Gisèle Vienne’s new techno rave party dance extravaganza
“Color, song, posture: these are the three determinants of art. I mean color and lines – animal postures are sometimes veritable lines. Color, line, song: that’s art in its pure state.
“And so, I tell myself that when they leave their territory or return to their territory, it’s in the domain of property and ownership.”
“What is fascinating generally is the whole domain of signs. Animals emit signs, they ceaselessly emit signs, they produce signs. That is, in the double sense, they react to signs.”
--Gilles Deleuze, “A as in Animal”, from “Gilles Deleuze From A to Z”
A Polish guy I know says that in his country many people don’t consider a party to have been really good unless a fight broke out. In “Crowd”, Gisèle Vienne’s new dance production, there are several.
Except that these aren’t fights that are settled in the human, civilized way – i.e. through physical harm and bloodshed – but resolved more in the way that animals do, through fleeting gesture, signal, quick movement, and then establishing and holding on to one’s territory or abandoning it. At points in the piece, glances are exchanged, brief skirmishes flare up, hostile encounters take place, and the conflicts are just as soon over. The scheme of a dance party is being used metonymically to extend to society and to social interaction in general.
To sum up the underlying narrative: over the course of 90 minutes, 15 young people enter a warehouse space, hold a techno dance party, and then leave (and leave an impressive layer of detritus and debris behind).
In her previous productions over the past 17 years, Gisèle Vienne has explored various kinds of liminality: human vs. mannequin (Showroom Dummmies, 2001); zombies vs. mere Goths (Kindertotenlieder, 2007); reality vs. fantasy (I Apologize, 2004); and in general, choreography vs. puppetry (passim). In “Crowd”, she presents several other binary oppositions, skillfully kept in ambiguous balance:
- pleasure vs. violence
- motion vs. emotion
- ritual vs. entertainment
- dance vs. theatre
- the purely choreographic vs. dramatic narrative
- musically, techno-rave dance beats vs. ambient chillout
The various ambiguities and displacements accumulate: This is a narrative with no dialogue. It is dance, but often executed in slow motion and/or start-and-stop repeated movements. And these repetitions suggest loops, so that we’re watching a live performance that resembles a video recording, maybe with a technical malfunction in the replay. The repetitions serve to both emphasize certain movements vis-à-vis the narrative and also create rhythms on their own, interacting with the dance beats. These temporal distortions produce dramatic tension.
Thus, the breaking-down of movement, and breaking down of social relations. Technical malfunction, and societal dysfunction.
And then there’s the ambiguity with regard to time: the music is taken largely from the 1990s, but there’s nothing dated about the dancers’ clothing, so presumably all this is occurring in the present – or the past. Is it ‘then’ or is it now, or in an indeterminate time-space? And therefore by extension, is that ‘us’ back in the day, or it is a representation of what we are now or should or shouldn’t have been? Is a spectator going to identify with one of the figures onstage? After all, there are 15 people up there, and according to Myers and Briggs, there are only 16 possible personality types, so nearly all of us are covered.
The number of dancers is cleverly chosen in another respect. Over the years, I’ve observed that 15 is the magic number. Whether it’s an academic seminar or a corporate departmental meeting or a classroom of junior high school students or a yoga class or whatever, once the number of people reaches 15 or over, a certain organic unity is lost and the group starts becoming unmanageable: different subgroups form, several conversations take place at the same time, alliances and rivalries are reinforced and elude control. And therefore, the number of dancers onstage lends itself to a kind of managed chaos.
Here are some of the highlights of the show, the parts of the mosaic of activity that I was able to perceive and retain on a first viewing:
Music: Underground Resistance – The Illuminator
A bare stage with a layer of dirt in places and plastic drink bottles littered here and there. A woman in denim shorts, yellow hooded anorak, and silver-glitter trainers enters, VERY SLOWLY, as slow as the “ash walk” in Butoh. At a distance of several meters, she’s followed by a guy in grey, drifting in at the same pace. Much further back, two others follow. Gradually, in slow motion, more arrive: two of them wearing pink backpacks, another in a teal-and-purple windbreaker, a couple more in silver-spangled sneakers. By the time the track is over, 14 people have emerged. Various celebratory gestures in slo-mo: one or two pour their drinks over their heads, or pour them onto the ground, as if libations. Sometimes hands are thrust upward, like fans at a rock concert or charismatic Christians. Two guys lift a woman into the air. She falls to the ground, and someone elsewhere does as well. By now a 15th figure has appeared, a woman in a green parka, mysterious due to her isolation and delayed entrance.
Music: Vapour Space – Gravitational Arch Of 10
Each of the people has assumed an individual pose, and holds it. All are motionless. An eerie tableau is formed, like a live version of a photograph assembled and staged by Jeff Wall. This continues for several minutes while only the lighting changes, sometimes spotlighting the figures in the center, sometimes flooding the entire stage. The effect is startling.
Music: Underground Resistance – several tracks from DJ Rolando’s “Vibrations” mix CD
The music of Underground Resistance, the secretive Black electronic-music collective from Detroit, comes on, with hardline electro beats taken chapter-and-verse from Kraftwerk (cf. “Numbers”). The room explodes, with the entire group in coordinated mechanical dance moves (move, halt; move, halt). Think Dieter from Saturday Night Live’s “Sprockets”, or the Asian guy who shows up in London Boiler Room clips and is nicknamed “The Dancing Misanthrope”. Choreographically, this is where the show really comes into its own.
Then suddenly the energy changes: here and there the rave threatens to turn into a rumble. Is joy being channeled into hostility? Two figures face off warily, like dogs sniffing each other’s scent. Are they checking each other out (for sex), or scoping each other out (for battle)? The action everywhere else comes to a halt. This scene includes the first extensive use of repeated start-and-stop movements.
The group starts up again. One woman pushes her male companion away, walks to the center of the stage, busts open a bag of potato chips and flings it all into the air. The dance track is cut off, cut short. Prolonged, suspenseful silence, while the figures hang in suspension in their various poses, their dance moves interrupted.
Music: Choice (a/k/a Laurent Garnier) – Acid Eiffel
More than any other scene, it’s this one that plays upon notions of Desire. “Acid Eiffel” is considered a landmark in European techno, and its blissful yet melancholy synth-strings probably already evoked nostalgia as soon as the record was released in 1993. As the party starts back up, the question arises: Does an audience member desire to be part of the crowd onstage, partying in the present? or rather to be part of a crowd, partying back in the mid-90s, somewhere in that person’s own personal history? (Be careful how you answer: remember that Faust will lose his bargain with Mephisto when a moment arrives that he wishes would last forever.) Deleuze and Guattari, however, offer a way out of the dilemma: a person never desires just one thing, they say, but rather an aggregate of things. So in this case, the Acid Eiffel scene elicits desire for many things at once, including the unrealized remains from any of the other occasions when the viewer heard the record.
The party gradually starts back up, and at some point the group is again moving in coordinated fashion. But by now, the party’s momentum is taking its toll: there’s plenty of rubbish onstage, and two people are on the ground, passed out or maybe just in a K-hole.
Music: Jeff Mills – Phase 4
The music of Jeff Mills, techno demigod and co-founder of Underground Resistance, comes on, at a furious, cranked-up BPM. All of the dancers are throwing around clothing, spraying water, hurling dirt from the floor. We witness the first real all-out fight, which is between two males of the species. Gleeful frenzy elsewhere. Pandemonium (a word from the Greek, meaning “all demons”).
One woman accosts another from behind, flees, breaks open a bottle, sprays the contents in all directions.
The music stops. All but one of the figures sink to the ground. LONG SILENCE. The stage looks like a battlefield, with only 2 or 3 survivors who are sitting up, dazedly.
One person finally rises – the first one to have arrived at the party, the woman in denim shorts. Then the rest follow suit, slowly, one by one.
Music: Manuel Göttsching – E2-E4
Sun Electric - Sarotti
Global Communication – 14 31
The rest of the dance spectacle takes place in a long, post-cathartic state, beginning with revival and recovery that seems to grow organically out of the music (which at this point is optimistic, almost naïve). A guy and a girl kiss, then collapse to the ground (“la petite mort”?). Two persons walk across the stage in “real time”, while all else around them is in suspension. In the midst of this collective swoon or dream-state, one male approaches another from behind, puts his hand over the other’s face (a come-on? an expression of affection? a gesture of aggression?). He looks at the woman standing nearby; she’s distraught, even weeping. By implication this is a sexual triangle and betrayal. The male interloper sinks to the level of the groin of the other guy, then continues all the way to the floor.
To the lengthy ambient chill-out music, everyone seems woozy or in an altered state or just plain zoned-out. Two or three same-sex pairs hold each other in a prolonged embrace. All slowly, usually singly, leave the stage in the same manner that they arrived. One figure remains, picking through the garbage on the floor, then he too departs. Finis.
For each of the dancers, Dennis Cooper (American expat transgressional gay novelist and Gisèle Vienne’s frequent artistic collaborator) developed an individual personality. And therefore, each dancer dances and performs gestures from within the personality assigned to them for the piece. Certain subtextual storylines were devised. And only then was the entire piece choreographed in detail. Thus, we have “method dancing”, analogous to method acting.
Are the individual characters differentiated enough, and clear to the audience? It’s not hard to figure out which person is supposed to be the Dealer, and that there’s a skinhead present who’s also gay. After the show I spoke with two women who attended together: one of them didn’t realize that the dancers had been given personalities, while her companion caught on to this aspect, but assumed that all but two of the women onstage were supposed to be prostitutes [?!]. I suppose one Hidden Advantage is that the production will hold up under repeated viewings, because viewers will be drawn more deeply into the characters and the narrative transmitted by sign, told via gesture.
Lastly, is there enough violence to justify the director’s stated intention in this regard? For the average football hooligan, nowhere near enough – but probably a bit too much for a subscriber to the Royal Ballet.
All of the music, except for the interludes that Peter Rehberg composed specifically for the production, can be found on YouTube.
The DJ Rolando set used in the show can be streamed here (as of this writing) and is most strongly recommended:
The sequence in question runs from approximately 21:30 to 33:00.
There’s a preview clip, with narration in French, embedded here:
and a preview clip narrated in German here:
Questions as to Gisèle Vienne’s artistic intentions can be answered by consulting her website in English here:
or, in French, here:
Thanks to Bob Montgomery for cawfee tawk, to Peter Rehberg for a couple of stray bits of information, and to blogmeister Don Allred for his patience.