'Bolero Variations' and 'L'Après-midi'
by Mark Franko
September 24 and 26, 2009 -- Dance Theater Workshop and Dancspace, New York City
Raimund Hogue’s choreographic style is 'severe' in the French sense of 'chastened' -- evidencing a reserve that is both modest and intentionally sparing of visual and kinesthetic stimuli.
"Bolero Variations" (performed at Dance Theatre Workshop in New York City on September 24, 2009) goes on for about one half hour before anything resembling dance movement occurs. Great weight is given to small things. With so much in the theatrical world that is familiar removed, the presence of what remains -- as if left over from a catastrophe as the ruins of a lost object -- gains special and incisive force. This looks like minimalism without the arbitrary gesture of reduction that can be associated with it. Ultimately, this paring down of action and ornamentation brings with it a sure accumulation of detail, and ultimately, of meaning. The musical scores famous in dance history -- Ravel’s "Boléro" and Debussy’s "Afternoon of a Faun" -- suggest a vast choreographic emptiness to be filled. Hogue’s work invites intensive reading to unearth the ghosts of Béjart and Nijinsky. He refers to history as an absent past that weighs on us. In this sense, his work suggests Walter Benjamin’s conception of allegory in seventeenth-century German tragic drama: the time to contemplate the work makes it melancholic. It purposefully does away with immediacy. In the case of the inexorably building energy of "Boléro" this spells resistance. It justifies the performative holding back of energy and statement. In the case of the pastoral "Afternoon of a Faun," there is a more of a match rather than a tension between movement and music.
In "Boléro Variations" the stage is empty and the five performers seem to skirt this emptiness as they appear tentatively one at a time. In actuality, there were only four, as one of the dancers was denied an entrance visa to the United States. (The decision made not to re-choreograph but to leave his space on stage empty, corresponds to the minimalist aesthetic in which things are not reduced, but absence is tolerated). Standing in the opening of a back curtain before the work begins -- in full view of the audience -- we are aware of Hogue’s lone figure in dark street clothes: someone who stands there with us to occupy the same space and time. The quality of the bows of Pina Bausch come to mind, the way she had of simply sharing a moment with us, which was, after all, not so simple. Hogue worked for some time with Bausch as dramaturg and many qualities of her work are evident in his; or, perhaps, certain qualities of her work find their origin in him. Hogue performs a series walks into a shallow lunge, feet parallel, arms somewhat stiff at his sides. One notices a spinal deformation in profile. Hogue covers the stage in a broad rectangle for almost ten minutes. This unhurried use of time will be the rule. Time becomes a partner in the contemplation of movement. That is, there is the space within this use of time for the viewer to think, to consider, to associate, and to return to observe further.
Four other dancers emerge, also in street clothes. We hear strains of Ravel’s "Boléro." Three men and one woman perform to many different versions and excerpts of "Boléro," the first of which is taken from an ice skating number in the Sarajevo Olympics, replete with crowd noises and excited broadcast commentator. The protocol for this section is the slow (very slow) walk. If "Boléro" is a composition of mounting passions and mesmerizing repetitions, Hogue’s choreography resists the sense of growing expectancy and becoming unmoored with stillness and minimal movement. While so much is removed from action, a theatrical shell radiating energy remains. These impassive performers practice what Andre Lepecki, in discussing stillness in choreography, has called “introspective proprioception”. In contrast to the spectacular build-up of the music we see a smouldering minimalism, a pedestrian rubato, a tension-less bound flow.
Other elements reminiscent of Bausch are the use of run-down popular songs accompanied by the dancer’s hand gestures, the sense of elegance and simplicity of stance and demeanor, and the incisiveness of small gestures. Ornella Balestra, the sole woman of the cast, is particularly Bauschian in high-heeled shoes, and with a knowingly satiric edge to her reading of the music. In her alone we see an internal attitude that obeys and resists the music in equal measure. The men, on the other hand, never attempt to characterize the situation in their glance. They remain more open to interpretation and to the process of definition that has not occurred. Of the three men we saw, Emmanuel Eggermont has discovered a particularly interesting form of stylization within extreme simplicity. His body and hands are sculptural and every nuance of his posture conveys different meaning. (This will be brilliantly exploited in Hogue’s "L’Apres-midi"). The men barely emerge from and constantly return to a kind of ‘neutral’ performance energy that Balestra never touches until the second part of "Boléro Variations" when she withdraws to observe the others, and sketches some ballet positions in the darkness of the wings.
The complete and ‘definitive’ Bolero which the work builds up to in two and half hours concludes it, and it is performed with the men on their knees, heads bowed, slowly rotating in circles and their arms act as divining rods into the floor in front of them. Prior to this we hear a taped account of a concentration camp experience and some of Ravel’s more impressionist piano compositions whose poetry is so difficult to capture in ballet without unbearable triteness. Hogue’s minimalism veers toward a subtle landscape of feelings. He manages to separate feeling from the body representations of it while maintaining our interest in the bodies on stage.
"L’Apres-midi" (given one performance at Dance Space in New York City, September 26, 2009) is a solo for Eggermont with Hogue hovering on the outskirts of the performance area to perform certain tasks that move the work forward. The frieze like format Nijinsky had used for the Faun is replicated here by hieratic arm positions in full face, three-quarter angles, and profile. The equivalency and difference is very pleasing to watch. Beginning on the floor, Eggermont very quickly mimes the scandalous moment that concluded Nijinsky’s work -- the sexual release -- which means the piece need not keep that build up in mind. Unlike Bolero, it does not resist build up, but simply eliminates it. From here on we see variations on a theme. The ejaculation is revisited when Hogue brings out two glasses of milk and uses them to frame Eggermont on stage. The geometrical division of the space is strict, and the performance style of Eggermont is unique in its simplicity, clarity, and suggestiveness. He seems to configure a sealed off, narcissistic beauty that cannot respond to the world. Every subtle shift in torso and wrists registers as a major postural change. He is observed and idolized by Hogue, the choreographer who embodies himself on stage as stage assistant. The work ends when Eggermont returns the gaze of Hogue. This is visible in such minimal terms thanks to the disciplined use of space, direction, and gestural emphasis throughout the piece. There is a certain training of the eye exercised by this work, and a logic of non-relationship. The bursting of the narcissistic bubble, rather than sexual release, is the climax of this male afternoon.