Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Maguy Marin, and the luxury of French dance performances

I've just arrived home from Maguy Marin's Umwelt. This is currently at the Joyce Theater, on 8th Avenue and 19th Street. It's a dance performance that looks just a little bit like this.

I can describe it to you briefly: There are a series of mirror-like pieces standing in three or more rows, lined up side by side. Each is big enough to hide a dancer behind it. The whole piece is one hour divided up into ten-second segments. Two or three dancers at a time came forward between mirrors, where we could see them, for approximately ten seconds at a time. The dancers would all perform the same action in synchronization without looking at one another.

Each action was remarkably commonplace. Shaving, cooing at a baby held overhead, toweling hair dry, scrubbing the floor, counting cash, seducing a member of the opposite sex, wearing a billowing dress (both men and women), sipping a glass of wine, putting on a robe, sipping a cup of tea, eating apples, eating sandwiches, blowing a nose, wiping a nose, eating a cupcake, eating a bowl of ice cream, making out, putting on a blue hat, putting on an elaborate sun hat, mooning the audience and pulling up a pair of pants, taking out the trash, hauling a bundle of sticks, dumping a bucket of rocks on the stage, putting on a black shirt, putting on a green jacket, putting on a doctor's coat, fixing a blonde wig with a delicate stroke of the hand, tying an apron, scolding someone offstage, punching someone onstage, jumping into someone else's arms, falling to the floor, chasing someone, yelling, taking a picture with a disposable camera, hauling a hunk of meat the size of half a cow, crunching a mouthful of lettuce, wrestling a piece of meat in the mouth on the ground like a dog, walking out in paper bunny ears and crunching a big carrot, holding a stuffed dog in the air and cooing at it, etc. A few were more unusual: a man walking with a naked woman lying utterly still over his shoulders, putting on a paper crown (at one point, the crowns became twice as tall as in the opening), walking through in a trenchcoat and whipping out a dick, etc.

This all with wind machines blowing at the dancers, and with a strange, loud, discordant sound emerging from a rope hooked to three guitars that moved slowly throughout the performance. Once in a while a single person would walk to the front row of mirrors and stand alone, looking at the audience. The lights would change. Then slowly they would fade back and the other dancers would start up again.

Here is why I think this is worth describing: every person's reaction to this show is different. The people behind me said it was "clearly ominous." Reviewers say it is exhausting, or "an unflinching look at the meaninglessness of existence."

I thought it was just lovely. Seeing every person doing things they do nearly every day, but doing it in tandem with others, whether we know it or not. That's what the city feels like. Company in tedium. And there was a nice rhythm to it. There was plenty of variety in the actions. And none was favored too much; a woman naked beginning to undress her lover took up as much time and space onstage as did someone eating a cup of yogurt or bouncing a ball.

There was a talk-back tonight with the choreographer. One woman in the audience said, "I saw King Lear. The whole thing." Many audience members insisted they didn't want the choreographer to explain it - which was good, because she wouldn't. She is inspired by Samuel Beckett, according to the program. This is just life. In ten-second fragments. You are meant to see whatever it is you see.

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