Monday, November 26, 2007

Review: Jean-Baptiste Andre

Never underestimate the power of an hour with a clever clown. Jean-Baptiste André's crafty entrance in his newest work, Comme en Plein Jour (as in full day), sets the tone for the engaging solo performance to follow. Amidst flicking video footage of an enthusiastic audience in a state of manic applause, André appears quite magically from behind a costume rack containing multiple white suits. He creeps out, dressed in a sleek white suit and pierrot collar, back to the audience, slowly making his way toward center and greets his imaginary crowd. We remain behind him, viewing a headless character as André fully establishes his sly penchant for disorientation of both his body and ours.

Unleashing his considerable acrobatic skills, André keeps the viewer in a constant state of “which way is up” quandary. He slips in and out of upside down, and sideways up with the grace of a cat, landing as light as feather as he flies through the airspace sans visible effort. As a master of kinesthetic connection, his silken moves illicit “oohs” and “sighs” from the audience. Clothes come and go, as the movement of the costume rack becomes a divider of time and space. At one point, the pierrot collar moves to cover his eyes. It's funny and poignant. Despite his risk-a-minute moves, his internal demeanor remains cautious. He seems to be saying this is the way this clown in this room navigates the world. The floor is no more or less stable than air, feet no more than hands, as gravity becomes a questionable phenomenon. At times it looks as if the floor is actually doing the moving, tossing him about in every which way. He plays with a bench as a launching pad; later on, it looks more like the bench has some fun at his expense. The play between “laughing at” and “laughing with” maintains a highly visceral tension throughout. The question of who's in control remains largely unanswered.

Comme en Plein Jour unfolds in a tight container, a mostly white room. Toni Chauvin's electronic score seamlessly moves in and out of the landscape, as does Karim Zeriahen's video work. Lighting and set by Marc Moureaux fashioned a stark environment that contained just enough boundary to create the feeling of an isolated space in time. Nathalie Charbaut's chic white suit made for one fashionista clown. Other collaborators include Michel Cerda, Hervé Lonchamp, and Bart Cocquerez.

Somewhere in the middle, André rests upstage, again back to the audience, pausing a moment for a smoke. We take this respite with him, watching the puffs of smoke dance in the space above him. His delicate and nearly iconic French gesture of lifting the cigarette to his lips allows the tiniest bit of release from an unspoken turmoil.

Afterwards it's time to get to work as André's clown skills take stage full force in the second half. He bumbles with a microphone, trying to balance his crumpled speech and an unruly water bottle until he's reduced to a state of confused despair. It's bitterly silly as he pathetically tries to get a comprehensible sound out. We never really know if he is going through his antics as practice or performance. He ends up with the last laugh as he amplifies the moment of his water bottle cap moving toward its home on the water bottle. This section is as revealing as it is unraveling, demonstrating André's tightly honed comic gifts.

The audience shifts between voyeurs, visitors, and intruders into a private rehearsal of some future performance. André lets us into his waiting room—the nuances of his pre-show rituals. An exquisite performer who fully inhabits his character with a mixture of generosity and curiosity, he seems equally ready to entertain and leave us baffled in the process. He ends by practicing some ridiculous bows, slowly slipping away from our view as gently as he entered—perhaps to another room, another audience, and the real performance. Don't go just yet is the parting sentiment. But he does, and we already miss him.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.