Friday, October 2, 2015

Rage against the machine: James Thierrée at BAM Next Wave

James Thierrée in Tabac Rouge
(photo: Jack Vartoogian)
James Thierrée with Valérie Doucet
(photo: Jack Vartoogian)

What technical glitch kept a big, well-behaved audience standing for 45 minutes in the lobby of BAM Gilman for last night's performance of Tabac Rouge before ticket-takers finally opened the doors?

Here's my guess: James Thierrée's set. Specifically, the massive, mobile wall--old, discolored mirror panels on one side; dark, formidable lattice of pipes on the other.

This cleverly adaptable sculpture maintains such a crucial, active, nearly living presence throughout the 90-minute piece that you might argue for its status as lead dancer and star. And it has all the makings of a diva that you wouldn't want to cross, with capacity to maim its human co-stars--Thierrée and several members of his Compagnie du Hanneton--in any number of ways as they touch it, move it or scramble over it.

Did its lifting mechanism seize up? Or did it bop someone in the head? Mash a foot? Slice a hand?

Certainly, this structure sets the work's dystopian mood right off. The curtain rises on the wall, pipes-side forward, confronting the audience from the edge of a murky, smoke-filled stage. Viewers barely make out a few dancers crossing the back of the stage or clinging to frameworks that rise or descend. Now and then, a glow will flash from deep within the haze, like distant lightning. Fluorescent bulbs fire, here and there, but you quickly sense that any meaningful illumination (of the literal or metaphoric kind) will be hard-won.

Matina Kokolaki and other cast members in Tabac Rouge
(photo: Jack Vartoogian)

Thierrée, a performer of exquisite physical skill, hails from a storied lineage: child of circus innovators Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierrée; grandson of Charlie Chaplin; great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill. His previous confections have drawn from the worlds of mime, dance, physical theater and circus, but he considers this steampunk fantasy, Tabac Rouge, to be more in the realm of dance or dance-theater.

Whether bodies are swirling in smooth, circular patterns, hurling themselves with desperate, revolutionary fervor or twisting into showy contortions, the dancey-ness of Tabac Rouge seems pitched to fill space and time and the hunger for entertainment. The second-night audience--perhaps overeager after such a long wait to claim their seats--seemed to crave little things to chuckle at; their choices left me deeply uncertain.

Elements of dance, mime and circus seem stuffed into a container that, in itself, has no clearly thought-out identity. In place of a developed story, there appears to be a situation--Thierrée portraying, maybe, hallucinating, an ash-coated despot whose court includes a military man, a woman who might be a daughter and another who might be a lover, presumably survivors of an unspecified disaster. Things look not only grimy but grim despite dancing and clowning. The balance of power keeps shifting, sort of the way Thierrée's angular balances shift--continually, weirdly, improbably--when he dances.

It's material for a drama--in this rendering, only material. The piece lives, instead, in its central visual element, making Tabac Rouge most convincing and satisfying as art installation. I consider the wall's final, dazzling moments to be my reward for enduring that wait in the lobby.

With performances by Thierrée, Mehdi Baki, Valérie Doucet, Magnus Jakobsson, Namkyung Kim, Matina Kokolaki, Thi Mai Nguyen, Ioulia Plotnikova and Soa Ratsifandrihana

Direction, set design, and choreography: James Thierrée
Costumes: Victoria Thierrée
Sound design: Thomas Delot
Lighting: Bastien Courthieu

Tabac Rouge runs through Sunday, October 4.  For schedule and ticket information, click here.

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn

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