Expert Witnesses: A Brilliant Spin in Rachid Ouramdane’s Concept Dance

Fluent performances in Liz Gerring’s multimedia dreams; Ordinary Witnesses doesn’t come across as victim art because we don’t come away from it feeling manipulated or exploited.

Work by L’A./Rachid Ouramdane.

In the mid-’90s, Arlene Croce brought down the wrath of the P.C. gods on herself when she refused to review a Bill T. Jones work called Still/Here on the grounds that it was victim art, and that “by working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism.” Today, long after the fuss has died down, the lesson is worth remembering. When confronted with AIDS, torture, the Holocaust, we can’t (and shouldn’t) turn off our human reactions, which means, however, that to a certain extent we have to turn off our critical faculties.

This past week at New York Live Arts (formally Dance Theater Workshop, or D.T.W., by which unpretentious name it was happily known for decades), we were offered two works by the much-acclaimed company L’A./Rachid Ouramdane. It was the first of these—Ordinary Witnesses—that was the big deal, an hour-long evocation of, or testimony to, victims of torture in Rwanda, Argentina, Palestine, etc.

The stage is dark. Three women and two men walk around haphazardly, very slowly. Over a loudspeaker comes a quiet videotaped voice, then another, then another, all speaking French, while their words are displayed on blurred, almost illegible supertitles upstage center. But even if you can’t follow the text you know what it’s about—words like “roadblock,” “machete,” “forgetting” penetrate your consciousness. This goes on for more than 10 minutes, and if you don’t know exactly what the witnesses are bearing witness to, it’s numbingly boring—but we mustn’t complain, because being tortured is far worse. And, to be fair, what’s going on isn’t as slow and solemn as the slow-champions of the world, Eiko and Koma, who always leave me longing for the Ritz Brothers.

But when the lights eventually come up (minimally) and the performers come into focus, something strong and impressive begins to happen—not because of the torture connection, which is never literalized, but because Rachid Ouramdane, the Algerian-French founder/choreographer of the group, commands an original and effective vocabulary. Yes, the collapses to the floor and the extreme and violent angles into which the dancers’ bodies contort may be the result of what they’ve suffered at the hands of their persecutors; but they may not be. What matters is that they grab your attention. And the central passage of the work—when like a whirling Dervish, with brilliantly speedy and controlled footwork, Lora Juodkaite spins and spins, on and on, then on and on yet longer, her red hair swirling out around her—is an amazement.

Finally, Ordinary Witnesses doesn’t come across as victim art because we don’t come away from it feeling manipulated or exploited; rather, it’s an example of what we call concept dance. And in the light of its extraordinary effects, we can forgive it even that.

A second program presented Mr. Ouramdane himself, solo, in his World Fair. It begins with him, head shaved, dressed in black, standing on a revolving stool. Eventually he removes his shirt, revealing chest hair; later he will put on a black tank top and change his shoes. At one point he applies white makeup to his face; further along, he wipes it off. Around the stage are placed a number of items—a record player, a piano, a synthesizer, amps and a gigantic metal pole that not only revolves relentlessly but dips up and down while shedding light from a lamp at one end.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ouramdane’s musical partner, Jean-Baptiste Julien, manipulates and/or plays his own score on various instruments, climaxing in thunderous, overexcited chordal piano. Throughout, Mr. Ouramdane is walking around the stage, sometimes stopping to throw himself to the ground or to lie flat on his back. Frequently, his arms fling themselves out to the side or up above his head—it’s dance as semaphore, a trope that clearly holds more significance for him than it does for us. One comes away from World Fair with an impression of high earnestness and harmless self-delusion. I’m still wondering, though, what the title means.

The somewhat controversial choreographer Liz Gerring brought her six dancers to the Baryshnikov Arts Center with a new hour-long work called She Dreams in Code. It’s multimedia, which means there’s a stream of video projections against the back of the stage (formless at times, sometimes jungly, sometimes rainy, all too often distracting the viewer’s eye from the dancers). There are occasional passages of voice-over narrative, presumably spoken by Mr. Gerring herself, relating her dreams. “It was a sunny afternoon …. I was driving down a two-lane road ….” There’s insistent music and/or sound by Michael J. Schumacher, good for the dancers to move to but not so good to listen to.

Expert Witnesses: A Brilliant Spin in Rachid Ouramdane’s Concept Dance