By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2119 Paul Ben-Itzak
(To celebrate its 20th anniversary as the leading artist-driven publication in the United States, the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager is reflecting on Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past two decades. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider Archive was first published on November 24, 2003. To find out about purchasing your own copy of the DI’s Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by more than 150 leading critics of performances and art exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)
PARIS — Watching two recent performances here, from the Portuguese artists Vera Mantero and Joao Fiadeiro, I was reminded of the New York Times’s ludicrous statement last summer that “the proscenium stage is passé.” How could anyone be so unaware that the most crucial theater of operation for the choreographer is not the location in which the spectacle takes place, but the spaces of the body and the mind and where they meet in the vast landscapes of the spectator’s imagination?
Like Dance Theater Workshop, whose new theater was the subject of Gia Kourlas’s irresponsibly ignorant argument, the Theatre de la Bastille (whose curatorial niche in France is similar to those of DTW, P.S. 122, and Danspace Project in New York) has also been renovated, at a cost of about $900,000. But with all due respect of the costs involved, and my own personal ease in watching the second program of “Complicites portugaises” this past Saturday (the program concludes tonight) from the comfort of a re-upholstered seat, it was the many spaces that Vera Mantero probed in her 1999 “Olympia” that made this 20-minute show.
Here’s what Theophile Gautier (writing in the Moniteur Universel, and cited by ARTnews’s Jacques Letheve in 1960) had to say about Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” in 1865, when the painting was exhibited at the Salon of that year:
“‘Olympia’ can be understood from no point of view, even if you take it for what it is, a puny model stretched out on a sheet. The color of the flesh is dirty, the modeling non-existent. The shadows are indicated by more or less large smears of blacking. What’s to be said for the negress who brings a bunch of flowers wrapped in a paper, or for the black cat which leaves its dirty footprints on the bed? We would still forgive the ugliness, were it only truthful, carefully studied, heightened by some splendid effect of color. The least beautiful woman has bones, muscles, skin, and some sort of color. Here is nothing, we are sorry to say, but the desire to attract attention at any price.”
The painting had its defenders, chief among them Zola (who, being Zola, couldn’t help pointing out the social commentary aspect, observing that the model was probably 16 and that her flesh already showed signs of male usage).
The disinterested expression on the face of the young woman — Victorine Meurent, a frequent model for Manet, including for his “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” — might be said to anticipate one stream of post-modern dance’s response to the formalism of ballet; the last line above from Gautier — Romantic ballet’s great defender, after all — might describe at least one out of four modern dance creations we see here in Europe. So it’s not surprising that one of this generation’s most intriguing choreographers working in the modern dance idiom would want to probe Manet’s “Olympia,” which she first encountered at the Musee d’Orsay here. (Look on the first floor.)
Rather than argue a point of view about the resulting painting, Mantero chooses to probe the perspective of the model confronting her proscribed space. She starts by dragging the bed on a tether vertically downstage from upstage right, while reading from an famous essay by Jean Dubuffet (Mantero’s other inspiration) written in the 1950s, “L’Asphyxiante Culture.” This seems to fortify her for the task at hand: Mounting the bed and finding her pose… and poise.
Mantero is of course nude (note to New York’s prudish Joyce Theater: The mother with her eight-year-old sitting next to me didn’t seem to consider this un- “family-friendly” theater) and, like Olympia, adorned with only high heels, a bracelet, and a flower in her bunned hair. She eventually takes the famous position, freezes in it for a few seconds, and then slowly becomes hyper-aware of her right arm, dangling listlessly over the pillow. Still maintaining her eye contact with the spectator, she fidgets it into various other positions, but can’t get settled. She sidles her legs and other hand around into different arrangements. She slides off the bed. She sits on its edge, back slumped, hands folded between her open legs like a TV zombie. (The position is not very fetching, but the one captured by Manet was not meant to be either.) Finally she gets the idea to remove the flower and toss her frizzy auburn hair about. She rises and walks tentatively, jerkingly around the room. Then she returns to the bed and perches stretched out along the top before — and we know what’s coming here — falling and disappearing behind it.
Mantero’s “Olympia” is witty but it’s also personal, an ultimately empathetic excursion into the point of view not of the painting artist nor the critics outside the art, but the actual ‘model’ who has not gotten enough credit for the painting, even though her candid expression and frank pose may be as responsible for the tableau’s ultimate success as Manet’s devise. Instead of considering the ripples outward provoked by the painting, Mantero, operating in one frame — the, er, proscenium one — has gone inside another, the canvas, using the choreographer-dancer’s understanding of the body and its language to try to understand the origins of this body’s once-controversial impact.
Joao Fiadeiro’s “I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in” could also describe the manifesto of about one in four modern dance creations I see here. I was initially skeptical when the 1999 piece began with a soundscape consisting of those words plus a few others looped and looped and looped. “Are we going to have to listen to 50 minutes of this?” I cringed. But, as the speaker promised, with repetition — and some frequency modulation, no doubt — the words slowly became divested of any besides rhythmic distinction, a lulling drone background to Fiadeiro’s performance.
I also groaned initially at the choreographer-dancer’s slow progression along a downstage arc, which he defined by laying masking-tape down as he slowly crawled along it. Finally Fiadeiro arrived at the copy machine planted upstage right (almost exactly where Mantero’s bed had been), squashed his face onto the glass, and hit the copy button. The result — it looked something like the Elephant Man — he stuck onto another stretch of tape strung above the lip of the stage, like a clothesline. More copies were run off, hung up, torn, folded over, crushed, chewed up, and spat out. The clothes-pins were actually clipped to the back of Fiadeiro’s white shirt, until he transferred them to and all over his face, before ejecting them by contracting his muscles. He then pinned one of the photocopies on the back wall upstage left, at the point of an arrow he’d taped there earlier, with the word “Me.” Tape-described and linked stick figures of a man, woman, and child followed, then a house, then a smokestack spiraling out of the house, curling into a gun held by another figure. Another spiral was taped up; when Fiadeiro kneeled at the small end it became the tongue of a frog snapping out to snag an insect.
Far from fitting the ‘site-specific’ definition touted as the only relevant modality by the New York Times, both these choreographers had created spaces that were infinitely ‘site-limitless’ on an apparently circumscribed playing surface — fresh works created on the archaic proscenium stage which Gia Kourlas, our most superficial of reviewers, would assign to oblivion. A true artist — and DTW’s motto, is, after all, “the work of artists” — does not require a fancy theatrical conceit to create and deliver work that is meaningful, breathtaking, and, yes, ground-breaking. All the artist needs is an innate curiosity and the talent to look for answers wherever the search takes him or her — sans limits.