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Avant/Aprés le Dèluge:
18th Century and Postmodern Baroque Dances

by Juliet Neidish

December 2-4, 2005 -- Center for Remembering & Sharing, New York City

In a tiny studio space off Union Square, the filled 30-seat audience was offered a full evening of fresh and clever dance innovation. Avant/Après le Déluge (December 2-4 2005, at CRS Studio NYC) curated by Sarah Edgar, was billed as “18th Century & Postmodern Baroque Dance.” It included the choreography and dancers of the NY Baroque Dance Company, along with an Afro-Haitian dance ensemble under the direction of Marcia T. Daiter. Two of the pieces were reconstructions of Baroque choreographer Louis Pécour. The remaining nine were new choreographies referring to or quoting from the oeuvre and essence of Baroque dance. All of the new pieces were successfully engaging, though each I hope will continue to be worked on and honed for future showings. There was a vibrant connection between these committed dancers, which was evidenced by their ensemble skills. Multi-talented performers who sang, orated, used diverse music, and moved seamlessly in and out of historical and contemporary dance styles marked the uniqueness of this evening.  

A reconstruction of the choreography and the style of an 18th-century dance is a result of historical research. Clearly, there are no moving images from the period, and no living dancers to pass along the technique. So, Baroque dances must be reconstructed from whatever source materials still exist, for example, notation, period dance manuals, writings, and visual art. Postmodern Baroque is a term used to describe new choreography made today which owes its genesis to the movement forms and theatrical concepts of Baroque dance. This evening of new work offered various examples of postmodern Baroque choreographies, and as a result, some of the different ideas and experiences that this work can engender.

The majority of the evening was in fact a remarkable panoply of mixings, clashes, and blending of styles, cultures, periods and theatrical disciplines. The show opened with “Put it On,” a reverse strip–tease choreographed by and for Patricia Beaman. Masked and corseted as a Baroque dancer, she nevertheless danced contemporary “sexy” topless bar-style movement as she took historical costume pieces from her partner (Seth Williams). The audience watched her in the act of dressing. Yet her partner, dancing in noble Baroque technique, barefoot and in underwear, reinforced the transgression.

“The Tragedy of Echo & Narcissus” (Sarah Edgar) was packed with polarities, mixing touches of historical costuming, punk rock music, high-energy contact improv-style movement, and recitation of text, to evoke this ancient story. I hope Ms Edgar continues to work on this piece so that her strong acting skills can be better woven in, assuring that the tragedy of her Echo will not be incidental to the wonderfully humorous self-involvement of Narcissus. 

“For the Sake of an Orange” by Joy Haven mixes cultures (Indian dance/European Baroque dance) in a vaudevillian manner of story  telling through dance, gestural mime, and props. In “Holy Hotel” by Seth Williams and Tim Wilson, two youths dressed in blue jeans and baseball caps contrast Baroque variations with American clogging. Taking turns showing off each style and dancing each style in unison was a simple yet surprisingly effective way to reveal a lot about these two genres which historically emerged from very different societal stratum.

The two Afro-Haitian pieces, “Caribbean Sea” and “Haitian Village,” offered a chance to think about the two companies’ approach to choreographing history. Daiter’s lushly atmospheric dances portraying past Caribbean and Haitian society washes over us, leading us into the rituals, music, song and social interactions distilled from the period. The performers were beautifully directed, giving us an entree into the rich human qualities of the individuals living in this mysterious world.  

More than halfway into the evening, Rachel List danced “La Passacaille d’Armide,” the more theatrically dramatic of the two Pécour reconstructions. Her accomplished use of the mask and her staccato rendering of the dance elicited some ‘aahs’ at its closure. That audience reaction made me realize an interesting effect that the postmodern Baroque pieces had on their progenitors -- the period pieces. Having been given tastes and quotations from the Baroque genre throughout the evening, by the time we saw the veritable or unadulterated Baroque dance we had enough familiarity with the material to experience its full effect. In short, historical work can inspire new work and new work can lead us back to an understanding and appreciation of our past.

In our fast-paced, forward moving world, it is easy to get farther and farther from the past that helped form us. Reconstructions, of course, help bridge that loss. But focusing only on the issues of how to account for the “authentic” reconstruction, can lead to musty, staid exercises, often severed from their original social context. Experimentation leads not only to a broader understanding of the material, but can keep it alive and keep us connected to it, while engendering a new body of work.

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