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Avant-Guarded

At the Lincoln Center Festival, a safe repertoire passes for experimental and guarantees an audience applauding its own "daring" taste.

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Gorgeous mosaic: Mathilde Monnier's Pour Antigone is a mélange of styles.  

The Lincoln Center Festival, which has become an annual summer event, bravely keeps asserting the existence of an avant-garde. In the realm of dance, the evidence it offers is unconvincing. But how could it be otherwise? In order to get a sizable audience to buy the not-so-cheap tickets, it has to present "experimentalists" who are already operating in the big time. Which often results in their peddling notions more for their effect than for their content, inflating minor subversive tactics to a grandiose scale, and making everything more agreeable through glossy production values. The three postmodernists showcased this year -- Wim Vandekeybus, Bill T. Jones, and Mathilde Monnier -- despite their differences, are part of this almost inevitable formula.

My response to Vandekeybus's In Spite of Wishing and Wanting was dismay. In a self-consciously noir setting, to a sound score by David Byrne, ten guys ricochet between sentimentalized tenderness and threats of violence in search of their manhood. The portentous shenanigans assigned to them lacked significance, originality, and beauty (and its irresistible opposite, compelling ugliness), to say nothing of movement that, because of its rhythmic or sculptural qualities, you could confidently call dancing. So how come all those people in the audience were standing and yelling and beating their palms together after two intermissionless hours of this stuff? Presumably it meant something to them, reflected their lives or their desires and dreams. Is their response genuine -- in which case my own is happily irrelevant -- or, as I suspect, the result of artists' and packagers' providing goods calculated to satisfy consumers frantic to believe they're on the cutting edge?

Highlights of this production include: an exploding pillow that litters the stage floor with feathers. A prolonged screaming-and-flailing fit from the naked fellow whose pillow it was. Spoken confessions (needless to say, the piece sports a dramaturge). Periodic menaces from a middle-aged overseer that lend the proceedings a suitable S&M tone. Illustrations of the idea that boys will be boys, such as touch dancing, free-for-all releases of pent-up energy, and film clips whimsically depicting torture. A finale in which the cast climbs up the scaffolding on the back wall of the stage. If you've seen Maurice Béjart and Pina Bausch, you can easily imagine the rest.

Bill T. Jones can always be counted on to deliver something that's handsome to gaze at and a sociopolitical agenda that makes you feel you're on the side of the just. You Walk?, his group piece for the Lincoln Center Festival -- a second program presented him in an 80-minute solo -- fulfills the usual expectations. Empty or peopled with bodies, the stage sports the spare, cool stylishness of a contemporary fashion shoot. The dancers, all swell movers, represent an impressive variety of ethnicities and an unusual range of anatomical types. The score combines selections of indigenous music from far away and often long ago, setting them off with bits of the classical European canon. The action -- fairly abstract, of course, as befits the postmodern mode -- proposes a happy melding of cultures much more likely to have clashed when they crossed paths. For one stretch, though, it seemed to me that the "natives," all purity and innocence, were kidnapped and horribly mistreated by foreign marauders who had sophistication on their side. (This agenda harks back to an earlier, angrier Jones.)

Whatever theme Jones claims to explore in his highfalutin program note, the actual choreography lacks depth, structure, musicality -- rigor of any kind, really. Jones has obviously seen plenty of Mark Morris and Paul Taylor, but once he sets himself up in those territories he doesn't know how to operate effectively; all he understood was the surface, not the firm, complex armature.

So the proceedings of You Walk? -- what can this title possibly mean? -- gradually take on a disquieting air of randomness. As for Jones's own eclectic vocabulary, its ramshackle, hybrid quality has charm, but it's too casual to give the show any meaningful impact, despite the energy, fluency, and individual color the dancers apply to it. The martyrdom of a rapt, scarlet-robed saint, the partying in a tango palace that segues into animal imitations inspired by African dance -- these scenes slip by like so much eye candy. The material is pleasant to watch -- for the first hour. But it never adds up or resonates, so by hour two you're more than ready to walk.

For me the most rewarding of the LCF's postmodern offerings was Pour Antigone, by the French experimental choreographer Mathilde Monnier. Best known to people with an old-fashioned education through Sophocles' play, the Antigone story examines the conflict between personal moral duty and the duty owed to the state. Monnier deals with the issue obliquely at best, and one must admit that it's hardly capable of being described through dancing.

Still, this choreographer does offer something fascinating -- African dancers removed from a ritual context without a compensating inflection of ethnography or, even, entertainment. She displays them plain and clear, executing their narrow, compelling vocabulary of austere, hypnotic rhythms: feet treading flat against the floor, torso and pelvis undulating demonically, head flung forward and back to whiplash effect, arms reaching skyward like rampant vines flourishing in a hot, wet summer. The power and elegance are formidable.

Monnier juxtaposes the African dancers, who chant gorgeously as they move, seconded by a griot (storyteller), who functions as both instrumentalist and vocalist, with silent European dancers whose brooding demeanor makes them seem burdened with an existentialist agenda. (The French existentialist playwrights, remember, were addicted to Greek legends.) Though the material designed by Monnier for the Europeans has a blunt, plainspoken ferocity that allies it with the traditional African dance language, the Europeans never shed their air of the artificial, the cultivated-in-the-studio. They look as if they never venture outdoors, while their counterparts seem to have sky over their heads, earth against their feet. I found both groups terrific, each in its own way, and was almost convinced that no one -- myself included -- was being patronized.


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