Compagnie Heddy Maalem

June 30, 2008

Compagnie Heddy Maalem

The Joyce Theater, NYC

June 10–28, 2008

The lure of that irresistible Le Sacre du Printemps has snared another choreographer—Heddy Maalem, whose company was the first of three French troupes in the Joyce’s “French Collection” series. Maalem’s concept involves a robust cast of fourteen dancers from several African nations. Women in sherbet-colored bras and panties and men in briefs sweep across the stage, rolling out Stravinsky’s folklore of pagan sex and violence in an unending display of gleaming black flesh. Oo, la la! Imagine the moment when Maalem first thought, “I’m going for it!”

    At the Joyce—as I suspect is often the case—the troupe performed for an audience that was predominantly white, mainly advanced in age, and ostensibly affluent. But this is New York in 2008, not Paris in 1913, and no booing, no catcalling, no fisticuffs, storm-outs, or arrests ensued. If the unfolding suggestions of group sex, sacrificial rape, tribal conflict, and rock-throwing riots—or the occasional interjection of composer Benoît Declerck’s contemporary reply to Stravinsky’s provocative dissonance—got under anyone’s skin, the uncomfortable or offended parties kept quiet. The audience response to what is indeed a remarkable cast was gracious, and the dancers enjoyed bow after bow.

    Reportedly, Maalem created Le Sacre du printemps with the teaming city of Lagos (Nigeria) in mind, and we are first introduced to its tropical night which shelters, conceals, and consoles. A storm splits the silence. In Benoît Dervaux’s abstracted video projection, palm trees lurch in the wind. In the hazy darkness of Maalem’s stage, silhouetted dancers hold hands—one dancer kneeling, the other bent forward. More indistinct shapes emerge and evolve like mutating cells. And then it’s lights out completely before the flight of Stravinsky’s opening bassoon.

    Maalem’s movement strategies emphasize simplicity and bluntness of shape and bigness of ensemble arrangements and motion. Nothing balletic, quasi-balletic, intricate or fancy-fancy here. The man started off as a boxer and martial artist and, in his choreography, form follows function.

    In keeping with Stravinsky’s narrative, dancers portray the group mind ascendant over the individual. Rough, frenetic, or salacious behavior passes from one dancer to another in inescapable tidal waves. The ferocity even in sensual connections is underscored by a passage in which men rest their heads against the bellies of women. The women continue dancing feverishly as if they wouldn’t at all mind wrenching those heads from their necks.

    An ensemble of women look over the community’s designated victim with a mixture of curiosity and an ominous gentleness. When her time has come, it is her own—females like herself—who will lead her and leave her to her fate.

    One solo has Maalem’s most full-figured woman dancer lolling about an emptied stage. In a move as provocative and inevitable as Courbet’s “The Origin of the World”—and as disturbing as the exhibition of Saartjie Baartman, the “Hottentot Venus,” in 19th century Europe—the dancer languorously unfolds a crotch-shot. It’s unfortunately not clear to what end this French-Algerian artist—with his deliberate choice of African performers and his inspiration, an African city—intends to work these visions of Otherness. To inflame? To defuse? To subvert?

    Le Sacre du Printemps lasts a neat hour, but it doesn’t depart without one final eruption of Maalem’s imaginings—a man who appears to be moving under strobe lighting. But actually, there’s no lighting effect. Just one extraordinary dancer whose jerking, bristling, and heaving manage to make the hairs on your arm stand on end.

(Photo by Ben Rudick, Courtesy Jacob’s Pillow)