Pierre Rigal’s Press, which had its U.S. premiere at the Baryshnikov Arts Center September 10-12, is built around a central gimmick: a man moves within a small box of a stage whose ceiling lowers progressively through the course of the hour-long solo. I attended opening night and, against my better judgment, accepted a seat in the front row where audience members were subjected, unwittingly, to a kind of extreme sensory assault before the show began: blinding hot stage lights beat into our faces from above. Since I arrived early, the acute discomfort lasted a good fifteen minutes.
At first I was intrigued. Didn’t the glare, a perceptual fourth wall, echo the title of the show as it pressed against our eyes and reduced our visual field? And didn’t that punishing sensation make those of us in row 1 adapt—shield our faces, close our eyes, stare down at the programs in our laps—much as Rigal has said his protagonist in the shrinking chamber must do? So fine, massaging that unpleasantness for interpretation helped me suffer it. But like gimmicks, effects are best in micro-doses and as the minutes dragged on, what I had accepted as artistic nerve came to seem like nothing but stubborn display. I was relieved when the show began.
Rigal, an Everyman in designer-cool black suit and boots, moved about his bunker. He slowly turned, stepped, and posed, his small shifts of weight and gesture lit by the stark white beam of a mechanical lamp planted in the floor. He raised his arms and spun, his fingertips making shadowy pinwheels on the ceiling. He turned in profile and lunged forward as though running, a freeze frame of speed.
That sense of arrested movement, and a preoccupation with shapes and poses, persisted, and what began as a character study poised for layers of meaning was reduced, as the space compressed, to a string of athletic astonishments and photogenic illusion. When the ceiling first lowered (at last!) the man rose from his chair and commenced adaptation to the shrinking quarters. He adhered himself to the walls like a gecko; became a teeter-totter inverted over the back of his upended chair; stood—literally—on his head, hands up at his sides, feet standing on the ceiling. When that ceiling lowered beyond Rigal’s height, he stood, now upright, “headless,” then seemed to morph into a shadow puppet with splayed hands and hinging arms.
Each of these anti-gravitational feats and animations was stunning and Rigal’s performance of them was indeed remarkable. Yet neither they nor a subplot involving a tussle with a mechanical lamp granted insight into the character or imbued the piece with depth. When the ceiling finally hit the ground, it apparently squashed the man, and such possibility was lost.
L.J. SUNSHINE is a writer living in New York. She has written about dance and Italian cultural events for Oggi Sette.