I can’t imagine a more fantastic-or fantastically enjoyable-summer event than Villa Villa , created, and flown, by the extraordinary Argentine group known as De La Guarda. If you haven’t seen it yet, proceed to jail immediately. The show-if that’s the word for this flipped-out flying circus-must be seen by everyone at least twice for maximum pleasure.
That’s fairly high praise, I know. But you will have a wonderful time at Villa Villa (which, roughly translated, means “by the seat of your pants”). I’ll even guarantee it. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy this show shall receive from me personally two complimentary tickets to Footloose . In Australia. One-way banana-boat fare not included.
There, nobody can say more than that. But the exciting experience of the De La Guarda troupe seems to bring out the best in everyone. Here’s a friend of mine, who’s seen the show three times, highly recommending it: “It’s wild, it’s short, there’s nothing like it, and you get wet.”
It is pretty wild, as performers slam-dancing in midair would strike you as wild. It’s short-just 70 minutes without intermission. It’s wet. The show sort of rains on everyone, encouraging deranged rain dances and wet kisses.
I seem to unknowingly inspire kisses at the theater. A Blue Man of Blue Man Group gave me a blue kiss. And one of the De La Guarda boys-the handsome one-danced up to me in the rain to give me a great big smackeroo on the mouth. It was nice.
You can always say No. And as for the rain: You can always stand on the outskirts of the action and not get wet. No one is threatened in any way; only reality is the victim.
As the program puts it with the imaginative authority of a manifesto worth listening to: “Everything started with the uncontrollable desire to explode, to expand, to choose a space and take complete hold of it, while leaving nothing out of the game. The tide produced by the audience is a fundamental part of the emotional upheaval of this show, where everything is fragile, everything is changeable except our tempests. The victim is reality. There are no laws of nature in what’s fantastic; there is neither logic nor stability.”
There is nothing like it. Some link the purely visceral impact of De La Guarda to the Off-Broadway sensation of nonverbal shows like Stomp and Blue Man Group. But they remain earthbound by comparison. To my surprise, De La Guarda has even been linked to Cirque du Soleil, which is grasping at spectacles. Cirque du Soleil has its charms, but it is arty where De La Guarda is unpretentiously liberated. No, the Argentine troupe has created something boldly new by breaking through all traditional barriers and liberating theater itself. They have made theater literally airborne.
So much so, it is said that De La Guarda isn’t even theater. There will always be those who feel comfortable only with the safely bourgeois. And conventional theater is the norm. The show has no dialogue or plot. But then, nor is there any in the later plays of Samuel Beckett. There aren’t any seats (and therefore there are no bad seats). But we tend to stand happily at rock concerts even when there are seats. Why quibble over mere definitions? Theater is-or ought to be-anything you want it to be.
Besides, the show clearly does have a theater pedigree, though it is the first I’ve known to combine the skills of rock climbers with ballet and street theater. The founders of De La Guarda began as drama school graduates in the mid-80’s by joining an underground theater group in the wake of the “dirty war” of Argentina’s right-wing military junta. In that revolutionary sense, their desire to explode and make new-to defeat reality-was political. In a more nostalgic sense, they coincidentally link to the 1960’s theater “happenings” of the Living Theater and stoned disciples of Antonin Artaud. In fact, you could, if you wished, trace their use of moving platforms during the show directly to the pageants performed on the back of carts in the Middle Ages. So, yes, they belong to theater.
The show itself takes place in a big room-a perfect empty space-within an old savings bank on Union Square East. The space has been rebaptized the Daryl Roth Theater, with room for 500 spectators. That’s the first major achievement of De La Guarda: They’ve brought life-a celebration of life-into a dead space. It clearly isn’t a conventional theater, and therefore attracts a younger crowd who can’t relate to theater as we-or our parents-know it.
Look what happens in the opening moments: We are standing under a paper ceiling, wondering what’s going on, or going to happen. Though there are occasional dips in the performance, that sense of anticipation never leaves us. We never know what will happen next. Perhaps the paper ceiling is a sky in a surreal dream, pelted by raindrops like a tin roof. Or it’s the surface of an ocean. Silhouettes, part human, part animal, seem to be scurrying and flying across the surface high above us. We’re submerged in a shadowy firmament. Then without warning, a figure crashes through the sky to grab a woman in the audience and take her flying up to the heavens where she disappears. And the heavens open.
The woman is a plant, I realized later. But no matter at all. The nightmare image takes our breath away. The show, in David Richards’ beautiful phrase, is all about “a pandemonium of flight.” The troupe, attached to ropes and harnesses, chase one another across walls, or smash into them-splat!-like insects. They are meteors, skydivers, cannonballs, flashers. The men, with conscious, ironic conformity, wear business suits. But one is bare-assed, mooning us maniacally from on high. It’s his appealing trademark.
The show is simultaneously fun and unsettling. It teases our perceptions. It appears to be unplanned, improvised, performed on the wing. There’s a rhythmic hypnotic quality at work and at play.
The infectious free spirits are choreographed, the high energy on the spontaneous dangerous edge. The pounding percussion gives us its atmosphere of unearthly ritual, as if we’re attending some semi-sacred ceremony for the deranged, or for all who wish to escape from mundane reality.
Call it bungee love, performance art, moving image, carnival, rave, mosh pit, dreamscape, aerial art, ritual theater or primal dance. Call it what you want. The wish to fly is an innocent dream, and De La Guarda makes our spirits soar.