Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!
Dave St. Pierre Company
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; June 2, 2011
by David Mead
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 twenty minutes or so would be spent being clambered over by naked men determined to be genitally confrontational as they give close-ups of every appendage and orifice whether you like it or not. That’s if they weren’t rolling around your feet fighting, or spitting or gobbing on your programme, your glasses or goodness knows what else. Alternatively you could find yourself being hugged or kissed by one of the infinitely more attractive and dressed female members of the cast. This may come as a surprise, but I do not go to the theatre to be personally abused and physically assaulted.
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. Anyone who thinks St. Pierre is pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance has been living on another planet for the last twenty years or more. Surely it wasn’t a case of looking for controversy for controversy’s sake, or knowing it would be easy to sell and stuff whatever anyone thinks. 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.
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 certainly not the focus of the piece even if the theatre did sell the evening almost exclusively on that point. 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.” Some scenes 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 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 to Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” slowly poured water from bottles on the floor; a metaphor for tears perhaps. It was remarkably poignant, although nothing compared to, say, Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain.” They then proceeded to slide across the stage in various ways, although again this was hardly new. Bausch did it and one well-known Taiwanese choreographer has made a whole career out of something similar, but far more artistic and aesthetically pleasing, using baby oil.
Putting the boorishness aside, as difficult as that is, therein lays the biggest problem with the piece. There is a singular lack of original ideas. 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. It does rely heavily on shock and catching the audience by surprise. As such, I suspect it’s a piece that only works once, at any level. Despite the claims, 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. 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. Like it or not, I defy anyone to be passive about the show. It will provoke a reaction for days afterwards, which is probably all St. Pierre is after.