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"Isabella's Room," by Jan Lauwers and Needcompany
Choose Your Poison
By Martin Harries

Isabella's Room
By Jan Lauwers and Needcompany
Brooklyn Academy of Music


Those Belgians, how they confound all our categories! Two centuries of horrific historical responsibility and damage weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living, and yet Belgians have brought New York the most exhilarating, captivating, and exuberantly unashamed performances of the past several years. It seems they no longer wear sackcloth in the drab cafés of their sepulchral capitals. Here they are, dashing in revealing clothes before the eyes of Brooklyn audiences notorious for being buttoned up to our necks in black. What can they be thinking? We hold on to our hats and our turtlenecks.

Call it an accident of my quirky viewing: Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker's Drumming struck me as the first work of art that made any sense at all in the fall of 2001. Drumming's geometrical arrangement of dancers kept time with Steve Reich's music; its joyful refusal of the blandishments and stratagems of narrative was welcome in that grim season. De Keersmaeker's Rain, in 2003, was almost as terrific, as constantly engaging, as ravishing. And in December, Needcompany, from Flanders -- where this crowd of freakishly talented and gorgeous people are supported by the National Lottery! -- brought Isabella's Room, a great mess of a dance-theater piece which dealt with the historical wreckage Drumming and Rain acknowledged in silence.

Isabella's Room takes on the European twentieth century head-on. It faces Belgium's colonial past, World War II, and the dilemma of so-called humanitarian interventions in contemporary Africa. As the director, Jan Lauwers, explains in a spoken introduction, a collection of ethnological objects left to Lauwers by his father inspired the piece. Around these objects Lauwers and his company built a performance that combines, but does not integrate, dialogue, direct address, dance, songs, and recorded music. These elements tell the story of blind, vivacious, haunted Isabella (Viviane De Muynck), moving from her tumultuous childhood on an unnamed island, to Paris (where she inherits the collection of objects and becomes an anthropologist), to Africa. Told in idiosyncratic fragments -- Ludde Hagberg narrates and two dancers, Tijen Lawton and Louise Peterhoff, play the two sides of Isabella's brain while the passage of whole horrific years (1942, 1943) is indicated merely as a jarring percussive noise Lawton produces by jabbing a piece of electronic gear -- this narration has the virtue of being entirely implausible.

The narrative implausibility points to large questions: Isabella's Room is a violent fairy tale of European modernity. It even has a "Desert Prince," the name Isabella's parents concoct to conceal her true paternity. The production, however, draws attention to the divergence between the fantastic "plot" and the bodies performing it. For my part, I recall the dancing of the bearded Julien Faure, the performer who plays the supposed Prince, more vividly than the narrative myth-making surrounding him.

This might seem a backhanded compliment: an overly ambitious story vanishes behind the bodies of the performers who perform it. Some of the narrative elements -- especially the story, late in the piece, about Isabella's much younger lover's disastrous relief expedition in Africa -- do seem simply strained. But strain between narrative and performers, history and bodies, is at the heart of the action. Instead of an elegant dramatic narrative in which performers vanish into their roles, Isabella's Room stages a tension between bodies and narrative.

"Isabella's Room," by Jan Lauwers and NeedcompanyA few moments illustrate this tension especially well. Near the beginning, Benoît Gob, who plays Isabella's father, moves from acting in more or less the usual sense -- he is "inside" a scene -- into an extended, sinuous, double-jointed moonwalk of a dance that comes as a surprise from his chunky body. I would guess that no one could have danced that dance in the period and place of the dramatic action, which is somewhere in France near the beginning of the last century. Later, Louise Peterhoff, as "Sister Joy," twice comes center-stage to perform a kind of hyperbolic leap like an ecstatic butterfly confined to one spot, or like a hopping sprite almost ready to take off. At another point, Peterhoff gallops half-naked across the stage with her shirt pulled over her head in a strange image of frustration and exuberance. At still another, a group of performers lift the terrific Anneke Bonnema over their heads as she sings one of the production's songs.

Isabella's Room places this sort of gratuitous display alongside a crazily ambitious historical allegory. The piece is about this relationship. From a certain point of view -- a tragic one? -- bodily continuance is simply a failure of historical acknowledgment: in the face of a catalogue of disasters, continued life is arbitrary. "We just go on and on and on," goes a choral song the company sings at the beginning and end of the production. The piece dances alluringly around this question without ever quite articulating it: how, having surveyed fragments of the wreckage of modernity, can one go on -- and on and on?

The immediate evidence of this wreckage is not, strictly speaking, wreckage at all: the objects from Lauwers's father's collection of ethnological artifacts, displayed on bright white tables in front of us. From the start, a certain scandal: are these the things themselves? Should they be on stage? Can they become props? (The enigmatic figure of Lauwers's father haunts this collection; one would like to know more about him.) Throughout the performance, a television provides inscrutable visual commentary: a live feed broadcasts images of selected objects from a suspended digital camera, sometimes manipulated by Lauwers and sometimes allowed to sway gently over the pieces. At one point, members of the company gather up individual pieces, march to the edge of the stage, and deliver short remarks in the vein of museum tourguides. By the end of this sequence, the performers yell, like crazed curators.

This yelling suggests the strange quality of Needcompany's engagement with the things. On the one hand, the yelling is yelling: attempts to overcome a failure of communication by raising the volume. But the pumping up also points to the frustrations of the group's engagement with the problem of use. At once part of and divorced from a long modernist tradition of primitivism (they name Picasso and Huelsenbeck), they recognize in these objects a use value they cannot themselves attain. (Does "Needcompany" satisfy, or articulate, a need? Do they or we know how to distinguish satisfaction from articulation?) If the company members are angry, it may be because they know that whatever illusion of community they can achieve, their work will fail to be a rite. They are guardians of a collection they do not know how to use: a petrified whale penis becomes a place to stash a cigarette lighter.

As the fate of this penis suggests, Needcompany is vulnerable to the accusation that it turns colonial loot into fashion accessories, a set of hooks for sexy display. "Unfortunately," writes Charlotte Stoudt in the Village Voice, "the atmosphere of self-regard that pervades Isabella's Room eclipses the destruction and suffering persistently recounted in the story." While I feel I know exactly what Stoudt means when she describes this self-regard, I did not witness this eclipse. Needcompany's trick is to place an accounting of suffering and destruction next to pleasures the good European might call narcissistic or voyeuristic without insisting that either be overlooked. The visible and infectious pleasure the company takes in its ensemble work does not empty the suffering and destruction of significance. What Stoudt sees as an eclipse I would call a constellation. (Europa, compound of the partially collapsed stars of enlightenment, damage, theater.) And I might also ask: is "self-regard" such a crime? If performers and audience cannot regard ourselves in the theater, where else?

As for significance, World War II surfaces in a surprising and horrifying way. In 1945, Isabella's lover, Frank (Maarten Seghers), finds himself prisoner in the Mitsubishi mine, supposedly below Hiroshima. Surfacing from his imprisonment after the dropping of the atomic bomb, he encounters a Japanese woman maimed by the effects of the blast, and murders her. Sitting in the Harvey Theater, I thought to myself: that's it, they've taken on too much, they've gone off the deep end, what are they thinking, these crazy Belgians? How could I make sense of the contrast between their blithe dances, that modish pop ditty they sing at the opening -- "We just go on and on and on" -- and this hyperbolic moment of historically overdetermined violence?

When the song returned at the closing, however, it was a different tune. By that point, I could recognize that sense didn't have to mean finding equivalences. Indeed, the success of Isabella's Room arose from its resistance to equivalence. Needcompany's risk was that the audience would be able to make this recognition, which required experiencing and thinking about two things at once.

It was a real gamble. The piece asks its audience for an unusual openness. It works by refusing resolution and it insists that we go on without the theatrical resolutions we crave, without the pathos of tragedy, the satisfactions of comedy, or the pride of dialectic. Needcompany displays the demands of history and the demands of the body alongside one another, and refuses to exchange one set of demands for the other.


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