Dancers, dust and the dying of the light

BEIRUT: Perhaps 40 spectators crowded around four chest-high black walls, craning forward. In a square pit below, the bodies of three near-naked performers lay on the floor, spread-eagle.

Reclined stiffly beside black-and-white patterned beach towels, clad in skimpy swimwear and bathed in cold, white light, Philippe Chosson, Maelle Desclaux and Benjamin Khan could be lab rats in an experiment involving sunbathing and startlingly pale skin.

The staging area of Masrah al-Madina was transformed Tuesday and Wednesday for four showings of “Black Out,” an innovative work that – like many of those in this year’s Beirut International Platform of Dance – blends two disciplines, falling somewhere between contemporary dance and performance art.

The audience filed into a dim auditorium and past the redundant terrace seating. Ascending a short flight of stairs single file, they jostled tentatively along the edge of the 3-meter-deep enclosure. Voyeurlike, they could gaze down upon the dancers, who resembled creatures in a cockfight or a mass grave.

Choreographed by Algerian-Swiss dancer Philippe Saire – who also created the lighting design, an integral facet of this performance – “Black Out” is imbued with theatricality, as dependent on apparatus as it is on movement.

The opening minutes were minimalist – the score limited to the grating squeak of Chosson rubbing his fingertips upon the enclosure’s rubber surface – with the occasional smack of Khan and Desclaux’s hands slapped upon the floor, as if to squash an annoying mosquito.

Then to the accompaniment of an off-kilter, brass-band-played march, the three dancers began to shift, in short, spasmodic bursts, one arm always covering their faces as though to conceal them from the light and the spectators above.

The movement gradually grew more frenzied as the dancers raised themselves on all fours to push their towels about the stage like poorly coordinated dung beetles.

Just as they attained an upright, humanoid stance, the dancers’ environment was altered. From the rafters, metal containers abruptly released a shower of black matter to rain into the pit. Thousands of tiny particles scattered across the white floor, speckling the heads, shoulders and arms of the performers who – unlike several surprised members of the audience – remained silent and unflinching.

Saire has remarked that “Black Out” addresses the randomness of survival in a world filled with genocide, sickness and senseless violence. The interaction between the trapped performers and the sandlike mounds of rubber – that literally showered them from on high – also suggests an inexorable natural disaster and its aftermath.

For the balance of the 40-minute performance, these minute rubber granules were crucial to the choreographic and metaphoric weight of the show. Moving through the detritus, the dancers created a percussive accompaniment to the movement. The performers slid, stamped and circled their way across the surface leaving white traces in their wake.

Executed by Yan Godat, Saire’s lighting design careened abruptly from twilight to grimace-inducing intensity to complete darkness, so that the performers’ junkie pallor and the crisscrossing patterns they’d carved upon the white surface from the sootlike particles – like the residue of an explosion or a volcanic eruption – were seared upon the audience’s retinas.

Halfway through the show, the mood darkened. While Desclaux stumbled across the pit – alone, slamming into the walls, eyes rose skyward as though seeking escape – the two men erased themselves within black masked outfits.

As she lay eerily still – having energetically driven her head repeatedly into a mound of black particles – one featureless figure loomed over her, a large spadelike implement in hand.

It began to trace a line around her still form, a murder victim’s chalk outline in graffito.

“Black Out” played with its viewers’ perspectives throughout. A palpable tension filled the auditorium as men’s black forms slowly dressed Desclaux’s delicate frame in matching black – feeding slender limbs into sleeves and trouser legs, uncoiling a black stocking across her face.

As they began to shovel black granules over Desclaux, viewers seemed to hold their breaths along with her. Resurrected, she joined her two companions in flinging black grit in the air, showers that ricocheted back on the dancers, and a number of audience members backed away nervously.

A subdued blend of implied violence and seemingly random creativity, “Black Out” ended on a note of ambiguous beauty. Covered in an even layer of black, the lights dimmed upon the stage, then failed, plunging the public back into darkness.

Distance rendered indistinct by darkness, a constellation of pin lights winked from the void, like captive fireflies or a distant galaxy.

From the silence, a female spectator exhaled an awestruck, “Wow.” The lights rose upon quiet laughter.

BIPOD continues Thursday with “Nothing’s for Something,” a performance exploring transitions by choreographers Heine Avdal and Yukiko Shinozaki.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 24, 2014, on page 16.




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