Friday, July 11, 2008

Le Sacrilege du Printemps

If you want to see the most rank, the oldest and ugliest stereotypes of Africans, all you must do, evidently, is go to the Joyce Theater.

Heddy Maalem's restaging of Le Sacred du Printemps, choreographed specifically for a group of African dancers, was a bad idea from the beginning.  (If you don't know why Maalem, a (white-skinned) Algerian-Frenchman, is almost always referred to as Algerian, while his (all very dark) Nigerian, Senegalese, Togolese, and other dancers are always referred to as Africans,  you don't know as much about stereotypes as JJS thought!)  JJS almost didn't go to the performance.  But curiosity is a powerful draw.

When Stravinsky's harsh score was first performed in 1913 to Vaslav Nijinsky's risqué (often called – then and now – "primitive") choreography, there was a riot in the theater.  What happened to the good old days when audiences let artists know how they felt?

The piece is a disaster.  While the choreography seems to be trying to tell a story, the narrative is too disjointed to be coherent.  The dancers often are out of sync with each other.  The light and video components are simply distracting rather than adding to the feel or narrative of the dance.  And the costumes – colored underwear and bras – manage to reveal the dancers' bodies without flattering them.

Unfortunately, JJS does not believe in walking out of pieces early.  You know, curiosity is a dangerous thing.


û  û  û

Now, JJS rarely reads other reviews before posting on this blog.  But that rule was broken for this posting, just to make sure JJS didn't miss a flash of brilliance when checking the time left in the piece or looking around to see if the rest of the audience as a whole was similarly horrified.  (For the record, the audience – as a whole – didn't seem to be.)  The reviewers, though, largely concur with what is written above.  See for yourself:  the New York Times review at and the Village Voice review at  But these reviews also shocked JJS because none of them mention race.

A "primitive" dance originally created for and by Europeans is reset specifically for black African dancers – and no one mentions race.  The choreography consists mostly of the dancers either attacking each other or simulating orgies – and no one mentions race?  The choreographer goes so far as to have this dark ensemble repeatedly bare their teeth at the audience while some crawl across the stage – and no one mentions race!

Given the history and prominence of the original piece, given the choreographer's claim that his work is inspired by modern Lagos, and given his admitted fascination with dark-skinned African dancers, the color of the dancers seems, in this instance, to be at least as important as the lighting or the costumes.  If the choreographer can admit that he sees race – and that it is in fact an integral part of his performance – then reviewers should be able to see and discuss it as well.

         JJS is curious as to why race does not appear once in the major reviews of Capmagnie Heddy Maalem's performance.  JJS is curious as to why the Joyce didn't choose to present an African company or choreographer that sees something other than race in black African dancers (such as Germaine Acogny, Faustin Linyekula, or Nora Chipaumire).  And JJS wonders why, if Joyce programmers could not see that this Le Sacred du Printemps is offensive, that they could not at least see that it is just bad dance?

Curiosity, dear reader, is a dangerous thing…

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