Briefcases and Clown Noses: Oui Danse and Friends

By Rachel Zervakos

On July 26, I had the pleasure of seeing the NYC premiere of Brice Mousset’s company, Oui Danse, in his newly expanded work “Travailler,” along with a duet from Mike Esperanza (“DO:US:PART”) and a work in progress from Matthew Powell (“Quarter Note”) at Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater. If you weren’t there, here’s what you missed, and what I thought!


“DO:US:PART” was a duet danced by two members of , Jake Bone and Devin Oshiro. Though there was no program note to specify, the titular reference to traditional wedding vows, as well as Devin’s flowing white dress, gave the initial impression of a bridal theme. Regardless of whether or not the relationship between the dancers was intended as a romance, Esperanza succeeded in creating a way for Bone and Oshiro to show the audience a strong, intimate relationship. The piece was set to, a bittersweet, contemplative piece that was the prefect length and magnitude for a dance for two–not too long, not too short, and allowing for a satisfying arc. I was momentarily skeptical of the dancers’ height ratios; I’ll confess my personal preference for the woman’s head to reach higher than her partner’s shoulder, but true height proportions are difficult to judge onstage. However, the smooth athleticism of both dancers meshed beautifully, especially in their partnering.  Recurring use of arm gestures, poking in and around each dancer’s personal/negative space, eventually created a sort of invisible third entity. This invisible entity could be interpreted as an unspoken, neglected, or unwanted truth about the relationship that the dancers were addressing by indicating it, but continuing to “dance around” (literally). The end of the piece saw the dancers sitting together, just off-center to stage left, almost embracing but never touching, moving the invisible, unspoken space between them. It was a very intimate moment that helped bring the piece to a satisfying conclusion, along with dimming lights (which had remained appropriately low throughout the dance) and fading of the music, as it sang “Breathe; why don’t you breathe; breathe into me, and breathe out.” The music, perhaps more than anything, helped remove the sense of abstractness that many audience members who do not frequent dance performances often find so challenging. Even as a regular dance viewer, I appreciate a piece like this that is pleasing to watch, with just enough emotional resonance to keep my attention without sending me into a full-blown personal reverie. Thank you for this treat, Mr. Eperanza, Mr. Bone, and Ms. Oshiro.

Quarter Note

The second piece was Matthew Powell’s work in progress, “Quarter Note”, danced by Daphne Fernberger, Ian Hussey, Ncholas Ranauro, and Barton Cowperthwaite. Mr. Powell included a program note, expanding on the inspiration for this piece:

“Quaret Note is a study in failed communication. Over the three days I spent in the hospital with my mother before she passed, I watched her communicative process transition from verbal attempts, to physical attempts, to silence. This piece explores the aspects of the decline: the fight between a burdening thought and the inability to communicate, and those left to ponder the unknown after the silence sets in.”

As this is a work in progress, I will not aim to assess the relative success or shortcomings of Mr. Powell in relaying any specifics of his personal inspiration. However, I could see how the three men, at different times, served to represent  thwarting, repressing, or redirecting of the central woman’s communication attempts by physically manipulating her through balletic extensions and lifts. (Occasionally, the lifts embodied the combination of daredevil and gracefulness I admire in pairs figure skating). Had I not read the program note, I might have interpreted this piece differently; given my recent experiences with death and grief, I am not prepared to say how I feel about sharing such an intimate movement with a larger audience. Obviously, this is a personal decision, and I admire Mr. Powell for his courage in sharing such a tender memory with his dancers and audiences.

The end of the piece, as presented tonight, was very memorable: the woman in a center special was on her knees, delicately moving her fingers, intensely studying her gestures. She was lifted in this position, and held, and passed, until finally, she was shifted to a new position and ceased the hand gestures. The lights changed, and she looked up, lifting her chest to the light, creating a final image that I can’t help but connect with this woman letting go of life and accepting the next transition. As for the choreography itself, ballet vocabulary was strong throughout and well-executed by the dancers, who moved fluidly but did not pass carelessly through or neglect technique. I appreciated this immensely. I have not seen something that reminded me so much of Trey McIntyre’s choreography in quite a while, which naturally made me nostalgic for “Blue Until June.” Mr. Powell is the Ballet Master for the upcoming network show “Flesh and Bone” (My apologies to Mr. Powell for previously incorrectly crediting his association with this production) but I hope this will not preclude him from bringing an expansion of this work to the stage soon.

La Travailler

At last,  we saw the main event of the evening, Oui Danse in “Travailler, Act 1 & 2.”  The program note was frighteningly prophetic:

“In this age of technology, when people have never been so connected, yet so alone, OUI DANSE is an amplifying mirror of society and hman behaviors; a mirror that the audience can look at with a smile or maybe a tear.”

I read this line, and looked up to see everyone around me taking selfies, texting, and so on. Actually, I must emphasize: I have never seen an audience so selfie-centric. Perhaps this can be attributed to the venue; in most opera houses, ushers are intent on their task of preventing patrons from taking photos of the interior of the house, and in-audience selfies are difficult or impossible to accomplish. The staff of the Ailey Citigroup theater seemed hardly concerned with this matter, allowing for an outpouring of selfies and Instagram-ming.

Back to the dancing: it was amazing. The combination of theatrical elements (including well-chosen props: newspapers, oversize newspapers, briefcases, costume changes, and eventually, clown noses) was tasteful, appropriate, and fun. We saw a definite arc and representation of multiple themes within this distorted reality world created by Mr. Mousset. Overall, I saw the dancers go from de-humanized, androgynous, characters being manipulated by one another to lively, athletic clowns reveling in the exquisite abilities of their bodies, escaping from the established realities of the first act. The choice of dancers for this company was pleasingly cohesive in terms of movement quality and physical build, though this is not a mandate in my book for creating a successful grouping of dancers, including John Harnage, Conner Bormann, Scott Willits, Jasmine Chiu, Misuzu Hara, Allegra Herman, and Natalie Ortiz.

The piece flowed from section to section without breaks, with beautiful lighting and musical transitions.The first of these featured seven dancers in business-like attire (black jeans, white button downs, ties, black socks) and slicked-back hair; an androgynous company of limber, fast-twitch muscled, highly trained men and women wielding traditional black briefcases, as a recording of crowd murmurs and street sounds played. Solos, group moments, and partnering overlapped, as crowd and street noises became wrenching string music. The characters were aggressive, hinting at Mr. Mousset’s desire to represent today’s “get-ahead- at-any-cost” work environment, especially in partnering relationships, presenting a thematic contrast to the tender relationship seen in the earlier piece.

One of my favorite moments in this section saw the dancers unfold oversized newspapers and form a line, creating a “newspaper curtain” that solo dancers weaved through. Dancers sitting atop one another’s shoulders used the oversized papers to create the illusion of  towering figures, looming over a soloist. The section came to a close as one woman was left onstage with her briefcase, from which she produced two black high-heeled shoes and proceeded to strip to a sheer black slip and briefs. With this, the androgyny of the first section disappeared and the topic of sexuality came to the forefront.

Following this tender, personal solo, a section for three men and one woman in a “little black dress” commenced, in which we saw more aggressive, manipulative partnering made possible by the woman’s impressive flexibility, strength, and extension. The men came at her with groping, lifting, tossing, folding, poking and prodding. I immediately thought of this scene from Pina Bausch’s “Kontakthof”, an appropriate comparison given Mousset’s additive theatrical process. Like Pina, he seems to be interested in expressing human experiences by creating scenes onstage in a distorted reality, rather than having dancers act or emote with facial expressions.

This attack was finally squashed by the reappearance of the other two women, now in stylish street clothes, perhaps a short nod to girl-power. The women left as a “drunken” male solo began; God help this man’s knees. The finale of this evening’s performance began as one of the men, surrounded by the company of dancers, reached into a briefcase. When the huddle of dancers peering into the briefcase dispersed, each had donned a clown nose, and the music transitioned to a track from the Balkan Gipsy Circus, which can only be described as fun! I walked out of the theater hearing it in my head, and the liveliness of it made me want to dance. I’m not sure whether this section was meant to be ironic,  or intended as a plea for us to include fun and community in our lives. Either way, it made for a great ending to the evening.

More on these choreographers:

Brice Mousset/Oui Danse

Matthew Powell Facebook Fan Page

Mike Esperanza/BARE Dance Company



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