Company L'A./Rachid Ouramdane

October 11, 2011

New York Live Arts, NYC
October 11–15, 2011

Reviewed by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

In his essay for Selma Jeanne Cohen’s The Modern Dance: Seven Statements of Belief, José Limón excoriated the type of artists who withdraw from the grievous struggles of the world to engage in “empty formalism,” as he called it. “The artist’s function,” Limón wrote, “is perpetually to be the voice and conscience of his time.”

This Mexican immigrant who threw his lot in with the pioneers of early modern dance might have found kinship with France’s Rachid Ouramdane, one of the most compelling visionaries of our era. For Ouramdane, son of Algerian immigrants, the artist must tend wounds that are difficult to cleanse.

In October, New York Live Arts and French Institute Alliance Française’s Crossing the Line festival co-presented two separate evening-length programs by Ouramdane’s L’A troupe: Ordinary Witnesses (North American premiere) and World Fair (New York premiere). Each work takes its premise from the experience of the body and psyche under torture.  After each performance I saw, the NYLA audience sat motionless for several heartbeats before finally breaking the loaded silence with applause. At the conclusion of Ordinary Witnesses, I rose and turned to simply bid goodnight to a colleague; other words would have sounded trite.

Ordinary Witnesses
, a quintet set to music by Jean-Baptiste Julien, incorporates the memories of torture victims recorded by video collaborators Jenny Teng and Nathalie Gasdoué. They speak in their native tongues. Some distance away, set against black space, subtitles translate these accounts of the lingering effects of violence on their lives. This documentary-like opening runs an unusually long time, and the work often returns to it. To follow, to try to understand, the audience must continuously switch between watching faces on the screen and words on the wall. This futile shifting of focus feels like anxiety, desperation, and finally, mental exhaustion. As a theatrical strategy, it also deftly demonstrates the terrible brokenness, the dissociation of mind from body, in the experience of trauma.

Dancers glacially drift in semi-darkness, each treading a path of solitude. Are they survivors, too, or the masses who rush by, failing to witness? Illumination, when it comes, resembles a big panel of kleig lights for a movie set or something more sinister, something used to break a prisoner’s resistance. Speed, when it comes, reveals the tense, orbital nature of the dancers’ arrangements in space and their hidden connections to one another.

Ouramdane’s centerpiece—a lone woman spinning for several minutes as her shifting arms and head vary the blurry shape of her image—will not soon be forgotten. Lora Juodkaite’s tour de force is all of the pain and avoidance of pain, all of the eerie beauty, all of the fortitude and excess of Ordinary Witnesses compressed into one white-hot ball.


World Fair
, astonishingly, begins with spinning. This time, it’s Ouramdane, eyes closed as if in death, slowly twirling as the audience takes seats.  A turntable rotates his motionless body the way a hunk of beef might be turned on a spit.

As always, the choreographer—a smallish man neatly buttoned up in black shirt and slacks—takes his time, making us watch and squirm. Again, sound, set design and lighting—another kleig panel and a heavy stage light mounted on a steel-weighted pole that dangles, dips, and swerves above the space—create a crystalline and discomfiting dream.

Ouramdane, eventually stripping his shirt to uncover sinewy arms, moves like a cyber-avatar making crisp, indecipherable semaphores. Performing his music live, Julien flits from instrument to instrument. The entire stage can be read as an audio player of the old-fashioned kind. The weird, jarring sounds, the occasional splash of lemony light across the steady chill of the kleigs, the gestural movements all suggest attempts to break a trance and express the inexpressible, the unbearable.

I began this review by citing one great man’s words, and I will end with another, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”


Photos: Rachid Ouramdane’s
Ordinary Witnesses. By Ian Douglas, courtesy NYLA.