by Theodore Bale
May 17, 2008 -- Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts
Every dance festival seems to have its “buzz” or signature work. A few years ago at the Monaco Dance Forum, it was French-Algerian choreographer Rachid Ouramdane’s perplexing “Les Morts Pudiques.” An extended solo for the choreographer based very loosely on Roland Petit and Jean Cocteau’s “Le Jeune Homme et La Mort,” the dance was received as either hauntingly beautiful or entirely confounding by an international and expectant audience. I don’t recall anyone saying, however, that he or she hated it, and tickets quickly became scarce.
The buzz spread quickly to North America, especially among critics, and I was thrilled to hear that Ouramdane was returning to Dance Theater Workshop in New York with his latest work, provocatively titled “Far… .” I was even more thrilled when the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston decided to present the piece last month. Boston’s ICA, with its sensational new waterfront galleries, has become the most adventurous presenter of dance in the area. It failed to properly promote Ouramdane, however, and I was saddened to see the theater less than one-third full for the Boston premiere of “Far… .”
Like his “Morts Pudiques,” “Far…” is a solo dance with extravagant technology, well-integrated videography, fragmented music (from original compositions by Alexandre Meyer to Ouramdane’s awkward live cover of The Stranglers’ “No More Heroes”), and equally fragmented phrases of movement. In one scene, he takes minutes to sink into a backbend and then roll out slowly on the floor; in the next, he’s suddenly offering a powerful, “tectonic”-inspired episode. Such sudden shifts are the mainstay of his work, at least as evidenced by the two of his solos I’ve witnessed thus far.
Ouramdane does not create linear stories in these dances. Rather, he stratifies various movement events while centering on some topic of investigation. In program notes, he calls these particular strata “…a new way to explore the feeling of being a foreigner.” He journeyed to Vietnam and Cambodia, began to perceive himself as the son of a colonialist rather than a mere French citizen, and re-examined his father’s role as an Algerian soldier in the conquest of Indochina. The dance is about the colonized becoming the colonizer, and in this way, performer and object of investigation are like two mirrors facing each other. The consequent resonance is what characterizes the performance for the audience. In a fairly predictable Q&A session following the show, Ouramdane nonetheless had some intriguing reflections to share. “I don’t pretend to denounce anything,” he explained, adding, “I want to see how each one is dealing with his part, to look at the difference between official and unofficial memory.”
The opening scene is a videotaped interview with Ouramdane’s mother. She explains how the French subjected his father to forced labor, forced him to consume water, and then tortured him with electrical currents. “Where are the rebels?” his torturers demanded of him. The theme has a precedent: Jean-Luc Godard’s disturbing 1960 film “Le Petit Soldat,” which asserted the use of torture by both sides in the French-Algerian war. Once the film finishes, the landscape in which the action will unfold is revealed: several piles of serpentine black wires, four loudspeakers that move of their own accord, sometimes in unison (like surveillance devices), a large full-length mirror in the upstage right corner (which doubles as a projection screen), and small pools of water made from mirrors, the kind seen in terraced rice paddies.
Other interviews with Vietnamese and Cambodian subjects follow, the faces always obscured since each person’s comments contradict “official” accounts of war in those countries. The films have the feeling of being smuggled out of the region, as if they reveal emotions too intimate and disturbing to be recorded and shared publicly. They reminded me of the videotaped testimonials on display in the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In between them, Ouramdane dances, usually with his back to the audience and a black hood pulled over his face -- an obvious, but nevertheless effective, metaphor. He also recites some of his own poetry in rapid French, translated into English and projected in supertitles. They are mostly amateurish imitations of William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, and consequently benign in comparison to the other events on stage.
Throughout the seventy-five minute long dance, Ouramdane moves along a path marked by the heavy black wiring, eventually becoming absorbed into a projected film image of city traffic in the mirror upstage. It’s an entirely haunting finale, performed so slowly that the viewer becomes entirely mesmerized. The pain and suffering presented earlier seems to have been purified by the strange ritual. Is the choreographer aware of the precedents for such a scene? Meredith Monk projected film images onto her body and Cocteau’s players fell into mirrors well before Ouramdane was born. These strategies, however, seem to have returned as public spectacles, this time asserted by a uniquely original and introspective choreographer.