Choose Your Poison
By Martin Harries
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
A 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