Maguy Marin: dance theater's murky version of sexual politics

Since introducing Pina Bausch's Wuppertal Dance Theater and the concept of German Tanztheather to America in 1985, the Brooklyn Academy of Music has served the audience's taste for that neo-expressionistic genre by importing a steady stream of its European practitioners. The latest Next Wave festival offered a French group, Maguy Marin, and the Belgian Rosas (Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker), and Bausch making her third visit. Tanztheater mixes lavish spectacle with ritualized, often violent, movement, based on the behavior of alienated, contemporary men and women. The Europeans like it because of its air of social critique, but I suspect Americans are more excited by its combination of theatricality and self-pity and its relentless, often dangerous, movement that never verges on technically polished dance forms. Maguy Marin's ``Babel Babel'' projects the choreographer's views of sexual oppression through heavily moralistic theatrical visions. You watch it with a mixture of pleasure, excitement, and guilt.

``Babel Babel'' begins with a dimly lit procession of naked people, laboring across an empty plain to the funereal third movement of Gustav Mahler's First Symphony. The figures, though stripped to their natural selves, walk with artfully pointed feet and puffed-out chests. They begin to roll across the turf-covered floor. They encounter other bodies, embrace, fall apart. After the men exit, the women, about six of them, dance together in a deliberately naive style.

Throughout these ``primitive'' sections of the piece, the movement looks calculated, a ballet dancer's notion of how nondancers move. The body is carefully molded; the timing is plotted for effect.

The pilgrims return, now wearing plain pants and dresses, to the sound of crickets. Calling out to each other in a made-up language, they begin a series of work motions that build into a kind of rhythmic chorus. They all dance around a circle of lanterns, becoming more and more raucous and abandoned.

All of a sudden the lights go down, and a village of tents appears. We begin to hear the sound of surf, and the village turns into a beach resort. Sunbathers tumble out of the tents, and soon the stage is bursting with hot, noisy fun. A rock combo and pink-wigged singer in a prom dress blast out a song. The music rouses the beachgoers to more and more rowdy diversions. Men and women pair up, squabble. In the mel'ee, aprons get tied over the women's bathing suits, rubber babies appear by the dozens, some of them draped hand-in-hand around the women's waists like hula skirts. Couples begin to fight with other couples. Men behave like infants. Women punch each other. The music gets louder and louder.

Finally, the singer (Marin) strips off her fluffy gown. Underneath she's a sultry night-club singer in chic black rags and leather. She flounces down into the audience, bawling and screeching into a mike: ``This is a maaaan's world - but it wouldn't be nothin' without a woman.''

The next time we notice the stage, the tents and party things have all been swept away. The turf is littered with scraps of plastic and paper, and babies, and people. The people squirm out of their bathing suits, and now the music is Mahler's Kindert"otenlieder (songs on the death of children). The people struggle to rise, making ghastly expressionistic shapes copied from Edvard Munch. Some of them fasten themselves together and try to walk. Couples slam into contorted embraces.

One woman dances a beautiful and horrible dance around the vanished campfire. Seemingly sightless, she scuffles round and round, sometimes bent over, sometimes erect and searching. She twirls with arms flung out, like a child, but without a child's joy or animation. Finally, to Mahler's consoling last song, the people continue their plodding journey across the space and away.

Marin has a remarkable skill in orchestrating these familiar devices and images, but if there's a new message in her work, it barely shows through the spectacle.

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