by Carmel Morgan
March 10, 2009 -- The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Terrace Theater, Washington, D.C.
Belgium’s Compagnie Thor performed as part of the Kennedy Center’s inspiring month-long celebration called “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World.” At first glance, a Belgian contemporary dance company might seem out of place in a festival of Arab culture. However, the company presented “D’Orient,” a work that Artistic Director Thierry Smits created after a series of voyages to the Middle East. Compagnie Thor’s “D’Orient,” which premiered in March 2005, offers an intriguing outsider’s view of the exotic Arab world.
Eight attractive young male dancers performed “D’Orient.” The program notes for “D’Orient” warned that the work is “[t]otally subjective and not at all an attempt at political analysis, the purpose . . . is above all aesthetic.” Even disavowing politics, the work packs a certain punch. The intimate intertwining of the all-male cast in the work’s opening section, based upon hammams, the public baths, seemed to have offended at least one couple, who quickly exited the theater.
The unabashed sexuality of this section perhaps understandably discomforted some in the audience, and yet the dancers moved beautifully. Bare-chested, most wearing white bottoms of varying lengths, the dancers reclined against one another and collapsed into each others’ arms. Hands swept over bodies, touching heads and lower backs, following the human form as if polishing a statue. The bright lighting design by Reynaldo Ramperssad accentuated the porcelain skin of the dancers. Their pale skin absolutely glowed.
Several duets took place across the vast stage. Although the couplings were sometimes erotic, they were also distant. The atmosphere appeared careful, but full of trust. Men assisted each other in the process of bathing. They rubbed each other’s shoulders and loosened each other’s joints. Dancers took turns individually walking across bodies stretched upon the floor. Gingerly, in an almost-crouch, they moved over the rest of the bunch, gently placing hands on each dancer as they passed.
Dancers later moved in unison, with lots of deep knee bends and movement on the floor. The men appeared watchful, voyeuristic. As the music built, the dancing grew as well until the men were like bubbles in a boiling pot. Arms flew up as if asking for salvation, bodies smacked the floor, feet noisily slid across the marley. In a section resembling contact improvisation, dancers rolled across each other’s backs and leaned into one another, sharing weight. They pushed off one another, legs soaring in martial-arts like leaps. Passion abounded.
Afterward, the dancers emptied the large burlap sacks that sat on the stage’s perimeter, signaling the second scene in “D’Orient” – the Sahara. From the sacks spewed cardboard-colored cottony fluff. The fluff (camel hair wool?), spread over the entire stage by the dancers who kicked it and shoveled it, became the desert, complete with small dunes soaked in yellowish light suggesting the hot sun. Once the “sand” was evenly distributed, the men ran through it, buried themselves in it, and let it fall through their outstretched hands.
The third scene, “Festivity,” emerged when the dancers pushed the “sand” to the back of the stage, creating a mini-landscape behind which a colorful backdrop featuring a red/blue decorative design slowly appeared. In this section, the ensemble work was particularly potent. The men added loose white shirts to their costumes, and the music became more energetic. Dancers jumped and kicked their legs to their noses, while twisting in the air like they were executing a baseball windup. Their long legs continually popped out in unexpected places. The dancers conjured ecstatic ritual in these frenetic movement sequences. Here, they abandoned their vacant bath-house look and seemed utterly possessed as they threw themselves into the demanding closing choreography.
Not having traveled to the Middle East, I cannot address the authenticity of Smits’ vision. “D’Orient,” however, successfully stirred emotion. The choreography was interesting and the dancers performed the work with heart.