Footloose and fancy free is our latest gift from France
The French have given us gifts before. A recent one, courtesy of the French-U.S. Exchange in Dance, is Compagnie Martine Pisani’s “Sans.” Danspace Project and The Joyce got together to present the 50 minute choreography at the intimate Joyce SoHo March 2-5.
In the comedic “Sans” or without—sound, décor, or special costumes—three male dancers perform with very minimal gestures that are less-is-more, or exaggerated gestures and movements that turn that axiom on its head. Their half-baked mime nourished; our Saturday night audience was moved to giddy laughter—a different kind of visceral satisfaction than that which comes from beautiful dancy movement. Laurent Pichard blows on Theo Kooijman and Olivier Schram and they reel backward. The three, noting the powerful effect, blow on each other creating a flurry of interactive dance.
In program notes, Pisani asks the question, “How much is natural and how much is acted? How much is true and how much is fake?” The dance’s gray areas fascinate. She successfully neutralizes these opposites with playful moves including a few standard leaps, underdeveloped développés, and embryonic arabesques. They check the soles of their distant feet with little sense of triumph but there’s unsung virtuosity in the goofy gaffs of these three “It” guys.
When the trio tumbles, bodies intertwine and roll together like a cartoon rumble. The exaggerated play creates tableaux that can be appreciated for its form. In stop-action moments, a leg or arm juts out. In the program, Pisani credits an essay on the social function of play for the observation that players are totally absorbed in their activity. “Sans” lives—due in part to the performers’ total absorption, even in indifference. Emotions that might be found in both play and performance are clearly expressed—jealousy, anger, fright, nervousness, and pride.
Facial expressions tell volumes in “Sans.” After a while, little more than the mere sight of them provokes involuntary giggles or at least a broad smile—resurgent pleasure. They blushingly share a great deal of themselves with us. In American postmodern dance, the face often looks wished away or in the way. On the plus side, the performers exploit the potential of the face to convey emotion and connect with the audience—face to face.
Schram’s solo begins and ends with a groan. It is a convoluted mime in which he twists around as if chasing his tail; with a stretch of the imagination, exercise culture is evinced. We sympathize with his Sisyphean journey.
“Sans” darkly thumbs its nose at beauty, presenting a picture of life without. It provides much needed release from what often looks like a futile effort to create beauty, change, progress, peace. Schram gives a short monologue in broken English, “Is there anything that would change the course of events? I too was here and remain silent.”
When the trio stands together facing us, eyes shifting to the left and right, the audience finds humor in the intermittent sounds of cars honking on Mercer Street. The comedy is gleaned from the sounds of silence and worked with the performers gestures. Later, Kooijman closely follows and mirrors Schram, hoisting himself up and bicycling—sans bicycle—between the two taller men. But can they do it again? They do. Whole segments are repeated at faster tempos and with fiercer energy.
A spoken “story” works even better in French. Kooijman, who looks like a thinner, younger John Cleese, tells a tale about carrying bags down the stairs and slipping on a sugar cube, which he then licks. Its surreality is compounded by Pichard’s clueless expression; his translation seemed equally dubious to my companion and I who don’t know enough French.
Further befuddling, the performers disappear twice during the show and return wearing each other’s clothes. In the end they stand before us and wait with self-satisfied elation; it’s the only cue for our eventual and whole-hearted applause.