In part, we judge a work of art by the degree to which it succeeds as a communicative act. Such labor is difficult enough when both audience and artist read and speak the same language. But when works like choreographer Nasser Martin-Gousset's Bleeding Stone come to America, they attempt to cross, more or less simultaneously, the separate boundaries of language, culture, generation and artistic genre.
An observation from international travel seems appropriate. Fundamental misunderstandings at any border are rarely felicitous, or brief.
Neither was my initial experience of Bleeding Stone. The choreographer may well have envisioned the colorful silhouette dances of the opening titles and the rolling closing credits of his work as a frame signaling a merging of dance with foreign film. But the familiar test pattern of color bars--projected at the work's beginning on a video screen that forms the back wall of the set--immediately implies we're watching television, and not cinema. This impression is only reinforced when video is used throughout the work as a backdrop to the on-stage action.
Unfortunately, that feeling is also reinforced in the surface similarities American audiences will find between this work and such surreality TV offerings as MTV's The Real World.
During the first hour of Bleeding Stone, four clearly disaffected housemates occasionally display their dissatisfaction in angsty variations on moves Mick Jagger patented 35 years ago, to music of similar vintage by the Rolling Stones.
But mainly the quartet puts in a lot of time on the tastefully over-upholstered beige furniture of the choreographer's living room set. Sometimes they trampoline from love seat to couch, using both as staging grounds for acrobatic acts that reinforce each one's isolation. But far too often they sit and kvetch, in various dyads and triads, making small talk in disjointed and untranslated French (a linguistic decision the choreographer was reconsidering at this writing).
Believe it or not, the conversation eventually turns to sex. Apparently, it isn't very good.
Though I can't say for sure, Martin-Gousset's characters might have appeared less paper-thin if I could have known what they were saying. For, despite what we might like to believe, even dance and disaffection combined fails in this case to make a satisfying universal language.
In the past, even the absence of subtitles hasn't kept me from leaving foreign films thinking I still knew something fundamentally true about its individual characters. That's not always the case with Bleeding Stone.
Samuel Dutertre is a young bearded actor who strikes defiant poses early on before spilling honey on his half-naked person--and the stage--in a simultaneously repellent and sensuous slip-slide dance toward the work's end. Before that, Elizabeth Valentini is a troubled woman in red who fumbles with what seems to be the means of escape: a ring of keys she drop-dances with at midshow.
Martin-Gousset himself manifests, briefly, as Ms. Thang in white bathrobe and towel-turbaned hair--before Valentini subsequently covers him in a transparent plastic dropcloth, a chilly intimation of mortality in the time of AIDS. Sophie Lenoir's low-grade chit-chat arguably leaves her character well within the realm of the bimbo, until an extended floor sequence near the end. She defiantly cleans house "one last time," savagely whipping a wet washrag against the floor to punctuate her comic, operatic take on "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
All of which still leaves Emmanuel Lescoulié a cipher in khaki shorts--and leaves us without a lot more understanding of the other characters.
To further confuse things, the year 1965 appears on the video backdrop during the beginning "frames" of Bleeding Stone. But the cultural quotes cited above--and indeed, a general air of narcissism about the work--evoke our current era a lot more clearly than it ever does the '60s. Onstage anachronisms reinforce this: that high-end stereo cassette deck the characters angrily punch at wasn't around in '65, and the Stones' "Emotional Rescue," played in its entirety, wasn't released until a generation later, in 1980.
These--and the choreographer's written notes about a vivid experience from childhood--initially led me to conclude that Martin-Gousset had had the nerve to appropriate AIDS imagery for a sloppily researched and imagined work, one that reduced a coming of age--and disaffection--in the United States in the mid-'60s to the level of a mediocre reality TV show.
Never mind that everyone on stage was speaking French. I was still furious with it.
And I was wrong. Not about the coming of age and disillusionment, as it turns. Just the other stuff.
In blaming an artist for poorly imagining my culture from the outside, I'd managed to imagine his culture just as poorly--another reason for artists, critics and audiences to exercise caution when approaching foreign borders.
No, we are not in 1965 in Bleeding Stone. And we are definitely not in Kansas.
While it's frequently a mistake to read autobiography into an artist's works, it's easy to put the music, the moves, the set and attitude of Martin-Gousset's genre-bending work places somewhere in the early 1980s, when the Rolling Stones were experiencing something of a renaissance, a punk aesthetic advised us all there was no future--and the artist would have been coming of age himself somewhere in the south of France.
The alienation in the characters' interactions is on a par with the lack of options out the video back window of the set: a set of gated, iron bars, far too high to climb. Everything functions, more or less--until it doesn't: tape deck, fold-out sofa bed, the body and its parts. And absolutely nothing satisfies.
Including, unfortunately, this performance: Artistic ambiguities that may well have been completely functional in France don't necessarily translate easily. Coming from the European dance theater tradition is one thing; providing a good example of it is another. Too frequently, the first 50 minutes of the work demonstrated that ennui is contagious: one risks instilling it in an audience when one puts it on a stage. What characters there are largely begin to flesh out--to the degree they ever do--only after that. Before, too much seemed choreographically or theatrically null.
Though Tuesday's opening night house of young dance students leapt to their feet with applause, I doubt Martin-Gousset will be as warmly received elsewhere--at least, not without additional interpretation from artist, cast and audience.
When unspecified difficulties prevented Martin-Gousset's group from presenting his most recent work, Neverland, at ADF, the earlier Bleeding Stone, from 1999, replaced it. Perhaps it will play elsewhere in the United States.
I hope so. The main thing Bleeding Stone leaves me wondering is what else got lost in translation.