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Le palindrome

Compagnie Philippe Saire
at the Museum of Contemporary Art, April 2-5

We're midway through the festival of contemporary European dance being presented by the Dance Center of Columbia College, which opened a few weeks ago with Wim Vandekeybus's company, Ultima Vez, and continued last weekend with Compagnie Philippe Saire from Switzerland. Moreover, a husband-and-wife company from Brussels, Tandem, presented a self-produced concert here last weekend. These events make two things clear. First, European dance has a much stronger intellectual component than American dance, which doesn't mean it's better or worse, just that it has different foundations. Second, size and money don't matter: Tandem's self-produced concert was much more original than Saire's work.

Saire's evening-length piece, Le palindrome, was created in collaboration with visual artists. Saire's idea was that the dance would reflect visual art, and the art would reflect the dancing. It's a fairly common premise, the basis for much work in Chicago. But the two art forms here don't so much comment on as go to war with each other. As the piece proceeded, the dance came to address larger and larger subjects until it became a sprawling epic intended to encompass all of existence. The dance's name reflects this process; as Saire says in a program note, "The work speaks of initiation, of passing between planes and of the resistance encountered....Each passing is a movement and a direction: sometimes one way, sometimes another, from backwards to forwards, like a perpetual palindrome." Although Saire speaks poetically, he describes the common intellectual experience of discovering the dense interconnection of ideas--trying to follow a single one, you still end up with the whole world.

Le palindrome has three sections, each of which investigates a different visual concept in a way that reveals a great familiarity with abstraction and a general intellectual bent. In the "black and white" section, four men dance amid three black-and-white paintings. Halfway through, the lights come down as the men lie on the floor, and we realize that their torsos have been making the shapes of the squiggles in the strongly horizontal painting. The other two works show squares painted with a broad brush, and in the second half Saire communicates the idea of a square with images of domination and conflict--piling a vast amount of meaning on this simple shape. He associates black and white with men, with forms, with structures, with limitations, and ultimately with death. The last images are comforting, as the men gently push their partners to the ground, then lie curled beside them. These are images of gentle masculinity, of men who support each other by confronting each other.

The second section, on color, explores images of femininity. Two male-female couples dance in deeply saturated red light in front of and behind a clear plastic sheet painted with a medical photograph of a heart connected to a network of veins and arteries. As the dance progresses, the red light is invaded by white light, until at the end the red and white lights are balanced. Saire associates femininity with emotion, with sex, with male-female partnering, with manipulation, with rationality confronting emotions, with the struggles of the soul, and with honesty.

The final section, about space, attempts to fuse masculinity and femininity. It begins rather shakily with broadly smiling dancers bounding across the stage in front of two flexible arches. After a trite first half, this section settles into a stretch of interesting partnering in which men lift both men and women and women lift both women and men, creating a pleasing image of the equality of the sexes.

But though overall the dance makes sense, moment by moment it's confusing. In one sequence of images, three men bully a fourth man, then all take off their shirts and begin tai chi exercises, then the men begin examining their arms closely. The first section doesn't have many of the pleasures normally associated with abstract dances; the rhythms are monotonous, there's little bravura movement, and there isn't much to attract the eye. Watching is a chore; the only pleasure is intellectual, trying to solve the puzzle of what Saire is saying. The remaining sections are much easier to watch, particularly because of the strong dancing of the women, Corinne Rochet and Celine Perroud.

Saire displays throughout a great deal of skill and sensitivity in crafting movement phrases and assembling them into longer arcs. Yet Le palindrome feels unfinished. Saire has created a great deal of interesting material but hasn't mastered it. In particular, he hasn't gone beyond sexual archetypes. He may have discovered philosophy, but he hasn't transcended it.

Tandem

at the Harold Washington Library, April 3-4

Tandem's concert was a complete surprise. The work features stunningly fresh movement gracefully composed and beautifully danced. Unusual and sophisticated, it well deserved inclusion in the Dance Center's series.

Tandem is made up of two dancer-choreographers. Michele Noiret studied at the school of Maurice Bejart, where she met Karlheinz Stockhausen, the 12-tone composer; she then worked with Stockhausen for ten years, developing a system for translating his music into movement. Stockhausen divided Noiret's body into a number of zones and assigned a musical note to each one; when that note occurred, Noiret moved that part of her body. The resulting dance is gestural, as body parts move in isolation. Bud Blumenthal, who's originally from Chicago, has an unusually diverse background: he focused on sports for 15 years before discovering tai chi, yoga, contact improvisation, and release technique. He completed his training in modern dance and worked in New York with some excellent choreographers.

The most stunning piece was Blumenthal's solo 24 Haikus: it actually lives up to its description in the program as "lucid, tender, witty and incisive." Blumenthal incorporates an extremely wide variety of movement, including heaping amounts of gestural movement he seems to have learned from Noiret. The movement is integrated into a subtle, delicate theme-and-variation structure. For example, the first movements, separated by blackouts, alternate between two images: upstage left Blumenthal faces sideways in a lunge into a light, moving with birdlike quickness through a few shapes; in the other image, he waves his hand gracefully over a large space as if erasing a huge blackboard. This alternation continues until the two images merge. At the end of the dance, he reappears in the same spot upstage left. In a typical theme-and-variation dance, Blumenthal would repeat the original movements. Instead he stands and shakes his right hand in a subtle reminder of the blackboard erasing. Rather than lunge, he moves across the floor as he did wiping the board but ends at the opposite side of the stage in a crouch rather than a lunge, the light slowly fading on his face. The ideas reappear, but they've been wholly transformed.

Noiret's Solo Stockhausen uses an accessible composition for clarinet and piano, Zodiac. Much of Stockhausen's piece is played very softly and sounds like a child's windup music box. Noiret seems a reluctant coquette, mincing onstage in tiny steps. Her movement is primarily gestural and, like Blumenthal's, extremely inventive. But since the choreography is a transcription of Stockhausen's music, matching its tempo and quality exactly, I found the piece more predictable and duller than Blumenthal's solo.

Blumenthal's duet, Knot of Sand--inspired by surf falling on a beach and using movement from the lexicons of contact improvisation and release technique--does not show the imagination of the other two dances, though it has a gentle, restful mood.

Blumenthal and Noiret's intellectualism is different from Saire's. Blumenthal has created a fascinating style of his own out of the widely different movement styles he's explored. Noiret, who's developed one specific style in depth, has also generated a new way of moving. They are true dance intellectuals, absorbed by the qualities of movement and awesomely creative. By contrast Saire seems derivative; he thinks that the interesting part is the philosophy--dance is merely a rocket to take him to the stars.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Le Palindrome photo; Tandem photo by Sergine Laloux.

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