Wehle's World
By Philippa Wehle

Shining through the Gloom
thanks to BAM's 2008 Next Wave Festival

BAM's Next Wave Festival's 2008
Reviewed by Philippa Wehle

BAM’s Next Wave Festival’s 2008 season began for me with two exciting productions that proved to be great antidotes to the depressed mood that pervades so much of our lives these days. What better way to come out of the doldrums than to take a trip to BAM to discover The Reykjavik City Theatre and Vesturport’s adaptation of Buchner’s “Woyzeck” with original music by Australian rocker Nick Cave and Bad Seed’s violinist Warren Ellis? (seen on October 3) Or “Steve Reich Evening,” by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and her company Rosas? (seen on October 22) Both of these superb pieces gave proof once again that art matters.

It may sound odd to say that Buchner’s “Woyzeck,” a play that offers little hope and even less solace, can get you out of the doldrums, but in the Icelandic version, Woyzeck’s tormentors fly around on trapezes, shimmy down ropes, and transform Buchner’s tragedy into a festive evening. Director Gardarsson creates a world in which entertainment, spectacle and musical numbers provide the backdrop for this dark tale of a much abused common man, victim of the power elite who torment him until he goes mad and murders his wife. There are those who felt this was taking too many liberties with Buchner’s tragedy but, as director Gardarsson told Time Out there is "a kind of colorful darkness" to Buchner’s play that he wanted to underscore.

Frequently meek and childlike as in London's Gate Theatre's production that came to St. Ann's Warehouse in the Fall of 2006 (which by the way was also a "high octane rock and roll reinvention of Buchner’s classic”), or even more small and insignificant in Thomas Ostermeier's version seen at the Avignon festival in 2004, which took place in a desolate suburb in a low-income housing project, with a large sewer pipe spewing its fetid contents out into a river on the stage, Woyzeck is the quintessential victim of those who wield power, yes, but this Woyzeck (played by the well-built Ingvar E. Sigurdsson), offers a stronger presence than other Woyzecks I have seen. He seems to fight back to the best of his ability.

Set in a factory rather than on an army base, the curtain rises on a set composed of tall, shiny industrial pipes. Here Woyzeck is a factory worker rather than a barber, but he is hounded as always by the self-important Captain (of Industry) who laughs at Woyzeck's stupidity all the while calling him a good man, the evil Doctor played by a woman in a jet black wig and white pants suit who attaches a tube to his penis and forces him to urinate in it, and the handsome drum major who lures his beloved Marie away from the poor fellow. It’s the end of the working day and Woyzeck joins his fellow workers as they check the pipes, calling out their numbers before going home.

Before long, the drum major, wearing tight-fitting shiny pants and fancy shoes, swings in on a bungee cord, singing: "I am the drum major, can't you see?" as the chorus, dressed in black suits and ties and wearing dark glasses, responds with "What a man, like a tree." Marie is not the only one in awe of this dashing fellow. The audience responds as well. One would think that this fantastic entrance would be hard to beat but the evening is filled with one such surprise after the other. Director Gardarsson is a former championship gymnast and a number of the performers are trained to shimmy down ropes, fly on trapezes, and swing upside down.

Not only do they fly but they keep us entertained in smaller ways as well with familiar comic routines such as the one in which the Captain shoots his gun and instead of a bullet, a flag saying Bang pops out, or the performers kick a large beach ball into the audience and of course they throw it back A violin player in white tutu comes down from the ceiling playing a violin. A fellow in white suit with white hair, seated at a piano serenades us with night club favorites. Bouquets of flowers shoot up from holes in the stage and become floral microphones with which the Drum major and Marie serenade each other.

When the stage opens up to reveal a water-filled glass tank in which the key characters swim, we are also treated to underwater ballet scenes. All of these wonders seem designed to distract us from the reality of Woyzeck’s plight. As always, the poor fellow is bullied and humiliated by his torturers. They hang him upside down and they pour water into a fish bowl and dunk his head in it holding him down until he almost drowns (a torture technique with which we have become only too familiar). It’s no wonder that Woyzeck ultimately falls apart and drowns Marie in the water tank in a finale that is unforgettable. We are left with the powerful image of Woyzeck standing in the tank lifting Marie’s lifeless body up for all to see as in his clear despair, he asks: “Why have you got black water in your mouth?” “Woyzeck” is described in the program as a play about "betrayal, lost dreams, greed and evil practiced by one human being on another.” It’s hard to imagine a more fortuitous choice on BAM’s part than this offering from Iceland which so aptly speaks to what has been happening in recent months in our country.

“Steve Reich Evening” by Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and her company Rosas, (seen on October 22) a program of dance and live music performed by Brussels-based percussion ensemble Ictus to celebrate De Keersmaeker's long-standing relationship to the music of Steve Reich, offered another irresistible is reason to leave the comfort of one’s home to venture out to BAM to revisit the work of these two phenomenal artists.
The program opened with two purely musical performances, Reich's “Pendulum Music” and “Marimba Phase.” I was not familiar with these pieces and looked forward to discovering them. When two musicians appeared on the dimly-lit stage to sit on stools facing each other with only two microphones hanging from long cords between them, I was intrigued. The “music” they made began when they set the two microphones swinging over an amplifier thereby producing humming sounds that changed only slightly as the microphones slowed down until one of the musicians stopped them. In “Marimba Phase,” two musicians expanded the possibilities of repeated sounds that barely seem to vary as they swept us up in the pulsating beat of their superb marimba playing.

These two musical pieces were mesmerizing but I couldn’t wait to revisit “Piano Phase” with its two female dancers, in socks, sneakers and short white dresses, lined up side by side against a white backdrop. Accompanied by two pianos, they began by extending an arm or bending an elbow repeatedly as they moved along a straight line in front of the wall. Their shadows, projected behind them against the wall, followed them like alter egos and enhanced the rhythmic patterns they continued to trace along that line. Just when you thought that their movements would continue to repeat themselves, they made a quick shift in direction, and were off again, their skirts flipping as they turned. I could have watched them forever, but two new dance pieces were on the program, and I was looking forward to seeing them. “Eight Lines” for a group of women dancers and “Four Organs” for an all-male quintet. I am not a dance critic and can’t dissect the movements but it was a pleasure just to be carried along by de Keersmaeker’s beautiful dancers as they twirled and jumped, skipped and hopped, in sweeping patterns across the stage. Gyorgy Ligeti's unusual piece for 100 wind-up wooden orange-colored metronomes located stage front, tick tocking away until the last metronome ran down, was followed by Part 1 of Reich’s “Drumming,” seen in its entirety at BAM in 2001, danced by the whole company in a glorious finale that was truly exhilarating.

November began with the extraordinarily hopeful and exciting news that Barack Obama would be our 44th president. There was dancing in the streets; strangers hugged each other and jumped for joy. Our spirits were lifted, but given the challenges Obama must face and the worsening of people’s lives, the celebration seemed only too brief. At BAM, it was another month of stimulating works to help us deal with more disturbing news from Wall Street and the news that we were most likely in a recession. Fortunately France returned to BAM with a remarkable example of what the French are doing in the field of “new circus “ and our own fascinating Builders Association arrived with their latest technological wizardry “Continuous City.”

“Les sept planches de la ruse,” (seen on Nov 7) by the Compagnie 111 and Scènes de la Terre, from Toulouse, France, conceived and directed by Aurélien Bory, artistic director of Compagnie 111, was spellbinding. Advertised as part theater, part dance, and part imagination, these “Seven Boards of Skill” featured a remarkable cast of fourteen Chinese dancers and acrobats from the city of Dalian, China, all trained in Peking opera techniques.
Inspired by Tangram, an ancient Chinese geometric puzzle composed of seven tiles that can be manipulated in numerous combinations, “Les sept planches” was breathtaking from beginning to end. The show opened on an empty stage but for a large dark gray rectangular structure in the middle. Fourteen performers, dressed in black, shuffled around the rectangle and began to pull it apart. They then proceeded to create different geometric shapes that they arranged and rearranged into an infinite number of captivating combinations throughout the evening. Pushing the blocks against each other or separating them, they built mountains, towns, and pyramids. One minute they were climbing up the inclines, the next a performer was precariously suspended between two blocks, slowly inching down them with his hands and legs guiding his way. At times they walked down steep slopes backwards; at others, the performers would lie on their backs and with their feet on what appeared to be a heavy block, they pushed it out of the way. One of the slabs almost fell on a female performer but just when it was about to crush her, she jumped up, ran to the top and slid down the side. Alone or together, fast moving or creeping along, these consummate performers were endlessly fascinating to watch as they opened up blocks, moved them around, and played with shadows and lights. It all went by too quickly. I could have watched these moving shapes for much longer.

“Continuous City,” The Builders Association’s latest technological wonder, with its special mix of technology and live performance, (seen on Nov 20) was equally fascinating. I always look to the Builders to make the virtual world we now live in come to life especially for someone like myself who isn’t a practicing afficianado of skype, web chats, video games, blogs and facebooks. I may not be into the wired life but I am very interested in the many ways that technology affects our lives these days and I’m especially curious about the effect that digital relationships are having on young people. “Continuous City” explores this territory in a number of inventive ways.

Thirty two hanging screens, large and small, that open and close through a pneumatic system of compressed air, provide an ever-changing backdrop of multiple portraits and cityscapes, that surround the performers on stage just as we are all surrounded by digital networks in our lives. Beneath these, a few desks and tables provide various work spaces, an office, a child’s desk, the Builders technicians tables. “Continuous City” investigates what it feels like to live in our digital world through the lives of four characters, J.V. a social networking entrepreneur who runs a business called, Mike Davis, who travels the world representing XUBU, his 11 year-old daughter Sam, and her nanny Deb.

Lights go up on J.V., played by Rizwan Mirza (a familiar actor in recent Builders’ productions) who is having a live video chat with members of his family in London and Virginia. They gossip and talk about family matters. J.V. is convinced that cell phones and the internet are the best way to keep families together. “Family comes first,” he says. But he never sees his in person. He also has several girlfriends with whom he keeps in touch on Skype, but when one of them suggests she’d like to meet him in person, he immediately finds an excuse. Being in the same city would be too much of a commitment for him. According to him it’s better to lie on line.

Mike (played by Harry Sinclair) is only seen on the screens as he moves from Shanghai to Paris or from Mexico to Venice and from one time zone to another. He tries to keep in touch with his daughter, Sam, but their attempts to connect are often frustrated, and even when they do manage to chat, the father’s projected image tends to break up and his voice sometimes cracks as he once more promises that he’ll be home soon. He also frequently has to interrupt their conversations to take a business call.

Deb, played by Moe Angelos, is not only Sam’s nanny. She is also the author of “Deb in the City,” a Vlog she is keeping about each new city on the Builders’ touring schedule. In the New York City performance, she gives us a tour to Syosset at Stonehill, a gated community where she lives with Sam and regales us with her celebrity sightings (she’s seen Sarah Jessica Parker’s place and has run into Ethan Hawke at Starbucks). Sam is either at her desk or in her bed, waiting, it seems, for her father to appear on the screen. She is a lonely little girl, unable to have any real contact with another human being. Deb keeps trying to entice her to go out and have some fun, but clearly, if she did, she might miss her father’s web chat.
From time to time, recorded videos of real people who have sent their comments to XUBU, the Builders’ website, appear on the many screens surrounding the action. Fatima from Sri Lanka, a young man from Ohio, another from Afghanistan, all log in to add another dimension to this global city of “network nomads.”

“Continuous City” addresses the questions that we all ask ourselves about the effects of the wired world on our deep need for connection and intimacy. The show clearly asks if the connection many seek through electronic means of communication offers only a false sense of intimacy or can technology bring people closer together in a new, global way that is not necessarily negative? The father is never seen in person. He is a video projection, not a flesh and blood presence. (As Deb says to Mike: “I thought you were a screen saver.”) As for the mother, we never see her; we only hear her voice. V.J. is content to have cyber relationships with women, and nothing more. Sam is growing up in a digital world and doesn’t seem to have any real friends even though she has many virtual pals. “Continuous City” may be a cautionary tale, showing us the degree to which technology can be alienating, but it also shows us that there are other options. Sam, for example, is “saved” by Moe who finally connects with her and gets her to leave her computer behind to go out into the world and have some fun. Still the question remains as to whether or not contact between live human beings is necessarily as fulfilling as connecting with others in cyberspace.

December at BAM brought Ivo van Hove’s “Opening Night” and Pina Bausch’s “Bamboo Blues” along with a nasty winter and more economic woes.
It would have been easy to stay home and not go out to BAM, but Ivo van Hove and Pina Bausch are two of the most exciting artists working today. I had to go see their latest work to be seen in this country.
Opening Night, (seen on December 5), Flemish director Ivo van Hove’s
adaptation for the theater of John Cassavetes’ 1977 film script of the same name, takes us behind the scenes to catch a glimpse of the lives of actors as they rehearse for the opening night of a new play.

At the Harvey, the stage was opened up completely to take full advantage of the spacious playing area. A small section was reserved for some members of the audience while leaving room for the actors to sit there as well. A large screen above the stage provided us with supertitles (the play is in Dutch) as did two TV monitors above the audience members seated on the stage. A few technical tables scattered here and there, a dressing area, bottles, and styrofoam coffee cups along with a coat rack for costume changes, props scattered on the floor, set the scene. Actors, technicians, and the artistic team are milling around, getting ready to rehearse some scenes from “The Second Wife,” a new play by Sarah (no last name), due to open in three days.
An actress in a terry cloth bathrobe is rehearsing her lines. She is the star of the show, Myrtle Gordon. Her character, Virginia, a woman no longer in her prime, must come to terms with aging and she is discovering that this role is a little too close to home. “Age is depressing,” Myrtle admits as she sets about trying to convince the author that she is not right for this role. “Virginia is alien to me,” she tells the author. “She has no personality, no sense of humor.” Gus, the actor who plays her first husband Tony, is too young for the role, and so forth. Maurice, her male co-star and ex-husband, is having difficulty dealing with Myrtle’s anxiety, and Tony, now married to Lena, is caught in the middle. Clearly, the relationships in “Opening Night” are complex and not always easy to follow even with the help of supertitles.

As the drama unfolds, scenes from “The Second Wife “are rehearsed; there are discussions with the director, and squabbles among the actors. Myrtle, superbly portrayed by Dutch actress Elsie de Brauw, continues to object to the way her role is written. She is especially worried about the scene in which Maurice has to slap her. They rehearse the slap scene several times but each time, she is unable to act the part. Something is beginning to come undone in her and she begins to confuse fiction with reality. She imagines that she sees Nancy, a young fan who had asked her for an autograph at the first preview, and then was killed by a car outside of the theater. Nancy reminds Myrtle of her lost youth and her death seems to bring Myrtle to the breaking point.
Her fellow actors react to Myrtle’s breakdown in different ways. Some are supportive, others act out their frustrations in childish ways. Maurice for one throws his script down, leaves the stage in a huff and sits in the audience. Finally it is opening might. The set is transformed into the set for “The Second Wife” and we see a video of ourselves going into the theater earlier. The show is about to open but
Myrtle has disappeared. When she does show up, she is extremely drunk. “… so drunk,” one of the actors says, “that the audience will probably love her.” Myrtle somehow manages to pull herself together and the show is a great success, as is Ivo van Hove’s flawless “Opening Night.”

Bamboo Blues by Pina Bausch, and her Tanztheater Wuppertal company
(seen on Dec 10) was the jewel in the crown of my 2008 Next Wave experiences. The evening opened on a bare stage with a backdrop of pleated curtains made of grey silk fabric, billowing in the breeze. Soon Bausch’s gorgeous dancers emerged, each one more beautiful than the next in their strapless evening gowns of bright red, pale pink, rich plum, green taffeta, and burnt orange. We were clearly in for a delicious Bauschian evening of visually striking dance moments, comic routines, and a memorable musical score of contemporary Indian music and pieces by Michael Gordon, Alice Coltrane and 4 Hero. It is impossible to recapture all of the memorable moments of this spellbinding 140 minute piece. Fleeting images remain of gestures and encounters, of twirling dancers moving so quickly that there wasn’t time to catch one’s breath. There were brutal scenes of men tossing women around or dragging them across the stage but also soft images of a couple rocking gently on a bed made of bamboo logs. Such calm scenes shifted again to more exuberant moments with dancers running, whirling and crawling, or to the familiar parade of sensuous women in their high heels moving diagonally across the stage, smiling knowingly at the audience, as they have done in other Bausch pieces. Who could ever forget the solos danced so exquisitely by Shantala Shivalingappa, a trained Kuchipudi dancer, with her delicate hand gestures and delicate footwork, or the lovely coming together and parting of a group of men and women, lined up facing each other, unsure of the next move until the men decide to the reel the women over to them with their long scarves and then release them?

Comic sketches of guys ordering pizzas, “salami with extra cheese,” from Pizza Pronto, or a female dancer flirting with the audience in the front row, “Hi sweetie,”are pure Bausch as is the short scene in which a female dancer kneels stage left, dunks her head in a bucket of water, washes her hair, and shakes it out to dry. Everything, light, color, fabric, musical numbers, flowing manes of hair, and Bausch’s extraordinary corps of dancers, was used to transform the stage into an enchanting dreamscape that I wanted to get lost in forever.

Yes, Fall 2008 was a difficult time for so many. The financial collapse affected everyone, myself included; and it’s not over yet. Arts budgets are being cut, theaters are closing, and we are now in a full recession. I for one am thanking my lucky stars that BAM survives and will continue to bring us such compelling work from the experimenters of the world.


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