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David Roussève/REALITY in "Saudade"

Groupe Emile Dubois in "Des Gens qui dansent"

by Theodore Bale

July 18, 2009 -- Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Massachusetts

The recent performances of David Roussève/REALITY’s “Saudade” and Groupe Emile Dubois’ “Des Gens qui dansent” on the same summer day at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival unleashed an intriguing paradox: research-based performance and choreography, as fragmented and speculative as it might seem, is acceptable from a French ensemble but unwelcome from an American company.

This is an observation of how the works were received by two different audiences, not necessarily my opinion. On the contrary, as soon as Roussève’s show ended, I found myself defending him and his company to my friends and colleagues, most of whom dismissed “Saudade” as self-indulgent, overwrought, and un-theatrical. There were also the tired accusations that “there wasn’t enough dancing.” So why did I fall in love with him as the 90-minute intermission-free performance progressed?

In his own words on the company website (, Roussève calls the piece “a full-evening dance-theater work juxtaposing Portuguese fado music, world dance, post-modern dance, stories of southern African-Americans, and projected video imagery,” which “explores bitter-sweetness as a single moment when the greatest joy and agony are experienced together.” The latter is a concept well-defined in the writings of Jacques Lacan, where it is defined and usually un-translated as “jouissance,” or a kind of pleasure-suffering, which is also essentially phallic. I couldn’t help but think of Lacan as “Saudade” progressed, each of the seven scenes punctuated by the placement of a fat pillar on a diagonal trajectory. Roussève is a narrator of sorts throughout, and he never leaves the stage. Perhaps the work was “too” theoretical, the choreographer’s constant presence overwhelming and the finished event lacking in what is traditionally known as “entertainment,” but it did make me think in a new way about American dance-theater and has haunted my memory in the weeks since. I’m still contemplating a chair made out of crutches, Anjali Tata-Hudson performing passages of classical Indian movement while another dancer attempts to prevent her solo, and a line of women in floral dresses all hic-coughing.

REALITY is a multi-cultural company, disappointing to those who like the conformity of unison phrasing performed by similar (usually glamorous) body-types of similar race. “Saudade” manifests many of the strategies of the well-established German dance-theatre, particularly those of Pina Bausch. The dancers are there because of their differing ethnic heritage, movement style, and experience. Sri Susilowati spends much of her time on stage trying to convince the other dancers to buy some Thai chili peppers “for only a dollar.” She is a kind of fly in the ointment during passages of pure movement. Later on, we see a video of her eating the pepper raw, the camera slowly panning from her forehead down, the crunching sound amplified, tears streaming as she is barely able to finish the pepper and the burning seeds; pleasure and pain, indeed.

Olivier Tarpaga, a choreographer, dancer and djembe drummer from Burkina Faso, contributes some ostentatious episodes of African-based movement that contrast sharply with Roussève’s somber recounting of the story of Sally, a former slave. His stories do not focus on sentimental African-American characters; you won’t find any “Color Purple” here, but rather an angry homeless man who talks about boogers, broken-boned street cats and his unfortunate hospitalization with “the Nigerian night-nurse from hell… she got more afro than Pam Grier.” Roussève does not let the audience settle in comfortably for a round of heart-warming narratives. The F and N words become plentiful, and the white bourgeois crowd heads for the exits. In the end, “Saudade” wants a bit of dramaturgical re-organization, but the impact remains. If anything, I would encourage the ensemble to go even further. Let’s see Susilowati eat the chili-pepper live, and we’ll be even more uncomfortable.

In its own way, Jean-Claude Gallotta’s “Des Gens qui dansent” is also about ordinary people who dance through the pain/pleasure continuum, except that the narratives are extremely abstracted (some of the speaking is neither French, nor English nor Spanish but rather simple gibberish) and the décor seems to be whatever could be found around the Ted Shawn Theater. There is as much irony as in “Saudade,” but the lasting effect here is humorous, not portentous. The artists, ranging greatly in age and in body type, sometimes provide direct commentary to the audience: “I dance, knowing exactly how all this will finish,” says one, and “I dance, so that there is no more poverty in the world, but it doesn’t work,” says another. Francoise Bal-Goetz, who appears to be a “woman of certain age,” admits that she only ever dances “to one-percent of her capacity.” The music is often highly rhythmic, bright, and incorporates such things as a spontaneous trombone solo from dancer Martin Kravitz. It is inherently much more uplifting than Roussève’s choice of Portuguese fado. So the question remains: do we attend the theater only in order to feel happy?

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