First of all, the elephant in the room is pink and naked. That's because the hook, the gimmick that accounts for the lion's share of buzz surrounding Daniel Léveillé Danse is that the performers dance in the buff. As much as all of us would like to pretend we went into the West Coast premiere of Crépuscule des Oceans (Twilight of the Oceans) wondering how Léveillé would translate his arcane, vaguely post-apocalyptic, and oh-so-very-French choreographer's manifesto into movement, the truth is that most audience members were first and foremost curious about the dingalings, derrieres, and poof-poofs.
The question of nudity—and what nudity, as a politically and psychologically loaded construct, added or subtracted from the medium—was the meta-issue hanging over every minute of this boldly conceived, well-executed performance. When the dancers (five men, two women—why the skewed ratio?) strode out for the first ensemble, clad in black leotards, you could almost hear the audience's puzzlement: “I thought they were going to be nude! Why aren't they? When are they going to take off their clothes?” Would the dancers disrobe before our very eyes? Surely not—that would seem too inelegant, too stripper-like, for a serious troupe such as this. Pony-maned Gaëtan Viau put the question to bed by leaving the stage and returning moments later in the milky-white altogether. A series of duets, trios, and ensembles followed, some dispatched nude, others clothed, some to the accompaniment of Beethoven sonatas, others punctuated only by the hard-working dancers' grunts, gasps, and syncopated footfalls.
Most Portlanders, I suspect, have been to Collins Beach, Bagby Hot Springs, and Common Ground Wellness Center enough times to not be scandalized by the sight of floppy bits, untoward crevices, and tattoos otherwise unknown to the light of day. Viewers in, say, Oklahoma or Georgia might be more likely to picket and rail and protesteth too much. Still, even for ostensibly enlightened Left Coasters, there were moments toward the performance's start that were apt to startle. During brazen lifts, liftees' buttcracks were unclefted, albeit briefly, for all to see. (“Like horses, they don't hide their anuses,” wrote the Village Voice's Deborah Jowitt of the same lifts in a New York performance.) Unabashed tableaux of heterogeneous full monties were unavoidably destined to bring out everyone's inner Byron Beck:Ooh la la, would you look at the size of that monster French-Canadian man-meat? OMG, are they all uncut? Is it just the lighting, or is that hot-tamale young'un sportin' some wood?
After awhile, the monkey-mind meta-monologue quiets, and the troupe begins to speak only of symbolism and poetry. A man and woman chase around one another in frantic circles; the man takes the woman's hand, and they dash off impetuously across the stage. Another man bounds up and knocks them crudely out of his way. In another passage, tall, curly-haired Emmanuel Proulx towers above the more diminutive Mathieu Campeau, who convinces Proulx to spin him around like a top, again and again. Some 20 minutes later, Campeau repeats this request of another dancer, and the move becomes a signature motif. Later, he struts and preens like a teenager posing in front of a mirror, trying to convince himself what a stud he is. Notably, the audience laughed in recognition at this vanitas; we were all there in front of the mirror, flexing biceps or batting eyelashes, striving to make Schwarzeneggers and Schiffers out of 19-year-old geeks and geekettes.
In these vignettes we are seeing human dynamics made motion: relationships, neuroses, mentorship, competition, obsession, narcissism, and identity-building. The tempestuous impudence of Beethoven's music is a perfect accompaniment. Technically, the dancers were not always as synchronized as they should have been, but in a sense this was in keeping with the gritty organicism of their exertions. And what exertions they were: movements that quoted from gymnastics, calesthenics, kickboxing, sumo wrestling, and swimming. When the dancers dropped cold from standing position to a cross-legged Indian style on the floor, you felt for their tailbones and spines. To witness a human body, clothed or otherwise, subjected to these athleticisms is to study our capacity for punishment, not pleasure. A dash of lyricism amidst the choppy thrashings would have provided a welcome counterpoint and thrown Mr. Léveillé's dystopic vision into higher relief. It is useful to think of The Road (Cormac McCarthy's novel, not John Hillcoat's new film), whose unremitting bleakness is offset in its final paragraph by a romantic invocation of brook trout wimpling through mountain streams and glens “where all things were older than man.” Sometimes the hint of melody transfigures rhythm and turns Sturm und Drang into poignant, naked poetry.
Daniel Léveillé Danse performs at the Leftbank Annex, 101 N Weidler St., 245-1600. All shows sold out except 2 pm Sunday matinee, Dec. 6. $26, $16 students. For tickets 1-800-745-3000 or visit whitebird.org.
Photos of the Wednesday, Dec. 2 performance of Daniel Léveillé Danse's Crépuscule des Oceans by Chris Roesing/White Bird.