Here is one take on Compagnie Maguy Marin’s new work Les Applaudissements ne se mangent pas (One Can’t Eat Applause), which opened at the Joyce Theatre last month to much excitement. The set is minimal: a three-sided curtain that marks the border of the stage is made entirely of vertical strips in Big Top colors. (Think banners flying in a used-car sales lot or vehicles being swept clean in a drive-through car wash.) In short, the set is a funhouse, pop aesthetic that conjures circus tents and candy bars. And the nine dancers who step out, run past or step behind the curtain, alternately face off, fall down, and swing each other around in surprising and idiosyncratic partnering. But the fun stops here. Wielding movement cribbed from everyday life, maintaining dead-serious affect, the dancers are less peek-a-boo tricksters at the carnival, and more blank-faced tourists wandering a mundane landscape of billboard visions and consumer dreams. The vaguely ominous soundscape—cars passing by on a busy highway—and the shimmering drive-by lighting by technical director François Renard affirmed the image of American car culture and the perils of oil lust.
Program notes tell another story. The French choreographer Marin, it seems, is making a critique of past representations of Latin America that show levity and joy but ignore terror and dictatorship. She writes, "The countries of Latin America, each quite particular, have in common an unbelievable human and cultural richness, welcoming lands inhabited by human beings of astonishing warmth and strength. Nice sentence. But we do not remain silent in face of the fact that these countries all suffer the same lot: an unbelievable exploitation both human and cultural, a subservience to forces that inhabit their lands, and a strict control over their emancipation."
Thus Les applaudissements, which takes its inspiration from a book by Uruguayan poet Edward Galeano, "The Open Veins of Latin America," aims to show a more complex picture of Latin America. For Marin, the solid shades of both the curtain and the ordinary street clothes worn by the dancers, invoke conventional thinking about the vibrant energy of the region. Meanwhile, the movement vocabulary is bound by themes of confrontation and tension. Dancers stare down and circle each other, walk past, and run away. They lunge, resist, support, and throw down. One recurring phrase has dancers literally bumping chests in a display of machismo power. In its very pedestrian-ness—walking, running, stopping, falling—Marin aims our gaze at repetition and the daily grind.
But the daily grind, as the work of those other quotidian movers Judson Dance Theatre reminds us, can be a hell of a good time. Talk, play, wonder, and wit—these too are part of everyday life, and this very likely holds true in Latin America too. Les applaudissements was first commissioned by the 2002 Lyon Biennale de la Danse, an event focused on South America. As such, the dance may suggest the limits of this kind of festival programming, which can superficially impose content on artists. For even as Marin’s program notes offer clichés in both directions—on the one hand, warmth and tropical fun; on the other, torture and violence—the dance and its color scheme take on a uniform sobriety, a blandly bummed-out sort of pretty. I like pretty. But, as the 65-minute dance continued, I retreated from the work as political invocation, withdrew from its hear-nor-there imagery and grew mildly pissed by the beauty of matching curtain, matching outfits, matching underpants.
Some of the dancing was compelling. I loved watching the intricate serial use of ordinary movements, especially when the company suddenly came together and fell in sync; the cumulative effect of stepping in time was as lyrical and dangerous as a squadron marching. The company as a whole is intriguing for the range of backgrounds and styles embodied by the dancers, which meant for quirky rendering of Marin’s choreography. The lanky Thierry Partaud, dressed in blue, offered a strong solo featuring unusual floor work and great physicality, and Dominique Uber, dressed in red skirt and top, provided a virtuosic center for the group. In the end, though, the intense stares between dancers grew tiresome, their best efforts at gloom undermined by a slackness of content that belies Marin’s published statements.
Marin is quoted recently in The New York Times as saying, "The stage is part of the world, not a place for entertainment. Artists need to take responsibility, to confront horror and violence through independent thought." Nice sentence. But it is much harder to say what "taking responsibility" looks like in the realm of dance, where the body speaks in profoundly ambiguous ways. Does "taking responsibility" look like abstraction, today, at this late hour, as countries like Colombia burrow deeper into violence? Or does it look like direct action, gestural or otherwise? Consider the filmmaker Michael Moore’s critique of George W. Bush at the Academy Awards last year on the eve of the war on Iraq; consider former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke’s apology before the 9/11 Independent Committee hearings last month; consider so many political dances, from Martha Graham’s American Document (1938) to Bill T. Jones’ Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990). In both the clarity of the utterance and the risk of physically embodying one’s politics, these moments are telling.
Such moments holler to rethink how politics get conveyed and consumed by dance—in whose choreographic hands, on which dancing bodies? If, as Yvonne Rainer has said, movement is hard to see, it is equally hard to read. Making dance articulate—whether through narrative, mime, spoken word or those everyday gestures that have historically been used to speak politics; or through the laying down of sharply drawn, provocative movement imagery—is no easy task. But don’t say your dancing is about Latin America and then make a polite work about elegant dress. Don’t promise critique, then offer up a Coke and a smile. To aestheticize torture, without invoking its context and horror, is to risk trivialization of the hard work of dancers and the very real issues at hand.