Tuesday, November 06, 2007

One Clown, One Room, Jean-Baptiste Andre Returns to Houston

arts houston photo 1

A body in a room may sound like a typical modern dance solo. But when that body belongs to French performer Jean-Baptiste André, things start to get topsy turvy in a hurry - quite literally, since André is a trained circus performer as well as an accomplished choreographer.

“It represents the human condition: how you have to deal with the space around us in a precise time,” says André via email from his home in Reims in the bubbly heart of France’s legendary Champagne region. “I am fascinated by how the body in one wide and clear space can create shape and form—this capacity we have to change one’s self, to pretend to have another identity.”

Part of the “new circus” movement in Europe, André is as comfortable upside down as he is right side up. His training allows him to experiment with the viewer’s perception. What is front? What is our internal experience of having a body? Who said our head belongs on top? André addresses these questions and more in his second full-length work, comme en plein jour (as in full day), which pushes André’s unique brand of dancemaking even further when he brings it to DiverseWorks this month. “This piece is a continuation of a process of questioning the body and its different states,” he says. “I am also very influenced by the 360 dimension of space in a circus.” Although the audience at DiverseWorks will be seated in the usual format, André’s work asks the viewer to mentally encircle him.

The new piece takes a more theatrical approach while paying homage to circus icons. Clad in a Pierrot collar and a sleek white suit, André pays tribute to his clown background. “I focused on the ‘white clown’ character because he is one of the basic characters of the circus, but people tend to forget him,” Andre says. “He embodies wisdom, but he is also bit sad and nostalgic.” André’s clown is both involved in the world and distanced from it. He describes the clown purview succinctly: “In the circus, this character is also the host of the show. He is both a operator and an actor of the show.”

Houston is no stranger to André’s gifts. Audiences found his piece intérieur nuit riveting when performed here as part of the 2005 Lyon via Houston Festival. He first experimented with his concept of the body in the room in intérieur nuit. The room becomes a place of both discovery and entrapment. A body can be perceive the same way; André hints at the fact that a body is like a room both in it assets and limitations.

André began training in gymnastics at age five. “It gave me a strong acrobatic background,” he says. “Then I turned to the circus because I wasn’t interested in competition and results.” André continued his training at the Centre National des Arts du Cirque school in Châlons-en-Champagne, not far from his hometown. “I discovered circus as an alternative, I could keep on training and, at the same time, discovered a wide range of disciplines and techniques. I realized I can practice the same exercises with pleasure and with other people. It became a real passion.” The division between dance training and circus happens quite seamlessly for André. Circus skills are so varied that the two work beautifully together, plus theatrical training is part and parcel of circus training. André also intensely studied clown technique which manifests as an important element in comme en plein jour.

Live camera work is also a key component to his work and Although this new piece will use preset video. He began to use live camera in a short piece called se voir in 2002. “At the beginning I used it as a way of recording ideas in rehearsals. In watching those recorded sequences, I realized something interesting was happening. I was fascinated by the frame, by the composition of the screen which represents a space in itself.” He began to develop a relationship with the camera that is now like a third presence in the room.

“I do not consider it a technological approach,” he says. “I use the video camera in a very basic way; that is to say I take it and put it on the floor or in other spot on the stage and move in front of it.” In comme en plein jour, André uses projected images to explore the inner feelings of the clown character, a sense of traveling through time and space, and subliminal and possibly secret memories.

DiverseWorks co-director Sixto Wagan has been following André’s career for some time now. “Jean-Baptiste is an exciting fusion of so many schools of performance. He is part of this generation of artists who don’t abide by traditional categories. He also has that youthful recklessness and fearlessness to try new things, engage in interesting collaborations, push the edges of what he’s interested in,” says Wagan. “I am astounded at his physicality—not just the tricks and contortions, but how grounded he is in his body, and how that really captures the attention of the audience. In the latest work, you can see him developing his choreographic sense.”

Although André is a soloist, he enlists a cadre of other artists to realize his vision. Collaborators include composer Tony Chauvin, Michel Cerda, videographer Karim Zeriahen, and lighting designer Marc Moureaux. André formed association W in 2002 to bring together a group of artists with a similar mission. association W, also based in Reims, is supported by the Manège de Reims Scène Nationale. “This is a great thing for us, we get support, partnerships, and opportunities to present our work,” he says.

Straddling two worlds André remains close to his circus roots. “A lot of people consider my work as dance performance, and I want to draw their attention to this point. I am basically a circus artist and I defend it.”

DiverseWorks presents Jean-Baptiste André in comme en plein jour on November 16 & 17 at 8 pm. Call 713.335.3445 or visit diverseworks.org.

Reprinted from Artshouston.