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David St. Pierre Company

Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!

by David Mead

June 2, 2011 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

The publicity had certainly worked. Sadler’s Wells was bursting at the seams for the UK debut of Canadian choreographer Dave St. Pierre. What the audience hadn’t bargained for was that the first fifteen minutes or so would be spent being clambered over by naked men in long blonde wigs determined to be genitally confrontational as they give close-ups of every appendage and orifice whether you liked it or not. That’s if they weren’t spitting or gobbing on your programme, your glasses or goodness knows what else. The women meanwhile were busy hugging and kissing or, rather less appealingly, rolling around the floor fighting and ripping each others’ clothes off. This may come as a surprise, but I do not go to the theatre to be personally abused and physically assaulted.

Apparently this is all to do with breaking down boundaries and removing the ‘fourth wall’ in the theatre. But then why does almost all the rest of the show take place on the stage? After all, if St. Pierre was really serious about it, the whole piece would take place in the stalls.

None of this is new. St. Pierre has made the transgression of social and artistic codes something of a trademark. “Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!” (A little tenderness for crying out loud!) is the second part of his trilogy “Sociologie et Autres Utopies Contemporaines” (Contemporary Sociology and Other Utopias), following on from “La Pornographie des Âmes (Bare Naked Souls) that considered the pain of being dumped. The final piece, “Vices et vertus du coup de foudre” (Vices and virtues of love at first sight), due in 2012, is set to explore the electricity of new attraction.

Alistair Spalding, director of Sadler’s Wells first saw the piece at the Avignon Festival in France in 2009. According to the programme, he felt he “knew straight away that it should come to Sadler’s Wells.” I’m at a loss to know why. I’m all for presenting the occasional provocative work but the whole opening episode in particular was crass, insensitive, boorish and utterly without artistic merit. If St. Pierre thinks this is the only way he can make a splash something is seriously amiss.

Things did improve from time to time over the remaining ninety minutes. Yes, the performers were naked most of the time. “Un peu de tendresse” is full of men in long blonde wigs who speak with falsetto voices and play with their willies in juvenile toilet humour at its least funny. There are naked women too, although they are rather relegated to a minor role. But the nudity is a mere metaphor for human frailty, and baring the soul and the emotions. It is not remotely sexual and you quickly forget about it anyway. Just as well then that it’s not the true focus of the piece even if the theatre did sell the evening almost exclusively on that point.

The sad thing is that among all the loud uncouthness, St. Pierre and his company did conjure up some affecting moments and impressive images. Whisper it quietly, but some sections were profound and thought-provoking. There was even the occasional burst of high-octane, very good and very athletic dance.

Two of the best moments come when two women try to make their male partners react to them. Despite their longing, the couples cannot connect on any level. The men stand rock still, ignoring completely the women’s increasingly frantic screaming and begging for just a hint of love or affection. A narrative running through the evening concerns a young man who adores Sabrina, played by Enrica Boucher who also wrote the text, the dominatrix-like hostess for the evening. In her eyes, anyone searching for tenderness is a loser. She occasionally manages to raise a smile as she rebuffs the man with sadistic pleasure. When he brings her a cake she asks the audience whether she should eat him or the cake. It’s an amusing moment although St. Pierre returns quickly to the unsubtle as she sits on the cake and self-induces an orgasm.

There are clear links to Pina Bausch. Indeed, she once referred to his company as “my pornographic illegitimate children.” A number of scenes, and even the way the chairs are lined up across the back of the stage, appear to reference her works very closely. But any suggestion that St. Pierre is a Canadian Bausch is wildly wide of the mark. He repeatedly uses a familiar Bausch device, repetition, to make his point. At one point the men, for once dressed, repeatedly slap their faces while saying “frappé moi” (hit me) as if punishing themselves for even thinking they could seduce a girl. At another the women repeatedly hit their bottoms, so hard they were clearly red when they turned round. The self-loathing is thought-provoking but repetition only works as a means of emphasising something when it is used selectively. Bausch knew that, and when it happens in her works it has impact. St. Pierre’s problem is that he uses it again and again and again. He doesn’t know when to stop; when not to use it. If you do something all the time it becomes the norm. It can even become, dare I say it, boring.

A number of people walked out, although not as many as you might think and, slightly oddly, most left it until an hour into the piece before making their exit, by which time the worst of it was over. They also missed the most stunning image of the night. Just before the finale the dancers assembled en masse and slowly poured water from bottles on the floor; a metaphor for tears perhaps. It was remarkably poignant. A shame then, that he spoiled it by having the cast slide across the stage in various ways, although again this is hardly new. Bausch did it and one well-known Taiwanese company has something very similar right at the core of its style using, believe it or not, scented baby oil to further increase the glide factor. And could he really not come up with anything else but Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”? It was all rather obvious.

Choreographically, therein lay the biggest problems with the piece. Of course there is very little that has never been done before in some form, but there was a startling lack of original ideas, and it was done so crassly. Anyone who thinks St. Pierre is pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance has been living on another planet for the last twenty years and more. There is little in “Un peu de tendresse” that any regular watcher of dance will not have seen previously in some form or another, and that has not been done infinitely better.

“Un peu de tendresse” is a real contradiction of a piece that inspires conflicting emotions. It does rely heavily on shock and catching the audience by surprise, and the longer it goes on, the less impact St. Pierre’s coarse approach has. As such, I suspect it’s a piece that only works once, at any level. Despite the claims of the publicity, it is largely unfunny. What humour does work tends to be textual and comes from the delightfully bossy and sultry Serina. But the work does have its moments, and in many ways St. Pierre does make some valid points. The problem is that he is not very good at making them. Dance does not have to be refined, but by wrapping the more powerful scenes up in over the top childishness and boorishness the effect is dissipated greatly.

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