A Fender Stratocaster lies next to a bank of stage lights. When someone turns the guitar on, it buzzes. No one fixes the buzzing, and the noise persists as a needling undertone for much of what follows. This is not a rock concert. It’s an artful, troubling work of multimedia dance theater by the French artist Rachid Ouramdane.
At first, there are only words, the memories of a survivor of genocide, heard in French as an English translation is projected. The words speak of neighbor killing neighbor, of being saved by chance, but also of the difficulty of finding words, the fear that people won’t believe, or if they do, that they won’t “know what to do with it.” Other voices testify to the experience of being tortured, and of living with the memory. Meanwhile, five performers have entered the dimness and are milling about. Considering what’s been said, what could they possibly do?
The thematic concern of Ordinary Witnesses, which received its North American premiere at New York Live Arts on Tuesday, is the familiar one of giving voice. Its formal concern is the representation of violence. After the voices cease, the milling people stop and bend backward or splay themselves on the ground with an arm twisted underneath. Calm and protracted, the contortions are never more extreme than what you might find in a yoga class. It’s the context that colors them.
Such tact is admirable. The continual return to literally pedestrian movement effectively suggests the banality of evil, its ordinariness, and also the terrible elasticity that makes both survival and forgetting possible. The performers disregard each other until they embrace, but the potential sentimentality of the hugging is complicated by its similarity to previous arrangements of limbs and their sinister implications. Later, the dancers trade off as guards, kicking piles of bodies, gently. A woman spins like a dervish, making the pretty shapes of an ice dancer until she stretches an arm behind her neck. You think of a hanging, a decapitation. The blurring speed distorts her body as a blender might.
Ouramdane’s restraint is tested at such moments of intensity, when he turns up the volume on the buzz. At the next climax, the guitar is hung, a dubious substitution that points up the slickness of the borrowed rock concert glamour. The rest of the performance is too like the beginning. The voices return, only now we can see video of the speakers talking. At the end, one of them, a Brazilian filmmaker and victim of torture, contrasts the representation of violence in her films with its trivialization in the media. She also contrasts herself with people who haven’t been through what she has, and smiles as she says, “I always feel different.”
The note of self-congratulation, excusable in the filmmaker, infects Ouramdane’s work. He’s not one of the survivors, though his Algerian father was tortured—a fact he’s explored in previous pieces. One need not have experienced torture or genocide to make art out of it, of course, but the specter of exploitation looms, the perils of aestheticizing other people’s pain. It’s appropriate that the dancers are lit from above and behind. (We don’t see their faces clearly until the curtain call.) Yet in using the stories as context for his dance, Ouramdane strips them of their own context, conflating them and all violence together. How can we know what to do with it if we don’t know what it is?
Rachid Ouramdane’s World Fair will be presented at New York Live Arts on October 14 and 15 at 7:30 p.m.
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