Spoleto Festival USA
Review: Genty's 'Dédale' -- loving the labyrinth
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By Porter Anderson
CHARLESTON, South Carolina (CNN) -- In 1958, a Frenchman named Philippe Genty was conscripted into his country's armed forces. He was outraged by the war that four years later would end Paris' colonial rule over Algeria. He went on a 20-day hunger strike. He was dismissed from the army.
But Genty wasn't released from the trauma of being force-fed, nor from the torment of being ordered to fight against his conscience. Some part of him was still locked inside the delirium of deep hunger. There was no complete escape, he found, from the emotional maze of the experience.
Genty went on to become one of France's key stage auteurs. In "Dédale," he uses puppets, light, inflatable shapes, synthesized scores and dancers to try to interpret what he envisions as a labyrinth of wartime memories.
In a way, the Compagnie Philippe Genty's return to Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA in its Tuesday night premiere was cathartic. In 1992, the group performed a work here called "Driftings." This time, there's no drift. In this new work, first seen in 1997 at the Avignon Festival, Genty forges the anxieties of his past into a waking nightmare of weird, personal beauty.
Bad dreams, good moves
In Greek mythology, Daedalus was not only the architect of the great labyrinth at Crete but also the maker of wings to fly him and his son Icarus out of that prison. Here, when a character appears wearing wings, they're ears -- gigantic human ears, mounted on a loincothed dancer's back. Icarus, you'll remember, is rather famous for not listening to his father.
At the center of this piece is the image of a prison door. It's institutional green, with a warden's peephole built into it. Genty has written about trying, at the depths of his hunger-dementia, to escape the Val de Grâce Hospital with a friend. "We panicked," he writes. "Each in his own way -- droll, pathetic or ridiculous -- tried to find an exit door. We tried every door, one after the other. We wandered but were unable to find the way out, not even certain that there was a way out ... ."
In "Dédale," six doors move around the stage as characters. They entrap and confuse, they slam and then sag open. And in the last, radiant image of the show, a blue-neon door turns into a flying carpet. A dancer who appears to represent Genty's own spirit is transported from the labyrinth. He's lifted above the stage, above the fray, right up into the airy darkness. Maybe to fly too high? Maybe to fall to earth? It's the last in a long feast of stunning sights in this work.
Performed with no intermission and running some 100 minutes, "Dédale" might present an overload of mysterious sights and sounds to many audience members in this country. Europeans are more accustomed both to the form and the format. This isn't dance, per se. It's movement-based theater, dependent on illusion -- staged trompe l'oeil.
Genty finds a lot of humor in the hard sense-memories he's exploring. Among the few lines of dialogue in the piece is a recurring French-accented Jimmy Durante-style "Everysing ees all right!" In another sequence, one dancer asks, "Is it possible for an egg to be anxious?" The response from one of her cohorts: "For the first two minutes."
One of the most entertaining sights is Genty's quartet of gigantic sandbag-looking objects upstage of the action. They're inflated soft sculptures. They shudder and shimmy like living creatures. And they spawn a squad of puffball-critters so small and non-human that you can hardly believe some of the show's eight dancers are inside them. The puffballs scoot around, bounce into each other, then trundle out of sight.
In such moments as this puffball party, the work resembles that of the Swiss shape-theater ensemble Mummenshantz. Then, as some human-sized bathing-suited dolls suddenly inflate and sit up by their telephones, you're reminded of the blow-up entities of United States-based performance artist Pat Oleszko.
When members of the ensemble dance, they do it well and they recall the choreography of American Mark Morris and France's Roland Petit -- a bounding abandon powers their moves. The eight company members so deftly performing this difficult show at Spoleto are Nathalie Decrette, Iréné Panizzi, Vendulka Prager, Philippe Richard, Eric de Sarria, Rodolphe Serres, Trond Erik Vassdel and Olivier Vinkler.
Henry Torgue and Serge Houppin's original music is a vast sonic landscape of war and little peace. Jean-Pierre Larroche and Gaëlle de Malglaive's scenic and lighting designs open the show on what looks like a glittering hillside of stars and a half-moon. It soon gives way to an ocean, a deep sea of snapping fish and grasping women in gas masks. One of them cackles hysterically while chopping off parts of her breast to feed to the fish.
Two disturbingly lifelike foam-chubby puppets turn up -- a cranky man and a mohawked prostitute. A third puppet is at the center of one of the most nightmarish sequences as she stuffs herself, feet first, into what might be a body bag.
Nobody's child's play
"Dédale" isn't for kids. Many of its images will haunt the sleep of adults. And Genty, with costume designer Charline Bauce, pulls off an unnerving sexiness by stripping the troupe down to gold unitards near the end of the evening. Somehow, it seems more revealing than full nudity might have been. Having clad the ensemble in an Edwardian shopkeepers' idiom all night, Bauce and Genty capitalize on this 11th-hour sensuality with grotesquerie: The dancers wear masks on the backs of their heads, squirming through a dance of inverted anatomy.
If anything, the idiosyncrasy of the Genty company's "Dédale" matches a new assurance in the festival around it. As that blue-glowing door flies its passenger out of the scene at show's end, there's a sense that Genty has at last made friends with his fears, maybe learning to love the labyrinth for what it's taught him.
And Spoleto Festival USA, in its 23rd year, appears to have caught its stride like these dancers, moving more smartly than in recent years through the challenges of a 17-day confab of world arts.
It's gratifying to see both the Compagnie Philippe Genty and Spoleto looking so sharp. As one of Genty's artists puts it in the show, "Thank you for everything, thank you for every little thing."
"Dédale," devised and directed by Philippe Genty and performed by the Compagnie Philippe Genty. June 2, 3 and 5 at 8 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinee on June 5. Sottile Theatre, King Street at George Street in Charleston. Tickets $25 and $35. Information (843) 723-0402. Philippe Genty's collaborator on the project is Mary Underwood. Dramturge is Véronique Gendre.
Spoleto Festival USA: On stage and in the black
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