writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

A Powerful Depiction of Poverty and Despair

Les Sublimes
Compagnie Hendrik van der Zee
Festival of France, Kennedy Center
Eisenhower Theater
Washington, D.C.
Feb. 19-21, 2004

by Lisa Traiger
copyright 2004 by Lisa Traiger
published 23 February 2004

In 1904, when Pablo Picasso painted "Les Saltimbanques," he captured a world-weary sense of isolation. That evocation has become a hallmark of the malaise infiltrating contemporary society. Picasso's saltimbanques are circus people: a tall harlequin, a fat clown in a red suit, a young girl in a tutu, a bare-chested teenage boy, a younger boy and a seated woman in an oddly perched hat. (The large canvas hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.) They're not a family in the traditional sense, but they're bound together even in their despair, their isolation. They stare out at us from Picasso's barren no-man's-land landscape telling of the psychological separation of lives lived on the fringes of society.

Guy Alloucherie, artistic director of Compagnie Hendrick van der Zee, has gathered 11 21st century saltimbanques into his 85-minute work, Les Sublimes, an intriguing entry in the month-long Festival of France presented by the Kennedy Center. Compagnie Hendrick is a collection of eclectic performers, some circus-trained acrobats, one a trapezist, another an expert in Chinese pole, maneuvering his body on a single vertical pole. There's a self-taught juggler and dancer; another trained as a mason before running away to join the circus. Then there is a classically trained ballerina, for good measure, and several actors. It's not your typical dance company, in the least. At the show's end, as they bow, these mismatched bodies and oddly drawn together personalities, recall the cast and demeanor of Picasso's circus people, his saltimbanques.

The company, based in an abandoned mining basin in Pas-de-Calais, Loos-en-Gohelle in northern France, transported the bare-bones landscape from home to the Eisenhower stage, covering the floor with a layer of peat moss, hanging a trapeze and a climbing pole from the rafters and decorating the stage with a few discarded pieces of tattered furniture—a beat up sofa, a table and a chair. It feels like a cheap traveling circus, just one ring, no tent. This is where Les Sublimes does its work.

That work is mostly manifesto: a rage against society and economic deprivation, a screed against globalization, and a plea for the humanity of the working poor. Les Sublimes tells the story of Alloucherie, the son of a miner who became a theater director with a political point of view. In vignettes and narratives, the director in knit cap and black street clothes, recounts his experiences in French. (Subtitles projected on a canvas backdrop translate the monologues and some songs.) But Les Sublimes, too, is an everyperson story: a grim tale of hard work and dedication left unrewarded in the face of corporate reengineering and restructuring. With more than a touch of Marxist socialism thrown into the mix, Alloucherie in Les Sublimes has penned a Marseillaise for the workers' discontent.

The opening moment, as well as others along the way, demonstrate the clarity that comes from the simplest movements: a woman in a white dress steps forward and slowly raises her hands to brush back her hair. It's a small truth, amid the sometimes overly grandiose circus that Alloucherie has ensconced on the stage. Words of Marxist philosopher Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Onfray, whose theories investigate the philosophies of art, hedonism, aesthetics and the body, and what unfolds on stage. allude to "the immense silence of the unemployed and the despair it expresses," as one of the narratives states.

Bodies roll, flop, tumble, fling. One woman stands and breathes, the sound amplified by the microphone. The men exhibit a raw, unrefined quality, especially in the way their acrobatics—impossibly off-kilter balances, unchecked falls, fearless runs, vaults and dives into the dirt floor. But these are not circus tricks meant for applause. Alloucherie, along with choreographers Howard Richard and Marie Letellier (who also performs), alludes in this rough and rugged presentation to the challenges and difficulties of life, labor and even love. It's the no pain, no gain theory survival. But for many, from Alloucherie's standpoint, there's only pain and barely survival. It's apparent in the documentary footage of 'displaced' workers, sitting on benches, leaning against walls, their eyes darkly blank.

Nothing about Les Sublimes, aside perhaps from Alloucherie's spoken narrative, is linear. Fragmentary elements of lives include documentary footage of laid-off factory workers, songs, snippets of poetry, solos, duets and trios, rants and mumblings. A sense of disorder from which clarity is unrecoverable pervades the work. Amid the few hints at simple beauty, another comes later, when a bedraggled middle-aged man tosses a cloud of dust into the murky light as a "Hallelujah" wails. He's alone on stage as the falling dust filters around him, catching him in a halo of light. It feels momentarily hopeful.

Then there are the moments of ugliness and despair: a man dunks and holds woman's head in a large bowl. She comes up gasping, her face awash in red—blood? Kool Aid? This repeated image is unsettling as it reflects the horror of lives lived in the 20th, and now 21st, centuries. Less hideous, but equally unsettling, a nude man is attached to a table with Saran wrap. A body has become a commodity, a product on display, for a society that can only thrive through capitalist means.

Alloucherie's Les Sublimes, then, is a condemnation of all that Western capitalism has wrought. "My story is simple … sometimes I feel I have not used my time well," someone says at one point. At another, "The man who remembers his past becomes a better man. It is his memory that sows the seeds of his dissatisfaction." There's sex and violence, horror and dissolution. These are dances and words bespeak despair. Alloucherie has no answers. He's not a revolutionary. He calls Les Sublimes "a show, an inventory," and that it is. It is political art with a very French accent, one that Americans don't typically hear—at least not at the Kennedy Center; more than a dozen patrons walked away before the end. His message is hard and uncensored, as is the dance. By the end, the performers stand breathless from the rigors of the work. It's a battle, Les Sublimes, but nobody won because the only ones fighting were the underdogs. Les Sublimes translates as sublime; it is inspirational or transformational, though, only for those who take to heart Alloucherie's message and come away from it inspired, changed. Otherwise, it's one more rant against the machine of capitalism.

Picasso's Family of Saltimbanques.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 8
23 February 2004

© 2004 Lisa Traiger




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last updated on February 23, 2004