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Backward with the avant-garde.

Personally, I am always just a shade suspicious of the avant-garde -- perhaps because I am now old enough to recognize how much of it is deja vu! Certainly it seems to me that one of the wisest statements about the avant-garde was made, perhaps inadvertently, by that great comedian Jimmy Durante. In his master-opus "I'm da Guy Dat Found da Lost Chord," Durante would exclaim: "They sed Beethoven wuz crazy! They sed Tchaikovsky wuz crazy! They sed Louie wuz crazy!" At which point his orchestra calls out. "Who's Louie" Without missing a beat, Durante explains, "Louie's my uncle. He wuz crazy. They had to take him away." It seems to me that the vital question posed by the avant-garde is deciding who is Beethoven and who is Louie. Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival, now in its fifteenth season, recently offered in its dance program two celebrated Louie candidates in good standing, Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.

One should always be suspicious of so-called cutting-edge works of art which could actually have been created any time within the pat seventy-five years. That cutting edge is probably blunted. Although Pina Bausch is still Europe's poster girl for the pop avant-garde, her heart has long belonged to Dada in the 1920s, when shock silliness and the juxtaposition of realities ran riot. Even so, her tired and shabby allegiances were never more cynically in evidence than in Der Fensterputzer ("The Window Washer"), the work based on and partly commissioned by Hong Kong (old style), with which her company. Tanztheater Wuppertal, opened BAM's Next Wave.

The show asks many complex questions but vouchsafes no answers running beyond the obvious and banal. What, for instance, does it have to do with Hong Kong and window cleaning? Well, as any tourist can testify, there are an awful lot of windows to wash on the skyscraped skyline of Britain's former colony, and at the beginning and end of Bausch's piece a window washer is indeed seen suspended on the cradle of his craft. As for Hong Kong itself -- and Bausch certainly went there -- you hear the occasional jet plane (a typical Hong Kong sound), and at the end you are offered a photo projection of the harbor at night. So ... what else do you need?

The fifty-seven-year-old Bausch herself once showed promise as a theater person of nuanced taste, but now all has been lost in a modishly relentless quest to fashion ever-newer clothes for an ever-naked emperor. Design has always been important -- beneficially so at first -- and here the stage and even the action is dominated by set designer Peter Pabst's huge mountain on wheels, covered with red artificial flowers. The Window Washer is played out in various, repetitive vignettes, many of them surreal visual jokes, but the wit is of the kind that has made "Teutonic humor" an international oxymoron. It's not exactly boring. It passes the time. But, as Samuel Beckett's tramps once sagely noticed in a more rigorous context, the time would have passed anyway!

Currently the thirty-seven-year-old Belgian dancemaker Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker seems the darling of the European avant-garde -- perhaps the current flavor of the moment over yesterday's still-admired Bausch -- and to some extent she is quite an interesting choreographer. Far more than Bausch, De Keersmaeker and her company, called Rosas [see page 96], employ a certain virtuosity and even true-blue dance theatricality, a rare and welcome thing in this arid world of the so-called postmodern dance. However, her 1996 full-evening piece, Woud ("Forest"), also given at the Next Wave Festival, proved thick, dense, and more impenetrable than leafy.

It started, promisingly enough, with a movie in which a young woman (De Keersmaeker herself) was running hopelessly through a wood, reciting some kind of Belgian nursery rhyme about a lost boy. Its cliche-ridden choreography did skillfully match the music, but the music was poorly chosen. Berg's Lyric Suite is too wispy to support frenetic dance, and it was a solecism to tack one of Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder onto the final, reconciliatory bars of Verklarte Nacht, the Schoenberg work that dancelovers will associate with Antony Tudor's great Pillar of Fire.

Unlike Tudor, De Keersmaeker has an extraordinarily limited, almost monosyllabic dance vocabulary; her company's gymnastic style of dancing, all too redolent of pain, anguish, angst, and loss, is confined to running, jumping, spinning, and standing still. The last was often accomplished with the dancers' backs turned to the audience. Alienated, I guess. The performers themselves were good, and De Keersmaeker's chosen atmosphere of unrequited desperation was fiercely maintained. But what is being expressed other than generic gender disturbance eludes me. Perhaps I cannot see the trees for the Woud.

Okay, perhaps I am being a little mean in picking out the Eurodivas Bausch and De Keersmaeker for this admittedly ill-tempered -- but not, I trust, ill-timed -- attack on these kinds of outdated, "Look, Ma, I'm Clowning" or "Look, Ma, I'm Emoting" follies. Their high visibility made them all but irresistible, however, though I confess I could obviously have aimed these darts closer to home -- at, say, dear old Trisha Brown.

It seems to me that the concept of the avant-garde and what has now led it into universal decadence is the build-a-better-mousetrap idea of progress, unfortunately intrinsic to mankind's evolutionary genetic constitution. (It's how we got from the planet of the apes.) So many artists find it difficult to believe, or accept, that the all-but-perfect mousetrap has been built. As a result, the quest for "difference" becomes a self-justifying journey, even though, with time, the opportunities for a better difference become more and more limited.

It is far easier to scrawl a moustache on the Mona Lisa than to paint a Mona Lisa. But Mona Lisa will always have the last laugh, or, at least, the last inscrutable smirk.

Clive Barnes is a senior editor of Dance Magazine and dance and theater critic of the New York Post.
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Title Annotation:perspectives on modern dance
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:988
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