In many cultures, dance is a doorway into the sacred. And the language of ritual, rather than that of performance, feels appropriate in talking about Compagnie Nacera Baleza, the French company appearing at the White Box Theater through tonight. Ultimately, I felt not so much an audience member as a witness, and what I witnessed possessed stunning depth and beauty.
Given that I walked into the theater expecting a performance, the experience of watching “Le Cri,” the first of two pieces presented here, was initially a bit disorienting. The two dancers, choreographer Nacera Baleza and her sister, Dalila Baleza, entered in the dark. To a sound score (by Nacera) of the voices of children playing, they stood side by side and began slowly turning their upper bodies, shoulders shifting and arms swinging, but feet remaining planted hip-width apart. The score shifted to two simultaneous tracks, a chant-like repetitive hum and a woman singing, both of them too soft to make out any words. Some time had passed by now – three minutes? five? – and I figured the dancers were about to finish this sort of intro in which they’d established themselves in the space, and the real dance would begin. Uh-uh.
They continued the rhythmic upper body swivel; it just gradually increased in intensity, as the lights brightened and sound amped up. When the sound got so loud it was painful, they did wilder arm circles and flailing. They went through a similar progression with some other music, starting slowly with the music soft, then turning up the volume of music and movement. Most of the time, though, they simply focused on the task of swinging their arms, whether gently or with force. Occasionally, they glanced at us, as if merely acknowledging our presence. At some point, I stopped waiting for the dance to start and thought about dervishes; and the dancers’ action of keeping their arms swinging began to feel like sacred work.
There are, certainly, powerful performance elements to this work, which received a French Choreographic Revelation of the Year award. “Le Cri” (“The Scream”) deals in complex, important ideas. Nacera Baleza was born in Algeria, her family moved to France at five, and much in “Le Cri” reflects a dual – conflicted to the point of screaming? – East-West identity. She and Dalila wear shapeless monochrome outfits, lavender pants and long-sleeved tops, that look like they’d pass the modesty code of one of the more liberal Islamic strains. The first two songs, as they get louder, turn out to be a woman singing the romantic ballad “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and a man chanting in Arabic – I assume an Islamic chant, in which I recognized the word “Allah.” His voice, initially sweet, builds to a harsh yell accompanied by a pounding drum, his prayer and the ballad competing with each other. In a video at the end of the piece – to a rock song with the insistent lyric, “I want to do it” – ghost-like images of five women (I think multiple images of Nacera) do the arm swings faster and faster until they blur, in a compelling juxtaposition of sexual urgency and spiritual transcendence.
The second piece, “”Le Temps Scelle” (“Sealed Time”), also entered the realm of ritual. First as soloists and then together (though sharing the space rather than interacting), the Balezas danced to American gospel music. The movement itself was more varied and interesting here, especially Nacera’s liquid torso, as the score exulted, “Say yes! Say yes!” When they took bows at the end, they were blinking as if they’d come out of a trance and were surprised to find us there.
This kind of dance isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. A number of people left, complaining of boredom, at the break. For me, I suspect it will take days or weeks to chew on all of the thoughts the work generated, among them: What does it mean to have a female body in a world in which women’s bodies are often ideological – and literal – battlegrounds? How, when many religious traditions consider women’s bodies unclean, does a woman find her path to the sacred?