If you didn’t happen to see a press release (or dance-world tweets) before taking in Ivy Baldwin’s fabulously enigmatic Here Rests Peggy at the Chocolate Factory, you mightn’t know that the Peggy in question is Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)—art collector, sponsor of painters, museum founder, and champion sleep-around. Nor might you detect the influence on Here Rests Peggy of German Expressionist films and the crash of waves on the Ligurian shore, near which Baldwin recently had a Bogliasco Fellowship. And, you know, I’m not sure that matters.
A year or so ago, I compared Baldwin to a hunter-gatherer, foraging for provocative imagery to nourish her highly individual creative impulses. That’s still true. Her bent is for deconstructing and combining elements to build bizarrely entrancing new realities that don’t necessarily make spectators any wiser about her sources. If you’re listening from some parallel universe, Peggy Guggenheim, this is not all about you.
Baldwin gives us art—a delicate, vaguely Abstract Expressionist painting by Anna Schuleit that fills the Chocolate Factory’s far wall. She gives us born-to-wealth-and-privilege: She, Eleanor Smith, and Katie Workum wear glamorous, diversely cut black cocktail dresses, and Lawrence Casella’s outfit includes an arty vest with the tips of peacock feathers trimming the back hem (costumes by Walter Dundervill). All four sometimes mince on tiptoe, as if wearing high heels, and on occasion hold their hands daintily—perhaps they’ve had a recent manicure. Baldwin may be combining kinky sex and the demands that needy artists make when Casella kneels on her ribcage and bounces a bit, while she breathlessly orders him to “Get off!” Smith and Casella slap each other around a bit. You can imagine both Guggenheim’s louche life and her connoisseurship when all four performers come close together and blink rapidly, as if they’re listening to one another’s bodies with their eyes. Waves crashing? Perhaps that and more when Casella and Workum, gripping each other uncomfortably tightly, race in circles, periodically smashing into the art-work wall. Or when Baldwin whips the full, shiny skirt of her dress until it makes whooshing sounds.
Enough speculative interpretation, but you get my point. Baldwin and the other performers (all given credit as choreographic collaborators) are extremely interesting. What they show you is an odd, conniving little group of people who observe one another closely and easily become obsessive about things (such as tossing their heads until their hair blurs). They gallop around and do big, scooping, sweeping dancing and windmill their arms furiously, but also strike heroic, profiled poses. Justin Jones weaves appropriately eclectic, often-disguised musical tidbits into his sound design (17, including ones by Henry Mancini, Paul McCartney, and Igor Stravinsky).
Two events stand out. Workum, her back to the audience, delivers an indecipherable speech to the other three in a very high squeaky voice. They stare uneasily, even laugh a bit; afterward, she’s sad and gracious. She thrusts her arms up; they copy her, then wilt and try again. At the very end, Workum—first sitting, then standing, caught by a sudden momentary blackout of Chloë Z. Brown’s highly effective lighting—begins to alternate, in a small, but clear, almost-singing voice, “I disappear” and “I reappear,” rising and sinking as she does so.
Whatever you think this fascinating piece is about—or not about—this is a strangely wrenching moment.
In all her works, DD Dorvillier probes the nature of interpretation and perception, whether by dissecting narrative or dispensing with it altogether. No Change or “freedom is a psycho-kinetic skill” (her Danspace revival of a remarkable 2005 work) doesn’t monkey with our viewing habits as much as her 2007 Nottthing is Importttant did at the Kitchen, but it does assault our views of space, order, and chaos and prompts visceral responses to the challenging, often witty concatenation of sights and sounds that Dorvillier wizards up.
The audience, seated along one of Saint Marks’ walls, is confronted by a black-and-white world that seems both orderly and disorderly. A small black sandbag weighting down nothing sits in the middle of it. Two mic stands, a soundboard, and a light board trail black electric cords that snake over the white floor in front of a white “wall.” Up on the altar platform or just in front of it, things are a bit messier (a ladder, a piano, a very large lamp on the order of Hollywood klieg lights, etc.). We have plenty of time to take this in, since Dorvillier lies on her side with her back to us for several minutes, while Elizabeth Ward, in the workaday attire of a black hoodie and jeans, goes to the soundboard and disconnects the iPod that’s been providing a low hum. Then she too lies down, and we wait some more.
The prevailing atmosphere of No Change is one of exploration and testing hypotheses. Once on her feet, Dorvillier embarks on surveying the space and the objects in it as fodder for experiment, adjusting to their nature, design, and the challenges they present. At one point, she lies on the floor at the feet of the first row of spectators, holding up a foot with one hand and trying to see if, by stretching her other arm across herself, she can touch a small lamp. Much later, she lashes a cord to make a mic that’s suspended above the ladder smack the board anchored behind it.
However much Dorvillier has plotted her actions, she must end up having to improvise her way out of certain strategies. How could she calculate exactly how a mic and its stand will crash to the floor after she whacks it with a piece of cloth, or just how tangled she and it can get in a hanging black drape, or be certain exactly what catastrophic noise the mic will make when she drags the whole mess across the floor before getting free of it. When she kicks a blue bucket around, bouncing it off the walls, little can be predicted except thunks and hurtling trajectories.
For us—amused, charmed, perturbed, anxious—No Change teases the senses and unites us with the challenges the intrepid choreographer-performer confronts. “How the hell will she get out of this?” we may think when she takes a mic off its stand, stuffs it in her pocket, sits on the floor, rolls down her jeans and underpants in one bundle, and then makes her way across the floor with her butt bared, her ankles hobbled by her pants, and the mic—its wire trailing behind her—making its inevitable protesting squawks.
Don’t bother wondering why a man should come up from the audience and play a soft accompaniment to the sweet, woozy song that Ward draws from an iPod play, or why Ward temporarily abandons her technical-assistant role to appear in a white dress and embark on some fluid arabesques. Just enjoy the strange, cool, displaced eroticism of Ward, rocking on her belly, with a mic on a cloth beneath her, while Dorvillier, still naked from the waist down and in discreet profile, opens and closes her bent knees in the same rhythm. Ward wheels the big lamp onto the floor, but it’s the small work light hanging on it that she trains on Dorvillier, while the latter, now clothed, casts slim, angling silhouettes on the free-standing white wall.
Everything—the onstage switches that control Thomas Dunn’s lighting and Seth Cluett’s sound design, the clothing (including the big, spaghetti-strapped dress that Dorvillier sometimes wears over her jeans), the floor, the walls, the equipment, the raggy drape, the lamps—exists to be explored and tinkered with in purposeful, if inexplicable ways. This extremely thoughtful artist has invited us into the playpen of her intellect and sensations for 50 minutes. We should be grateful.
I had never considered Goethe’s poem “Die Erlkönig” (made famous internationally in Franz Schubert’s eponymous song) as possibly being about pederasty until Alain Buffard’s 2005 Les inconsolés appeared at Dance Theater Workshop last week. Certainly the poem, which we hear both read and sung, is creepy, and the music intensifies this. A father rides through the woods at night, his child in his arms. Yet when the terrified boy speaks of the invisible forest king who is luring him away, the father says it is just the fog or the wind or a weeping willow. The seducer becomes stronger and more threatening: “I love you, your beauty excites me; /And if you’re not willing [to come with me], I’ll use force.” The child cries out that the evil spirit is grabbing him, has hurt him; the father rides swiftly on and arrives home with a dead son in his arms.
At the outset, Buffard lets us hear Goethe’s words (spoken on tape in German). At the end, a version of the song is delivered by a hoarse, crumbling voice. The choreographer also emphasizes his interpretation of the poem by letting us hear “Persuasion,” a song by Throbbing Gristle that’s explicitly about the attempted luring of a schoolboy and includes such words as “I’ve got a little biscuit tin/To keep your panties in.”
The last time I saw a work of Buffard’s was in 2006, when Danspace presented his 2003 Mauvais Genre. At that time you could definitely see the influence on this French choreographer of Anna Halprin, with whom he worked on the West Coast for over six months in the 1990s. He has also mentioned his interest in German Expressionist dancers of the 1920s. These and other influences, filtering into his own concerns and developing style, resulted in his frank affection for the human body, warts and all, as well as a willingness to stress that body and an interest in various kinds of rituals.
Les inconsolés may be taken to mean not only those who are not comforted but those unable to be consoled. Mixed with the potent allusions to child abuse are scenes that begin as games or competitions and turn vicious. The performers and collaborating choreographers are all men—Matthieu Doze, Christophe Ives, and Buffard. They wear jeans and T-shirts, but initially, we see only parts of them. In Paul Beaureilles’s and Thalie Lurault’s highly selective lighting, a leg or an arm will appear from under the black curtains that frame the stage, wait there, inert and pallid, and then slip back into darkness. Sometimes a pale face looks in at shoulder height; once an arm appears between someone else’s feet. A tall white fabric box turns anyone in it into a looming shadow-man.
Even when the men become visible, running about in the wings, they tangle in the black curtains and spin themselves into anonymous bundles. And then, while Frédéric Marolleau’s sound design offers such quiet intrusions as the sound of a pen scratching on paper or birds chirping, we see the performers in their entirety. But, although they may pull their jeans and underwear down or entirely off, they’re still hiding; anonymous, gleaming, translucent masks cover most of their faces and make them look both ghostly and unhealthy.
It doesn’t take much for contact among them to turn punitive. One minute, Buffard is crawling and rocking with Doze beneath him, hanging on like a baby animal. The next minute they’re wrestling furiously, messily, while Ives watches excitedly. Then Doze is attacked by both men; they wrench his pants off, blindfold him, and torment him while he gropes. The end of his blindfold becomes a leash, and, restrained by Ives, he charges Buffard like an attack dog.
The interplay among shadows and between shadows and live performers is horribly spooky, since placement within the white box can render some figures enormous. An immense rump slowly sits on someone’s small head. A big profile descends to devour a supine little person. A shadow man appears to crouch beside a performer in front of the screen and stroke a hand down his side. At one point, Buffard’s own image is projected onto him, and it and his own shadow form a sandwich of him; he falls and is yanked under the cloth and into the box. These brutal, phantasmagorical images of victim and oppressor, as well as the intermittent disrobing and the full or partial disappearances of the men, culminate in the unexpected image of a hanging. That’s when we hear the voice of Georgette Dee, a man performing as a woman, finally singing a transformed bit of Schubert’s lied.
This is the kind of dance that gives you nightmares, but while it’s happening, you daren’t look away.