Rachid Ouramdane and Hilary Easton Fall Into Darkness


‘I don’t see myself as a choreographer in the strict sense, but as a portraitist who observes,” said the French-Algerian Rachid Ouramdane in an interview. In his harrowing Far . . ., the portraits are of people whose lives have been disrupted by violent cultural clashes. Parts of their faces are projected in extreme close-up on a tall, narrow screen as they speak, while their translated words appear—white on black—on the rear wall. Ouramdane’s mother tells of his father, who endured the French occupation of Algeria and served in the French army in Indochina (the colonized attacking the colonized). As the choreographer traced his father’s footsteps in Vietnam, he found other speakers. Snaking wires that enable pedals to trigger music lay a map on the black floor. The wires, the several shiny patches they frame, and three slowly turning loudspeakers in Sylvain Giraudeau’s set summon up army camps, spilled blood, and the torture by electric shock that Ouramdane’s father suffered.

The choreographer’s body maps memories. For a long time, wearing jeans and a black shirt with a hood, he stands in semi-darkness holding up a tiny light. Then, over and over, eyes closed, he slowly kneels, sinks back, rolls, rises. Amid a rapid torrent of speech, he says: “A man always melts from the inside.” That’s what he seems to be doing. Intermittently—as the others tell their stories, and he steps on the pedals to accumulate elements of Alexandre Meyer’s score—Ouramdane is possessed by movement. He undulates— shuddering, feinting at the air. He ripples his torso sensually but strenuously—like a snake shedding its skin. Twisting his hood to cover his face, he jerks and slithers as if the floor were delivering an electric shock. The stories—many of them horrifying, all of them sad—fall around him, accumulating clarity, just as the white blur on the tall screen turns into a waterfall, and horizontal flashes of color become swimming fish. In the process of querying identity, Ouramdane— darkly, vulnerably—probes the twisted roots of violence and inhumanity.

Hilary Easton approaches contemporary horrors by devising movement structures that mirror social disintegration. In Noise + Speed, she revisits the Italian Futurists, who, between two world wars, preached the violent disruption of art traditions, embraced technology, and glorified combat. Making use of texts such as F.T. Marinetti’s “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism” (1909) and seasoning their rants with Doris Humphrey’s prescriptive The Art of Making Dances, Easton attempts to show how oversimplification and institutionalization can corrupt theories so gradually that we fail to notice the malignancy. Noise + Speed may be her most complex and ambitious piece, and, engrossing as it is, it sometimes has a hard time conveying all that it must through dance.

Three of Marinetti’s artworks, enlarged, show black-painted words and letters exploding. Actor Steven Rattazzi delivers the texts, fairly screaming Marinetti’s call to destroy museums and libraries. The choreography focuses on conformity, erosion, and limited violence. Wearing drably handsome gray costumes by Madeleine Walach and eloquently lit by Carol Mullins, Easton’s expert dancers (Alexandra Albrecht, Michael Ingle, Joshua Palmer, Emily Pope-Blackman, and Sarah Young) often pause to check one another, very aware of any deviations from an apparently decreed pattern. Thomas Cabaniss’s terrifically effective original score for string ensemble, keyboard, and percussion underlines the tensions.

In the beginning, confined to corridors of light, the five performers wheel, lunge, and twist in shifting contrapuntal patterns. Everything looks deliberate, except the casual lifting of one person by another that presages more vicious handling. Rattazzi and Easton arrive together—he to articulate Luigi Russolo’s enthusiastic “The Art of Noise” (1913), she to dance. She’d like Rattazzi to understand her, to imitate her bold, sensate movements, and he—nimble, though clearly not a dancer—obliges fitfully. Later, Humphrey’s ideas about well-made dances inhibit Albrecht, Young, and Pope-Blackman—the first two usually in synch and Pope-Blackman exploring new territory. When Young thinks to join the latter, Albrecht calls her to order with an “Ahem!”

The dancing gradually becomes more distorted. The performers wiggle and shake. They turn on one another, and in the appalling duet that accompanies Valentine de Saint-Point’s 1912 manifesto on the righteousness of lust, Palmer attacks Albrecht and hauls her around in painful ways. After this, Easton stares sternly at Rattazzi, like a mother expecting an explanation from an errant child. She demonstrates some curious, wobbly movements, along with echoes of bold affirmative ones. Rattazzi tries to duplicate this deteriorated version of something that was once brave and new. In the end, drums are heard, and the dancers march, although not in lockstep. Marinetti, it must be remembered, embraced fascism. What “ism” do we dance to now?

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 20, 2008

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