Suspended in Time/Under the Spell of the Crowd

Note: mature content.

The LA Dance Project space became home away from home to a European contemporary dance theater aesthetic this fall as part of the Van Cleef & Arpels, Dance Reflections program as hosted by Museum of Contemporary Art and LADP.  On October 27th, 2022, CROWD, conceptualized and choreographed by French choreographer Gisèle Vienne, transformed the industrial parking lot outside the LAPD facility into a festival of spell-bound bodies.

Three dancers in jeans and sweatshirts dancing like at a festival.
CROWD by Gisele Vienne performed outside at LA Dance Project, Photo by Josh Rose

Featuring a cast of 14 European dancers, Crowd pushed and pulled time through the use of extreme slow motion contrasted by occasional accented punches. The temporal contrast generated an altered state of consciousness for the audience as it witnessed the festival-clad dancers inhabit an escapist world of ecstasy and depravity.

The audience took their stadium seats in a pre-set performance space as flood lights in the corners cast stark shadows on the wet blacktop. A seated, hooded figure, face downcast and hands tucked in his thick black bomber jacket, waited near one of the lights in a camping chair. His still and sunken form felt more like someone on a street corner than in a performance space. This gritty theme of real bodies dressed in pedestrian clothes interacting with the grime-covered urban setting tied the work together and became more intentionally realized throughout the 90 minute performance. 

A female dancer, with exposed legs, knee pads, scrunched socks and a mint windbreaker joined the opening tableau leaning against the painted brick wall on the shadowy outskirts of the performance space. She stood, hood over her eyes, with wild, curly hair peeking out the sides. The theme of concealing and revealing was one that developed through the duration of the performance. The piece began with her entering the space with a butoh style walk, slow and patient, yet activated and urgent. One by one dancers entered the performance space by walking in extreme slow motion. Two cars containing more performers lit the entrance with their headlights before driving up to the edge of the space. The remaining cast members slowly emerged from the vehicles, wearing a mix of colorful sporty clothing and puff jackets with hoods pulled up. As a sort of introduction each unveiled themselves to the audience and each other as they arrived to the performance space turned festival grounds.

The initial path of the first female into the performance space took a good 10-15 minutes. It is hard to calculate exactly because time became slippery due to their transfixing use of slow motion which contrasted the driving EDM music accompaniment. Each of the dancers followed the narrative trajectory of their unique character in relationship to each other and the space. The variety between the performers never failed to offer plenty to take in despite the slow pace. Scanning the space the audience witnessed some dancers greeting each other with a hug, as others lit and shared a cigarette. A lone figure fished in their bag, while yet another duo sipped from a shared 40oz beverage.

Two dancers in an embrace.
CROWD by Gisele Vienne performed outside at LA Dance Project, Photo by Josh Rose

The slow pace allowed the audience time to take it all in seeing the subtle shifts in attitude between the performers as relationships emerged and dissolved in unexpected configurations. As a viewer, it was easy to become involved with a particular exchange between the dancers before noticing another situation developing across the expansive parking lot. In this way the development of the action allowed things to be hidden in plain sight and be revealed unexpectedly. Vienne skillfully shaped the space using the foreground and background to direct the eye of the audience within the action. The dancers were adept at alternately taking the focus and blending into obscurity as needed. Momentary bursts of speed or energetic accents served to catch one’s eye within the otherwise seamless flow of the bodies stepping, gesturing, and breathing.

The use of action and stillness served as the conceptual spine of the movement design. The sensitivity of the ensemble to work as a single body was particularly impressive. Starting and stopping together unified the dancers into a crowd, while also honoring individualized situations or narrative arcs that moved the work forward as a whole. One dancer was raised in the air, while another got pushed to the ground; one stooped to steal something (money?) from a discarded jacket while others unleashed themselves into a feverish moment of sexual play. But, they were always linked together by the use of timing. Starting, stopping, reversing as if they were one organism.

The effect was like the pausing and unpausing of a film, frequently catching bodies in awkward and misgiving situations. In the more energetically driving portions, dancers contracted and extended limbs and torsos. Driving rhythms punctuating the phrasing with metric accents that repeated over and over to mesmerizing effect. A series of impulse accents on count four, drove the momentum into a frenzied feel while still upholding the dream-like spell of a world mostly in slow motion. The most physically intense moments occurred as the group shifted, stepped, and clutched through their world with impact accents. The effect was a complete sense of overwhelm and reckless abandon.

The cast of CROWD all doing difference movements in different levels while one dancers walks through with a direct focus.
CROWD by Gisele Vienne performed outside at LA Dance Project, Photo by Josh Rose

Other movement themes included continuous, slow rotation of dancers evoking a sense of meditative bliss. In these whirling dervish moments, the transcendent feel was further enhanced with the dancers orbiting the center of the performance space like celestial bodies. The sheer strength and control of the dancers to perform the slow motion movement was arguably one of the most notable aspects of their performance. They were able to maintain the integrity of sustained time during impressive back arches as well as extended balances in awkward shapes and functional (but equally as challenging) descents to the ground.

Throughout the work, each character surfaced to reveal a thread of deeper personalized connection. Some characters surfaced repeatedly while others waited to emerge from the shadows with their stories. The last woman to arrive at the event came to play a key role for the majority of the work. Dressed in a green hooded jacket, light jeans, and dirty sneakers, she stumbled into the work a bit unexpectedly, revealing a bloody nose. The impression was one of distress and an urgent desire to escape. Was it a punch in the face from an abusive lover? The result from snorting cocaine or other drugs? Or something else? Her particular story of agitation and yearning was one that the audience returned to regularly as she repeatedly grasped at connection and intimacy with a number of the other festival goers. The desperation she revealed in her pulsing and convulsing solo was a reminder of the grisly rawness that is rarely seen on LA’s commercial driven stage but is a familiar aesthetic in the European circuit. Vienne’s movement belies technique in the classical sense of line and form, relying heavily on the dancers’ ability to inhabit an energetic state through emotional conviction and psychological vulnerability. The beautiful use of the hideous and horrid further nudged this work into the realm of butoh.

Another featured character was the first woman to enter and lean on the wall in the very beginning. She had an angelic and innocent quality that allowed her to arise as a key player again and again. She could diffuse tense situations. She frequently intervened when crisis surfaced, redirecting aggressive or violent energies into an innocuous laugh.

The angelic dancers in gold sitting up.
CROWD by Gisele Vienne performed outside at LA Dance Project, Photo by Josh Rose

The hooded man in black was a third ever present character, establishing his ominous presence in the pre-show. He embodied themes of power and control that came to a head with a sort of dance battle against a tall, softer looking, blonde male. The result was a victory not just of strength but of sexual power as well. Yet, by the end of the event, his rough exterior softened as he and the other man seemed to find a more sensitive connection concluding in a compassionate embrace before departing.

Not all relationships ended so amiably. The girlish petite blonde, after being hoisted into the air with exuberance early on in the show, was fed a drug from another woman’s iridescent fanny pack, and before long was suspended into slumped stillness. She remained in the sideward slump downstage center for a considerable period (what seemed like 20 minutes) before she ultimately surrendered to gravity, lying prone with her pretty pink sweatshirt rumpled around her and covered in parking-lot muck. Luckily, she did seem to revive near the end and was helped off by a friendly face, but the gravity of her despairing state lingered.

Similar scenarios of desire turned sour, rejection, desperation, and hostility played out among the dancers. The depravity of the dancers seemed directly reflected in their accumulated filth from the wet and grimy parking lot surface. Initially shiny bright costumes in the spirit of music festivals turned into urban, filth-covered garments after repeated instances of dropping to the ground, sometimes falling or being pushed. Only the angelic female in her glittery pink sneakers, short shorts, and gold lamé shirt seemed to emerge unscathed by the shadow side of the mob. The parking lot itself looked like a dumpster come the end of the performance, covered with potato chips, litter, discarded clothing, and the dumped contents of 2 liters of cola. Everything seemed wrecked.

And yet, there was beauty inside of it that allowed the show to end in a way that was both tragic and heroic, or perhaps it was just decidedly human. The music by Underground Resistance, KTL, Vapour Space, DJ Rolando, Drexciya, The Martian, Choice, Jeff Mills, Peter Rehberg, Manuel Göttsching, Sun Electric, and Global Communication was masterfully mixed by Peter Rehberg and reinforced through the elegant distribution design of Stephen O’Malley. The success of the loud (but not painful) sonic landscape came from the carefully attended direction of the sound as well as the levels of the various sonic components which worked to alternately fill and empty the space of life force. The emotional content of the movement was skillfully supported by the harmony and dissonance in the music. There was complexity intimated in both suspicious interactions and rapturous states.

Girls walking with smoke coming out of her jacket.
CROWD by Gisele Vienne performed outside at LA Dance Project, Photo by Josh Rose

The stark lighting by Partick Riu stayed true to the outdoor, urban feel using cool, neutral lighting to illuminate the dancers’ expressions and bodies with alarming vulnerability. One element that was lost in the large performance space (and perhaps due to the language barrier) was the spoken element of the performance as scripted by Vienne and Dennis Cooper. While the performers moved in slow motion the majority of the time, they did speak to each other at a normal pace. The words however were indecipherable between the loud music and distance between performers and audience. The use of language and other non-verbal sounds was nevertheless a fascinating contribution to the piece of theater. A dancer’s subtle hiss cued the start or stop or action, while in more overt moments dancers called out to each other in moments of glory. Distraught whimpers and pleading could also be heard upon witnessing an act of aggression. The experience of the verbals in an acoustically designed space as originally produced in France and New York, may have shifted the intensity further.

The evening as a whole was a grand success for the LA dance community as it was sold out to an enraptured audience. The work, part of the Dance Reflections Series produced by Van Cleef & Arpels, stands out within the local dance fabric for its commitment to blending theater and dance in a work that was provocative without being classically virtuosic. The team of artists generated an ethos through the work that was unique and universal. From flinging bags of chips to smoke emitting jackets, the scenic elements of the work, the costumes, the lighting, and the movement synthesized to produce an effect that was suspense-filled for the full duration despite the cool evening temperatures and fatiguing backs of the audience members due to the stadium seats. I do hope that LADP will continue to cultivate this collaboration of artists across continents as it affords a balance to the shiny exterior the world often associates with the LA dance landscape.

Dancers standing and interacting through touch while a solo dancers hunches with smoke coming out of her jacket.
CROWD by Gisele Vienne performed outside at LA Dance Project, Photo by Josh Rose

Cast members included Philip Berlin, Marine Chesnais, Sylvain Decloitre, Sophie Demeyer, Vincent Dupuy, Massimo Fusco, Rehin Hollant, Oskar Landström, Theo Livesey, Louise Perming, Katia Petrowick, Jonathan Schatz, Henrietta Wallberg and Tyra Wigg (alternating with Lucas Bassereau, Nuria Guiu Sagarra, Georges Labbat and Linn Ragnarsson). Vienne was assisted by Röttgerkamp and Nuria Guiu Sagarra. Costuming as mentioned above were set by Gisèle Vienne in collaboration with Camille Queval and cast.

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