- The French Line
Since 1991, when Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar founded their Big Dance Theater, the couple (she specializing more in choreography, he more in acting) has been evolving a distinctive performing style that is as entertaining, amusing, and accessible as it is disciplined. Often experimental theatre can be punitive and solemn, forcing the audience, in the name of some avant-garde ideal of austere difficulty, to "eat its spinach," so to speak, by attending to languid permutations and repetitions. Big Dance Theater takes the opposite approach, keeping up a rapid pace of quick-changing, ebullient theatrical bits that alternate outbreaks of dance, singing, mixed media screens, wry dialogues, and melancholy soliloquies. Often the "glue" holding it together is an interpretation of some foreign culture— in their last three productions, they have moved from Japan (The Other Here), to ancient Greece (Orestes), and now to France—which may have as much to do with following funding sources as aesthetic interests. The company's latest production, Comme Toujours Here I Stand, was commissioned by FIAF (the French Institute Alliance Francaise) and premiered at Les Subsistances in Lyons, before playing to sold-out houses at the Kitchen.
The initial inspiration for Comme Toujours was Agnès Varda's 1962 black-andwhite film, Cleo From 5 to 7. That French Nouvelle Vague classic follows a young pop singer, Cleo (played by Corinne Marchand), through the early evening hours of 5:00 P.M. to 7:00 P.M. in more or less real time, as she waits anxiously to receive the results of a biopsy test for cancer, meanwhile attempting to distract herself with visitors (her composers, her lover), devil-may-care friends (Dorothée, an artist's model), a consultation with a fortune teller, and a dalliance with a soldier she meets en route to the doctor. The mood of the film, with its New Wave appetite for Parisian locations and cameo appearances by friends (Jean-Luc Godard, Eddie Constantine, Anna Karina, Michel Legrand), is sprightly, genial, and surprisingly un-morbid, given its overhanging cloud of illness and mortality. But you do get a strong impression of the isolation faced by [End Page 51]
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someone threatened by serious illness, in the company of blithely self-preoccupied show biz confreres who, for all their lip service, are ultimately indifferent to her plight.
To anyone familiar with the movie, it is especially fascinating how this theatrical construction, or deconstruction, simultaneously honors, appropriates, reinvents, and departs from its model. Annie-B Parson, credited as the director/choreographer of the production (with husband Paul Lazar listed as codirector), zeroes in on the very French (think of La Rochefoucauld) theme of humanity's egotistical cruelty. But she also foregrounds motifs about aging in the life of women, and competitiveness between women, that were not part of the original Agnès Varda scheme. The principal way she makes that shift is by casting the superb Molly Hickok in the role of Cleo: Hickok, a mainstay of Big Company, has a comedienne's vivaciously attractive but lined, weathered face and is much closer to middle age than the twenty-something, perkily pretty Corinne Marchand of the film. She plays an aging star with two younger, much more beautiful helpers, who make catty comments about her behind her back. Her main assistant (Tymberly Canale) is a cool, seductive blonde with white go-go boots and a pale spring frock with a hemline a few inches above the knees that epitomizes Paris Sixties hip. Her second-in-command (Kourtney Rutherford) is a dazzling redhead who yaks long distance on the phone to her boyfriend and disrobes in one scene, posing nude for artists.
The disparity in sexual capital between Cleo and her entourage is underscored in a magnetic scene which begins with Canale doing a sort of Cyd Charisse/ Band Wagon sultry number, first by herself and then with...