj have created an extraordinary piece of live art, which they construct, deface, and revise over the course of an hour, incorporating themselves into it. Their “canvas” is a red clay floor, backed by a wall of clay that’s initially white. We don’t see them at first, but the wall begins to acquire large blisters, poked out from behind. Holes develop, and fingers and poles thrust through a few of them. Rémi Nicolas’s lighting throws this scarring of the surface into relief.
The two men appear. They’re not really dressed for hard labor. Costume designer Fabienne Varoutsikas has garbed them in the black suits and tie-less white shirts I associate with Spanish men. The suits make an interesting statement, because the performance isn’t only a paso doble in the sense of a dance for two. The music that goes by that name, with its rowdy brasses and percussion, is what you hear at bullfights, and the blood sport animates the work in subtle ways. Barceló—smallish, sturdy, and rosy—and Nadj—tall, pale, lean, and gray-haired—begin by attacking their habitat with a variety of wooden implements. Barceló digs up baseball-sized hunks, which the men will later hurl at the wall; Nadj scoops the turf into small peaks.
As they smack the structure with bats and dig their fists, knees, and elbows into it, the underlying rusty red begins to bleed through the white. Slim, long-handled trowels carve the surface into hanging tongues. Barceló draws what looks like a rib cage or a stylized willow tree. The whole design begins to resemble something a vanished tribe might have left on a cave wall, pitted with mythic symbols we can’t decipher.
Alain Mahé’s soundscape doesn’t correspond exactly to the men’s activities, but it’s so closely related in quality to the violent thwack and scrape of implements against a surface that you can almost imagine mics in the set feeding noises into the score.
Periodically, the men retreat behind the wall and reappear, often with new tools or buckets of water to cleanse them. They’re in need of cleansing themselves, their dark suits reddened. Before long, their faces are red too. They bring on huge clay pots, which, when they sit on them to contemplate their oeuvre, turn out to be unbaked and gradually sink into folds. Now the focus shifts. These neutral doers, who express no particular emotion and concentrate entirely on their task, become dramatically embroiled in their materials.
First they invert large pots over their heads and, reaching up, poke eyeholes and breathing holes, mold ears, then peel them off and hurl them against the wall. They bring out more pots. Barceló pulls Nadj’s mask into horns, a crude snout. Eventually, he piles pots onto Nadj’s head, squashing each one down, until the weight forces Nadj to crumple to his knees against the wall. To intensify the cruelty of the image, Barceló grabs a hose attached to an electric sprayer and covers most of Nadj and the wall with white slip; clouds of liquid rise up like dust from a pawed-over bullring.
It’s well not to make too much out of this imagery. Once Nadj is free and his headdress has become a lumpy cluster of roses stuck to the wall, the men go back to work on the wall. Eventually, they tear holes in it and worm their way through. Their feet are still kicking when the lights go out.