Friday, May 2, 2014

New York Live Arts presents Buffard's "Baron Samedi"

David Thomson leads the international cast of
Alain Buffard's "choreographed opera," Baron Samedi,
at New York Live Arts, now through Saturday evening
(photo by Ian Douglas)
Danse: a French-American Festival of Performance & Ideas will run through May 18 at fourteen New York City venues (see information here) to examine "the ways in which dance engages with and informs our understanding of the world." The festival got off to a provocative start last night at New York Live Arts with Baron Samedi (2012), the final work of the late multi-genre artist Alain Buffard.

This "choreographed opera" is not easy to embrace. It took me a while before I found my way into it, and its continues to unfold today in my mind--which argues for the gravity and value of Buffard's offering.

Drawing from Haitian voodoo symbolism--in which the corpse-like Baron Samedi rules both healing and death--and the music of Kurt Weill, this work emerges from a very dark morass. At it opens, we are given only a woman's strong, melancholy singing voice and the soft, vulnerable patches of light on her face, something for us to hold onto. An hour later, everything brought to light slowly seeps back into darkness.

When we are first granted full sight of the stage, we see motley figures moving over and away from a clean white platform. Designed by Nadia Lauro, this platform resembles a large, undulating sheet of blank paper. It nearly engulfs the performance space, and it complicates it, creating discrete areas for encounters and interactions or for individual behavior separate from the whole. There's a slippery slide effect, too, that plays a part in the physical theater of the piece.

You will notice that the typical racial balance of "downtown dance" has been upended; most of the performers are Black, born either in African nations or in the US. They include Nadia Beugré (Ivory Coast/France), Dorotheé Munyaneza (Rwanda/France), Hiengiwe Lushaba (South Africa) and venerable New York dance artists Will Rawls and David Thomson. Three others--dancer Olivier Normand and the two musicians, double bass player Sarah Murcia and guitarist Sébastien Martel--are, like Buffard, white and French. This shift in balance, and the pulse and propulsion of the dancers' movement across the sloping white surface, works brilliantly with the platform's undulation, keeping everyone, including observers, in a continuous, unsettling state of flux. Although the villain of the piece--the amoral, lascivious and hideously vain Baron, played by Thomson--is Black, he serves as a lens on the nasty workings of European colonialism. Buffard underscores his preoccupation with this theme by having performers sing Weill's "Pirate Jenny" and "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife."

Baron Samedi, himself, is on hand to stir movement and provoke uncertainty (of one's identity, one's station in life, one's autonomy, one's physical and psychological safety). Thomson, sounding like a bit like the great Geoffrey Holder, reaches his high point in dancing when the Baron is at his lowest. Confronted by his victims, he is revealed to be nothing more than a hollow man, a skeleton tottering on the verge of collapse, a sack of graveyard dust.

Baron Samedi runs through Saturday with performances at 7:30pm. You're also invited to come early this evening at 6:30pm for a conversation on Baron Samedi--Symbolism and Practice in Haitian Voodoo moderated by Whitney V. Hunter, PhD Candidate and Director of Whitney Hunter [MEDIUM]. For complete information and tickets, click here.

New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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