A MYSTIQUE OF MAYHEM,
Choreographer: Eric Languet
Assistant Choreographer: Mariyya Evrard
Dancers from Footnote New Zealand Dance and Danses en L’R cie Eric Languet
Composer: Yann Costa
at Opera House, Wellington
28 Mar 2015
[1 hour 10 mins]
Reviewed by Chris Jannides, 30 Mar 2015
The Footnote show this evening, Bbeals takes a thought-provoking path and doesn’t disappoint. The central theme: the Jennifer Beals’ character from the movie Flashdance. The thought-provoking content: well this covers quite a range of things in a dramaturgically disjointed and piece-it-together-yourself fashion.
The work follows two main arcs. The transformation of the cast into multiple Jennifer Beals (Jennies), replete with boofy black curly wigs, white off-the-shoulder knit tops, and black sports bras and underwear. This is the first development, a cloning exercise of 80s star-smitten wannabe lookalikes, and their failings. The second is to create a large scaffold tower on which to suspend a crucified Jenny who laments her situation and chastises the others with the words ‘you guys are shit friends’.
Provocative, abrasive, confessional, self-analytical. You know the kind of contemporary dance show I mean. The big word for this: Deconstruction. Eric Languet’s Bbeals, follows this formula to a T. This is a relatively popular format that our dancers here do very well. There is a lineage of home-grown choreographers well-versed and highly competent in this, I would say, ‘European’ style of performance. Alexa Wilson and Claire O’Neil are two stand-out proponents working in this deliberately anarchic manner, both of whom have made deconstructive work on Footnote in the last few months, featuring disjointed in-your-face mayhem. I feel that we’re all quite well educated in this approach, hence it’s very easy to appreciate.
Yet somehow, knowing that the cutting-edge has been blunted by familiarity, what we seem to get more of in this form of ostensibly risky dance/physical theatre is larger doses of humour, spiced with wit-laden verbosity. Laughter and aggression, they’re both winners when it comes to entertainment and theatrical tension. Generously mixed together, Bbeals gives us a palatable onslaught of no-holds-barred performance, amicably contained, as it is tonight, by the resplendently decorative embrace of our stately, neo-baroque Opera House. Both the venue and the performance stand out for their references to the art practices and star-systems of earlier times. Heaven and Hollywood receive a double homage.
There is much in this show that the audience enjoys immensely. It is clear people want a laugh from the get-go. So these happiness wishes are well catered to. Water splashes on us from some hidden source, titillating us as the house lights dim. Dialogue made up of well-known lines from pop songs receives a joyous response. A cacophony of animal impersonations provokes much merriment. A small female dancer looking helplessly up at the microphone on a stand that is too high for her – more giggles. We all love humour in dance. The audience welcomes the laughs, and laughs as often as it can.
And we also know when not to laugh. The music is mostly the cue for this – delivered by a lean, tightly torsoed musician cum some-time performer in an open red shirt who alternates between keyboard, bass guitar and fellow dancer. Swinging between sensitive pianist and wide-stanced rocker, the musician is adept at dropping the tone and mood sharply and steeply at key points. Also the yelling and abuse spewed by the performers at us and at each other from the stage, often from an ear-splitting microphone, signals our silence, making us attentive and alert to the profundity that is about to be revealed, that we might miss if we are not concentrated enough.
Bbeals, with its fun and semi-structured feeling of improvisation, pulsates under an anarchic blow-torch. Every possible bit of content from the original film has found its way somehow into this performance. Female steelworker with an arc welder, yes (though here we had a grinder for health and safety reasons). Sky-pumping jazz dance steps, yes, plenty of those. Exploited eroticism, naturally. Aspirations to a higher plane of life and dance, the erect symbol of the onstage scaffold is the representative here. Fandom, the spawning of ‘maniacs’, and much else, all have been researched and dissected by Languet’s critical and unflattering ‘blow-torch’, thoroughly and without mercy.
Contemporary dance’s mandate to deliver depth, provocation, challenge and meaning is slotted into very smoothly and deliberately. Irritation and amusement are the primary tools in play. Programme notes attempt to focus our attention on the deeper layers of content in this work, just in case the work doesn’t reveal these for itself. So, for this show, we have statements like: ‘the dancers will question the intimate in order to evoke the universal’. Or: ‘Like the Tower of Babel, the tower being built here is surrounded by strategies, a concentration of humanity, enveloping what is paradoxical…’, and so on. Well, just like the company’s General Manager storming onto the stage in a surprise guest appearance towards the end of the performance to yell at the dancers to get down from the tower, the same sentiment might perhaps be directed at the need choreographers sometimes feel to prop up their work in this pseudo-intellectual way. Surely, I might suggest the work be allowed to do its own propping. Let it sink or swim on the merits of its own capabilities. That’s my humble appeal on this point.
Mention must be made of the ending. The woman next to me starts humming. I am thinking, ‘What the…?’ Then others all around me. Am I missing something? I haven’t read the programme. Is there something I don’t know that the rest of the audience knows? Something about us all singing at this point in the show? Understanding dawns on me when a large group of people who are strategically spread through the auditorium stand up and belt out a religious hymn that emphasises the words ‘Thank you, Lord’. This is an actual choir. Jenny is crucified. The religion of Hollywood is being mocked by a sincere group of local singers. I wonder to myself how much they are aware of the ‘reading’, or are they just happy to sing, irrespective of the context?
The dancers meantime, most of whom are concealed from me by the standing figures of the planted choir, are facing us and twitching, their white tops issuing from their teeth, I think to myself, ‘like vomit’. I question the woman next to me when she sits down. They are the Orpheus Choir. In spite of the beauty, surprise and poignancy of the singing, I curse my memory for having experienced this very same ending recently in Jo Randerson’s White Elephant production. It just goes to show, good ideas are contagious, even when they’re accidental. Divine synchronicity in action.
After the show, I have an interesting conversation with friends. It seems when a performance is full of diverse content built around strategies of disruption and chaos, the best thing to do is to talk to people afterwards. This taps into a delayed reaction effect. By comparison, immediate reactions at the time of viewing haven’t had time to be processed. In the theatre, for instance, a woman sitting close to me remarks, just after we all finish applauding, ‘Oh well, that was contemporary dance. I don’t always get it’. So I am eager to hear what my colleagues make of it. What I notice in our post-show discussion is that there is little mention of content – what the show is about, what it might be trying to communicate. Instead all the observations are about the dancers and how well particular people did certain things. There is no lack of appreciation for the talents, bravery and whatever else is required of the dancers in showcasing their diversity, skill and confidence. This seems to be the first and easiest port of call when trying to prise open work that makes immediate access difficult. There is a hell of a lot to squeeze out of an experience like Bbeals that, at the most, is only seen once. Post-show conversations are a must.
So thank you Eric Languet for your stimulating creativity and for the excellent performers you brought with you. Thank you also to the very fine ensemble that makes up the present Footnote company, you were all given the opportunity to shine as individuals. I am very appreciative of the questions this production has raised in me concerning the artistic complexities and ongoing challenges of contemporary dance as a communicative art form in our community.