It’s no mystery. To create a dramatic story, throw in some death. Consider the play and ballet, Romeo and Juliet – two young suicides there – and the opera Dido and Aeneas, and the intense goose bumps that follow when the Queen of Carthage sings her last aria, “When I am Laid in Earth.” (We can only hope Bach Collegium San Diego stages its edgy gothic-clad edition again).
And don’t forget Giselle under the spell of faceless wilis, angry maiden ghosts who chug on one foot and lure unfaithful men to dance till they drop. Still, at the top of the death dance list has to be The Rite of Spring, set to Stravinsky’s pulsing score. Pina Bausch’s version of the unlucky virgin dancing to death is unforgettable, chilling even on video in the middle of the day.
In a league all its own, La Femme Tragique: The Mystery of Elle, presented at Les Girls last weekend, was an exploration of two women from opposite sides of the track who commit suicide: an orphan stripper and a police captain. One has to ponder if there is an appropriate list for this production.
Billed as a “mix of cabaret, butoh, and contemporary dance,” outsiders might have expected steamy song and dance, and bawdy bump and grind in the powdery nude.
Butoh originated in post-World War II. It was a reaction to a loss of identity in Japan, and combines dance, improvisation, and traditional Japanese performing arts. Its signature forms are powdered white faces and nude bodies moving slowly, often in displays of grotesque eroticism.
But Elle was an example of talented artists trying to be subversive, rejecting the basic rules of theatrical pacing, simply hell bent on using the slowest aspects of butoh and little else to convey a dark narrative inside a strip club. An opportunity wasted, and a big waste of talent.
The program could have been more successful as a complete and sleazy variety show, or a dark comedy. Imagine Dan Aykroyd’s character, Leonard Pinth Garnell, and how he introduced the “Bad Ballet” parody on Saturday Night Live. This was very bad butoh ballet indeed. Elle was best viewed as a parody, extreme yet simpleton in every way.
Artistic director Kata Pierce Morgan, a former stripper who owns Les Girls, an all-nude strip club, played herself in the first installment presented last summer, and she peeled off a few layers. [That review is in the sandiegostory.com archive] This time, her collaborative ensemble told the “true” story of two women who committed suicide in the 1980s: an orphan stripper, and a police captain who befriended the burlesque dancers of Les Girls and protected them from corrupt cops in her squad.
While navigating the odd seating, a mix of chairs and carpeted pews, viewers noticed a slumped over man dressed in striped pants. John Diaz, a terrific dancer and yogi, eventually came to life and stole the show as a black-faced Al Jolson character. The performance tradition is viewed as repulsive and racist now, but was popular before the Civil War in minstrel shows and later in vaudeville. Jolson was a huge star who sang his heart out. Diaz only mimed, and really, only his chin was black.
His character had nothing to do with the narrative, but Diaz captured the Jolson style well; gloved hands reaching out, eyes glistening, and legs kicking out from stage left were a welcome burst of energy.
His contribution was the only big movement in the program, unless you count the swishy side steps provided by three exotic dancers who work at Les Girls.
The old pink building has been host to many young guys in uniform, who enjoy watching women in their birthday suits. The Elle show had an early start, and tickets were $30 at the door, but that allowed viewers to stay for the regular show that followed.
Pitty the young sailor who arrived early, only to see a big larvae with three heads floating over the floor in slow motion, unless he had a sense of humor. A hilarious opening sequence had dancers Anne Gehman and Minaqua McPherson wrapped up tight in a blanket with butoh maven Charlene Penner. Reptilian necks poked out, bug eyes flashed. But the fun faded fast.
McPherson, normally a lovely captivating dancer who can leap and enchant, barely moved away from a pole. She finally regressed into a thumb sucking baby. That was the biggest waste of physical talent.
Gehman, who created many inspired costumes, including her own barely-there body suit, portrayed a crazed reporter. She stared and grimaced, almost drooled, and maintained a slow-motion creep vocabulary. While there were type-writer sound effects, there were no physical clues about her character.
Penner, the city’s butoh star, slinked slowly as the wide-eyed medieval mystic in a long gown and elaborate headdress in the realm of Star Trek. This was one of the few times her bald head was covered in performance.
Mary Gyselbrecht was a stoic police woman. She meandered through the naked folk unfettered. Her name tag, which read Lt. Lockdown, and handcuffs were right in SNL parody territory, just waiting to be mined, yet the audience seemed afraid to laugh out loud.
A pale and slouching theater-major woman named Dawn stared blankly as Tragic Angela, the orphan stripper. Of course, she’d been dead since last summer’s show, left in the crypt-like bed cut into the back wall. Her waxed body was the only costume she had. She just rolled out of the crypt and quickly became a zombie tangled in a giant web.
All of the dancers took turns stretching and pulling on the yucky thing. It represented a web of hardship in the stripper lifestyle. Streaked with red, it looked like a giant blood clot, or the afterbirth purged from a very large animal. In the end, only Lt. Lockdown could release the poor woman from the tangle. The end.
No word yet on whether the group has fleshed out a third installment of La Femme Tragique at Les Girls. Stay tuned.