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Mixed Messages



7 for a Secret Never to Be Told

Wim Vandekeybus and Ultima Vez

at the Merle Reskin Theater, March 19-21

By Terry Brennan

Western Europe prizes its intellectuals, particularly its artists. They're subsidized and given lots of attention. Audiences boo performers they don't like, yet never expect entertainment, and they aren't upset if they don't understand the work at first. American artists might drool at the thought of such support, but it may also exact a price. Like anyone else, intellectuals can become captives of their customers, repeating endlessly any formula that wins patronage. Intellectuals can be caught in the same dilemma as other manufacturers: if you're selling a commodity that others also make, you have to market it better. If an intellectual has nothing new to say, it must be said louder.

The formula in European dance for the last few decades has been dance theater in the style of Pina Bausch. The performers are generally dancers, but they speak and act as well as dance, and extensive use is made of scenery, costumes, and props. Most of the works are structured as collages; they have no plots, and in fact sections are often rearranged just days before the work is premiered. A typical evening is long and elliptical. A continuing target in dance theater is the subjugation of women, often as part of a broader cultural critique. For example, a woman might be treated like a freshly killed deer--bound hands and feet to a pole and carried on the broad shoulders of two men.

Wim Vandekeybus is currently the hot choreographer in Europe, similar in stature to Bill T. Jones. And his 7 for a Secret Never to Be Told, performed by his Belgian company, Ultima Vez, as part of the EuroContempo portion of the Spring Festival of Dance, is classic dance theater: elliptical, intellectual, and political. The work's seven sections are based on a rhyme "recited by superstitious people when seeing a certain number of magpies," according to the press kit: "1 for sorrow / 2 for joy / 3 for a girl / 4 for a boy / 5 for silver / 6 for gold / 7 for a secret never to be told." The piece is obviously well funded--the dancers are excellent and well rehearsed, and the technical aspects are top-notch and lavish. (The press kit contained a 36-page four-color pamphlet about the work, something I've never seen before.) Yet the work's confused, formulaic approach to female subjugation suggests an emptiness at its heart.

The choreography is stunning, both in the sense of ravishing and in the sense of being struck by a fierce blow. The rough-and-tumble dancing requires a punishingly high level of energy. A dancer might take a long step, starting to slide into the floor, then put his weight on his hand for a low, ground-eating handstand, land on one foot, and jump off, turning in a circle before landing on the other foot. The movement is often violent: a woman standing facing us doubles up as if in a seizure.

The first, "sorrow" section introduces two figures who reappear throughout the piece: a slight man wearing a beaked magpie mask and an outsider, played by Vandekeybus. The magpie pursues a woman in white, often perching on her prone body until the outsider scares it away. This section makes the magpie seem an evil figure, perhaps more vulture than magpie, and prepares us for a journey out of rationality and into a Manichaean netherworld where good and evil battle.

The first section also introduces sex as a theme. The woman in white recovers her power only after a huge pelvic thrust helps her rise from the floor. A few moments later, another woman falls into a sitting position with her legs spread wide; the magpie jumps from the wings right between them. This theme runs throughout the work. The fourth, "boy" section has the men imitating the magpie's movement, establishing that men are vultures and probably sexual predators. The third, "girl" section seems to be about voyeurism, as the audience watches four women dance themselves into a frenzy. By the end, their hair stringy with sweat, they seem to have worked themselves into a state of sexual exhaustion. A man comes out and scolds us in French about looking at the women in such a voyeuristic way--yet Vandekeybus is the one who created this delectable display. Playing the outsider, he keeps attacking the man, trying to silence him, but Vandekeybus has been stripped to his underwear. The entire cryptic exchange seems to embody an intellectual argument about whether the "girl" section is exploitive. I couldn't tell who won.

Throughout the last three sections, large wooden feathers fall to the stage from the grid above. The feathers, some of them six feet long, have sharp tips and stick into the stage floor like knives. Although no dancers are endangered, they've usually just left the area before the feathers start falling: clearly these props threaten immediate harm.

The last three sections also bring the issue of subjugating women into sharper perspective. Brutal partnering between men and women marks the "silver" section. One repeated lift begins when a woman raises her blouse to massage her belly; a man comes to touch it too as he puts his other hand at the back of her neck; the woman suddenly jumps as the man catches her at the hips with one arm, and his other arm supports her weight through the back of her neck as she arches her back. The lift is sudden and stunning but tells an abusive story: initially the man is tender, touching the woman gently, but suddenly he holds her above him like a prize, paralyzed in the middle of a pelvic thrust.

In the "gold" section, a man and woman dance a violent pas de deux. After the man leaves, the outsider holds a microphone to the woman's lips for a long speech beginning "You must take care of me. I am most sensitive." But while she's speaking, the outsider has one arm across her chest and squeezes it periodically, choking her words. In this lurid image of subjugation, a man both provides the means for a woman to explain herself and prevents her from speaking.

The final, "secret" section offers a resolution to the conflict in the form of a hero, an avenger, who punishes men boasting of their sexual conquests by sticking a microphone up their asses like a cattle prod. Reversing roles, the women don magpie masks. The avenger chases both the men and the magpie-women off the stage, then stalks out on a pathway of light. I snickered; it reminded me of the cowboy in a white hat riding into the sunset at the end of a hokey western. Subjugation will not come to an end so easily, particularly at the hands of a male hero.

Vandekeybus sends profoundly mixed messages. He condemns the subjugation of women but continually displays it in sexy ways. He treats his female dancers as sexual objects. Sex and violence are the stuff out of which he forms his movement. Vandekeybus is either unaware of his own exploitation of violent sex or consciously trying to show the endless, cyclical nature of subjugation. But in the final section, he suggests a fantasy end to subjugation, so he can't be aiming to show its endlessness. And the conclusion of the "girls" section, with the man scolding us for our voyeurism, strongly suggests that Vandekeybus is aware of the issues.

The only possible conclusion is that Vandekeybus is a hypocrite. It's a type made familiar by Hollywood directors: Vandekeybus isn't so much trapped by his audience's expectations as fixated on satisfying his customers' demands. He may be influenced by the dance theater tradition of lurid sexual depictions of female subjugation, but he isn't fighting that tradition much. In a sense, what this dance offers is a series of dazzling car chases. The best you can say about it is that Vandekeybus has been given a lot of money, and you can see it all up there on the stage. There's a good American word for people like that. Vandekeybus is a hack.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Bruno Vandermeulen.

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