Theater archives

Me, Myself, and I


Choreographer-dancers wishing to tell us more about themselves during a performance have several options. Words, spoken or projected as written text, can reveal thoughts that amplify or counter movement. A filmed doppelganger, seen in close-up, reveals emotional nuances invisible from a theater seat, and developments in computer technology have vastly expanded the possibilities for transformed and interactive images.

French choreographer Philippe Decouflé is an expert in media mania. New Yorkers who saw his film Abracadabra at the Walter Reade Theater in 2000; Shazam!, performed at BAM by his Compagnie DCA, in 2001; or Tricodex, presented by the Lyon Opera Ballet (also at BAM) in 2004 know how skillfully he manipulates imagery. Small wonder that he was chosen to choreograph a spectacle for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. His Solo: Le Doute M’Habite is more modest, but it employs numerous eye-popping strategies to tell a little about Decouflé and to reveal him as a creative artist exploring new ideas.

His studies with Alwin Nikolais (when that American magician of light, motion, and transformed bodies headed the Centre Chorégraphique in Angers) turned him onto the possibilities of projected images, and his studies in mime and circus techniques contributed to the playful side of his aesthetic. Almost the first sight we get of him in Solo is his actual feet dancing beneath a medium-sized, slightly suspended screen. As the electronic or pre-recorded elements of trombonist Joachim Latarjet’s score seeps in, we see closeups of those feet, with their uncannily long, flexible toes, in a video by Olivier Simola. The flesh-and blood Decouflé ducks under the screen and reaches to push up on his virtual feet, which retaliate by kicking him out onto the blue stage floor.

Decouflé, now 45, is a charmer. He sits at a table, and performs hand dances, which are picked up by one of the many cameras and projected onto a small screen set on the floor in front of the table. He riffles through a stack of family photos, holding each up to be projected. His commentary is drolly noncommittal (“me and my brother;” “my brother without me”).

But most of the solo involves manipulating his image. On the medium-size screen, maybe as a young man, he and another guy (or perhaps he and himself) dance in opposing mirror images. When that screen lifts, Decouflé improvises, and on the stage-width screen, the cameras split him in two (four if you count his shadow). Sometimes the projections are matter of-fact, like a closeup of the trombone Latarjet plays so excellently. But illusions pile on illusions, intensified by changing colors. Shadows of Decouflé’s hands form a mouth. His legs dance upside down. Images of him flit around, alighting on this screen or that one. He opens a huge book and slams it when he doesn’t like the sounds that appear to be rising from its pages.

Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer
photographer Steven Schreiber

The sad-clown aspect of his persona is reinforced by a recording of “Le p’tit bal” by the actor-singer Bourvil. It’s one of those wistful French chansons sung to the wheeze of an accordion. (Two different, equally execrable translations in the press release and the program mangle its words.) It describes a couple in a small dance hall amid post-war debris. The singer can no longer remember the name of the place, but he remembers the lovers—how they drank from the same glass, how they danced, how they had eyes only for each other. Decouflé, seated at the table, captures in his gestures the song’s hesitant questioning: “. . .ce petit bal qui s’appelait. . .qui s’appelait. . . .”

Except for his description of the snapshots, Decouflé makes no comment on what imagery reflects past phases of his career and what is pure experimentation. Improvising for almost an hour, he’s a magician playing clever and beguiling games for our entertainment.

For some time now Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer have been touring with a very compact company: the two of them, their video images, and set pieces to project these on. Their equipment may occupy many pieces of luggage, but they don’t have a lot of mouths to feed or egos to soothe. At the end of their Seductive Reasoning, they multiply themselves into a horde—their life-sized projected selves striding out in different directions from openings in a white rear curtain, exiting, and reappearing (occasionally wearing new outfits), while we play guess-the-real-dancers. It’s a dazzling virtual rush hour.

Each part of their just-completed trilogy, Seductive Reasoning, Under the Skin, and now Memory Bank, is accompanied by an impressive live musician, plus pre-recorded tracks. Composer-cellist Robert Een plays his instrument for Seductive Reasoning, as does saxophonist-composer Ken Field for Under the Skin. Grammy-Award-winning percussionist Glen Velez does a dazzling turn on the tambourine before his score for Memory Bank begins. The music, like the dances, teases us—in this case, the seen and the unseen uniting in what’s heard.

The three pieces’ multiple images and shadows serve one main idea: the relationship of a couple, such this real-life pair who’ve been collaborating for 29 years. Although Bridgman and Packer are charming and persuasive performers, they don’t act out marital life, aside from dancing affectionately together—sometimes as if on a Saturday night out. With the collaboration of Jim Monroe and Peter Bobrow, they employ video to suggest aspects of role-playing, amorousness, struggle, and the day-to-day intimacies born of their long association.

In Seductive Reasoning, they dance both with each other and with their dream partners in a dizzying foursome. Bridgman walks in profile, accompanied by an alter ego capable slipping out of synch with him and re-clothing itself in different outfits every few seconds. In one remarkable section of Under the Skin, the two wear white hoopskirts that act as screens. His image can appear to creep under garment. She can acquire his legs and vice versa. As they embrace, so do their projected selves, but in different ways.

Memory Bank employs a new strategy. Enabled by Video Time Delay Software by Matthias Oostrik, they can dance with their own past, that is, interact with projections of movements performed seconds ago. They also allude to the veiling effects of memory by entering tall transparent “cases” that are shallower than they are wide. Semi-transparent curtains in the structures further blur what we see, and partially concealing satin ones add further layers to these compartmentalized recollections. When Bridgman and Packer, wearing only flesh-colored trunks, embrace in a blue haze (lighting design by Frank DeDanto III), joined by their other selves, they remind us how many hands and mouths often seem to inhabit a single couple’s lovemaking. When the live performers struggle, the curtains billow in emphasis.

As the two, alone or together, move in and out of the structures or vanish temporarily behind a white panel, they seem to be chasing each other and their earlier selves. Even when she confronts him briefly across a table, their clones continue the imaginative pursuit onscreen.

Decouflé counters an abundance of visual effects (like a one-man Busby Berkeley extravaganza) by reminding us what a friendly guy he is. The way Bridgman and Packer use media subtly distances them from their feelings. At one point in Memory Bank, Bridgman watches two tiny images of himself and Packer float down, as if recollection has diminished them. When their living bodies become screens for projections, the mingled elements imply almost more than they reveal. That powerful, strangely intimate disconnect is at the heart of the trilogy’s seductive duets.

Bridgman and Packer’s alluring work and Decouflé’s Solo throw out provocative ideas. We pursue the past and the future without understanding exactly what we’re chasing or how we’d feel if we caught up with it. And, given the possible future of cloning, how would you react if you met yourself coming around the bend?