In 1983, RoseLee Goldberg revised and updated her indispensable 1979 book, Performance: Live Art, 1909 to the Present, retitling it Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. In 2005, perhaps realizing the difficulty of keeping up with trends, she established a biennial festival. In Performa 07, venues all over the city are hosting intersections and interactions among the visual arts, theater, film, and dance (through Sunday; performa-arts.org).
In Cast No Shadow at BAM, two related films by Isaac Julien—True North (2004) and Fantôme Afrique (2005)—form a suite with a new one, Small Boats, which incorporates dancers from Russell Maliphant’s company. Maliphant’s choreography is seen onstage in both this section and True North. Running throughout all three ravishing films, each set in a different climate, are themes of displacement and diaspora—especially of Africans and those of African descent. Aside from True North‘s shots of dogsleds and frail huts, the only inhabitant of a vast Arctic landscape is a figure in a fur parka seen surveying it or trekking across it. This explorer represents Matthew Henson, possibly the first man to reach the North Pole. In a further act of distancing, the character is played by a beautiful, shaven-headed actress, Vanessa Myrie (black, as was Henson). Julien’s images, spread across three stage-filling screens with gaps between them, make a magical world out of a desolation that’s heightened in Paul Schütze’s score by spoken words (perhaps from a journal), the crunch of footsteps on snow, and the roar of falling water.
Against this backdrop, Maliphant’s springy, muscular dancers (Alexander Varona, Kyoung-Shin Kim, and Riccardo Meneghini) seem at first out of place, even when they cast living shadows on the filmed snow. Yet the many times they pull or hold one another back resonate with the startling second when cinematographer Nina Kellgren’s camera seems about to fall into a chasm. Whenever a man is lifted, he holds his body stiff, making you think of death by freezing and recalling the film’s image of bodies laid out in an ice church.
Myrie, wearing a long white dress, appears periodically both on-screen and onstage in Cast No Shadow as observer, traveler, and spiritual guide. In Fantôme Afrique (which features no live performers), she follows dancer-choreographer Stephen Galloway as he lashes his body through the passageways of a roofless, ruined city in the African desert. Galloway—seen as well in stop-action views of a busy city street in Burkina Faso’s capital and crawling across cracked desert earth—is a voyager too, whether through his past or that of his race.
Small Boats is projected on a single scrim that hangs near the front edge of the stage. We see Maliphant’s dancers (now including Juliette Barton and Saiko Kino) through Julien’s long traveling shots of a heaped-up graveyard of brightly painted boats. In these boats, Africans have attempted to cross the Mediterranean to Sicily and a better life, and in them many have perished. The movement motifs of pulling, holding back, and carrying inert bodies take on new meanings. The dancers swirl in underwater shots, a corollary to the drowned bodies laid out on a tourist beach, while Myrie, roaming through the splendors of the Palazzo Gangi, inhabits their lost fantasies.
A different sort of collaboration occurs at DTW in Jerome Bel’s Pichet Klunchun and Myself—not between art forms, but between dance styles that proceed from different traditions and ways of life. Seated opposite each other on chairs much of the time, postmodern French choreographer Bel and Pichet Klunchun, a master of Khon (the classical dance of Thailand), try to understand each other’s art via questions, demonstrations, and lessons. The two men are wonderfully unaffected, and the remarks that reveal their cultural differences can be both moving and extremely funny. They may have performed the piece many times, but their pauses for thought give the impression of complete spontaneity (they enact puzzlement charmingly).
The gulf between the two at first seems unbridgeable. Bel has rejected dance as a display of virtuosity with predictable elements (you see Swan Lake, you expect a lake and swans), while Klunchun follows rules that have governed an exacting form for centuries, even though the current Thai government offers support for dance only as a tourist attraction. Yet both artists, in a sense, are mavericks in their own countries.
When Klunchun demonstrates the four possible roles in Khon dance-drama (male, female, demon, and monkey), Bel can see little difference among them. Yes, he sees that women keep their legs closer together than men. But demons? Monkeys? He’s amazed that tiny degrees in the height of a gesturing hand make all the difference. When Bel demonstrates a favorite motif of his—standing still and looking around at the audience and the stage—Klunchun is puzzled and disappointed. Explanations begin to facilitate understanding. Klunchun’s arched-back hands, which Bel initially admires as a show of flexibility, direct the energy back to the heart of the body the way the up-curved roof of a Buddhist temple encloses and protects its spiritual center. Bel can’t see violence in Klunchun’s elegantly controlled gestures of attack, but when Klunchun articulates the insulting significance of flicking the little finger with the thumb, he gets it (and is warned not to try it on the streets of Bangkok). Yet prior to any words, he is moved by Klunchun’s mesmerizing demonstration of a woman concealing (yet subtly revealing) her grief over her lover’s death. And when Bel takes the entire song “Killing Me Softly” to slowly sink to the floor, stop lip-synching Roberta Flack, and lie there until the song ends, Klunchun remembers his mother’s death and is touched.
Over 90 minutes, these men teach each other and us about cultural perceptions of time, the ways in which stories can be told in dance, the aims of artists, the unsympathetic bureaucracies or audience expectations they encounter, and the customs of their respective societies. A gentle and riveting lesson.