I did a little homework, and my heart sank. Everything I’d read about Maguy Marin’s new work, including a rave review, made it sound ghastly: an hour of grim-faced walking around, inspired by Latin American dictatorships. Even the title irritated me—Les Applaudissements Ne Se Mangent Pas, translated as One Can’t Eat Applause. Is Marin, one of the most popular and provocative choreographers in France, saying something about both the power and the helplessness of art? But it seems to me that applause, symbolizing box office as well as immediate emotional response, is exactly what does feed the artist. By the time I got to the Joyce, I was thoroughly irked.
The moral: Never do homework. Les Applaudissements is spellbinding, nerve-racking, and, in its own harsh way, a thing of beauty. Marin has pulled off one of the hardest feats in theater—a political dance that does justice to both politics and dance.
The stage is hung on three sides with bright strips of cloth that give the space a circusy look, an effect that becomes creepy the moment the first man appears. He has nothing of the performer about him—just a guy in regular clothes and street shoes—but he moves as if he knows he’s being watched. He crosses the stage cautiously; other pedestrians appear; they walk, meet, glance, dart, cling to each other, and run, sometimes toppling suddenly to the floor. Occasionally they climb atop one another in a human jungle gym, or swirl someone through the air, but these interactions are impersonal. Even in the rare embrace, not a soul comes out of its hiding place. Their heavy shoes seem to say that these are ordinary people trapped by gravity, not dancers who can easily escape it.
The nine dancers in Compagnie Maguy Marin are riveting here; there aren’t many performers who can be so eloquent while so expressionless. Twice it happens that they roll frantically across the floor, but the terror is all in the hard pulse of the rolling. We only imagine the flailing.
Marin’s vocabulary is deliberately sparse: a handful of movement ideas and variations return over and over. With its emphasis on ensemble and repetition, the piece could be a folk dance—though one taking place in purgatory. And why not toss out all those program notes about Latin America? This definitive work needs no backstory. At the Joyce, it rang so clear and true it might have been called The World According to Ashcroft.